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'They, Them or Us,' acrylic on canvas painting by Stephanie Wilde
McCarthy Error : An art exhibit at the Carl Cherry Center joins three plays and a film series in commemorating the struggle for freedom of expression.

The High Price of Art

A Carmel theater pays tribute to artists who survived one of America's darkest chapters.

By Maureen Davidson

In the darkness of the not-quite-blackened black box of the theater, a man, annoyed, fumbles with a dictionary and reads the definition of fear. As he moves into the rising light, he's now just an arm's length away from the people sitting silently in the small house. Nobody is afraid.

Perhaps that's a miscalculation. For the audience is soon to find itself in a dangerous place, one at once completely foreign and all too familiar: inside the head of "a modesty, a pain, a complication--a human being." In Thom Pain (based on nothing), actor Peter Reynolds meanders mercurially across the thin membrane separating theater from real life, script from uncomfortable social interaction, sweet reminiscence from crude rant. He creates a whole life, a history, a character whose anger and anguish are two sides of the same fine blade. The performance is horrifyingly humorous and as memorable as any adventure that might have turned out disastrously but, lived through, is now a great anecdote. "Feel free to feel anything," Thom Pain reassures us.

The play by Will Eno was a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist and is the third piece of theater in a stunning multiarts celebration of the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts' 60th anniversary.

The theme is freedom of expression, the season titled "Blacklisted." Its centerpiece is the play Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted, performed in rotation with a duo of monologues, Thom Pain and Thief of Tears. With these and "Blacklisted: The Art Exhibition," four films and a series of discussions, the Cherry Center serves up a feast of all food groups: art crisp with content, exquisitely satisfying.

Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted, by Christopher Trumbo, is based on the letters of his father, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Spartacus, Exodus, Roman Holiday), jailed in 1947 for contempt of Congress for refusing to testify before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, which was energetically trolling for communists within the film industry. Trumbo and the other members of the set dubbed the Hollywood Ten refused to testify based on their First Amendment rights to free speech and free assembly. It cost Trumbo 11 months in federal prison. Hollywood studios rushed to "clean house," blacklisting anyone suspected of communist sympathies, eventually barring over 300 writers, producers, actors and directors from working in the U.S. film industry, ending careers and a few lives. Dalton Trumbo, however, was not a man to back down from a fight.

Onstage he becomes flesh in wry, brilliantly crafted observations on subjects as far-ranging as friendship, war, masturbation and poker. The roles of Dalton and the multirole of Christopher/Narrator/Committee are shared by six actors during the four-week run. I saw Michael Lojkovic as Trumbo--understated, tightly wired--and Christopher John Anderson delivering the wrath of the Committee or fondly recounting a tale about the elder Trumbo. Both actors read from table or podium; the set is the pure essentials, yet the evening is mesmerizing, full of humor and pathos: a gut-punch message about freedom of ideas.

Jeffrey Hatcher's Thief of Tears draws a detestable character several shades darker than sitcom bitch performed with unfaltering command and timing by Patrice Parks. In accordance with the Cherry theme, unbearable life blows create unthinkable responses and offer a twist of redemption only at great price.

TRUMBO: RED, WHITE AND BLACKLISTED plays Aug. 2, 3, 7 and 8; THOM PAIN (BASED ON NOTHING) and THIEF OF TEARS play July 31, Aug. 1, 9 and 10. Blacklist-themed films screen at 7:30pm Wednesdays; a $5 donation is requested. All are at the Carl Cherry Center for the Arts, Fourth and Guadalupe, Carmel. Tickets to plays are $20. For info call 831.624.7491.

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