World Premiere by Backyard Renaissance Theatre Isn’t Self Explanatory

“I think a play should be self-explanatory,” writes playwright Francis Gercke in the program for his world premier work for Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company: The October Night of Johnny Zero, playing at the Tenth Avenue Arts Center through December 10. Oddly enough, my criticism of the current version of the play is that it is not self-explanatory.

Jessica John, Marcel Ferrin, and Geoffrey Ulysses Geissinger
Photos by: Daren Scott

The time is 1981. The setting is a remote area of the Delaware River Valley. A storm is brewing, and two high school age boys seek shelter in a rundown old home.

A woman named Barbara (Jessica John) is there. She offers the boys something to drink, and the use of the phone, which is shakily connected. In fact, much about the house is shakily connected. The boys, Franky (Geoffrey Ulysses Geissinger) and Johnny (Marcel Ferrin) are nervous about staying, especially when their attempts to connect with home are unsuccessful. The house seems spooky, and, in fact, a ghost-like man appears multiple times (the actor bowed at the curtain call but was otherwise unidentified).

It turns out that there are multiple secrets at play. Franky has more of a connection with Johnny than he lets on. Johnny feels guilty about an incident involving an athletic coach. Barbara drinks – a lot – and has her reasons for doing so.

Tensions build and wane over the two-hour playing time. Secrets are revealed, but there are few consequences other than hurt feelings. There is a fair amount of humor in the writing. The key point, however, is that there is no point where the characters figure out what’s going on and voice that insight to the audience.

I wondered if there was something to naming the two boys Franky and Johnny, given that the famous song (about a female/male couple, admittedly) calls them quarreling lovers. Franky’s connection with Johnny could have a sexual component but also maybe not. As I said, there’s no point where things are explained.

Mr. Geissinger and Mr. Ferrin

Interestingly, the production is directed by Richard Baird, who has acted in and directed plays by Harold Pinter. Pinter, it is said, wrote “comedies of menace,” and perhaps The October Night of Johnny Zero is intended to be in that vein.

And, I could be wrong about all of this, which is frustrating.

You’ll have to see The October Night of Johnny Zero and judge for yourself. The production is well-done, given the confines of the venue. Yi-Chien Lee’s set design is detailed and utilitarian, qualities shared with the design she did for Moxie’s Mother of the Maid. Kate Rose Reynolds’ lighting design effectively creates multiple playing spaces. Kevin Anthenill’s sound design insures that the clues that the actors drop are heard, if perhaps not always understood. Lilymoon Perez continues to design flattering costumes for this company. Susanne Sulby coached the accents, though I wondered why they were needed.

Backyard Renaissance has announced a new season that includes God of Carnage, August: Osage County, and Proof. I look forward to the company’s return to published works that present challenges for a company of excellent actors.

The Tenth Avenue Arts Center is located at 930 Tenth Avenue, San Diego, CA 92101. Street parking is available, and pay lots are located in the neighborhood. Performs Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm.


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