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Saving Graces

Relationships and ghost stories make museum relics come alive in 'Conserving Melissa'

By Marianne Messina

THE IDEA of having a 2,000-year-old mummy in your bedroom is just creepy and zany enough to make for easy comedy, shot through with strands of eerie truth. In the new play Conserving Melissa, presented by the Renegade Theatre Experiment, the museum where conservator Cherise (Blythe Thomas) works will not take an artifact that isn't in displayable condition. So when Cherise receives the shattered mummy in pieces, she decides to reconstruct it in her home. As Cherise becomes progressively more obsessed with the mummy, her boyfriend, Gunnar (Axel Parker), starts to worry that she may be under a curse. To allay these fears, Gunnar, Cherise and her friend and co-worker, Lewis (Christian Thomas), decide to give the mummy a name that is both "insipid" and "safe": Melissa. The safety issue carries over into the couple's relationship and drives one of the main questions of the play: Do relationships become insipid because we try to make them safe?

The Renegade Theatre Experiment worked closely with playwright Tom Jacobson to make this company's world premiere happen. The company also took advantage of San Jose's Rosicrucian Museum experts in generating dialogue that was technically accurate, and it shows. At a couple of points, the types of tissues or gilts used on the mummy give Blythe Thomas an ample mouthful. Still, her Cherise draws our sympathies away from everyone else in the play, even as Gunnar pines and suffers in front of us. In scenes where Cherise talks about her fascination for the mummy—"You're going to tell me all your secrets, and in return, I'm going to make you beautiful again"—Thomas' eyes sparkle with a kind of love so familiar and sympathetic we forget she's talking to a box of bones. This makes all the difference; it puts us on alert for the play's more serious points about trust and relationship.

And the conservator premise makes for priceless jarring moments where the macabre pokes through the mundane, and the sexual is juxtaposed with the historical. In one scene, Cherise is chatting with Lewis about her sex life—admitting she isn't "doing it" with Gunnar—while Lewis is looking through a box of detached sculpted penises in search of a replacement part for an exhibit.

Christian Thomas allows Lewis' gayness to come from his words and actions, smartly avoiding the comedic temptation to stereotype mannerisms. Maria Piccininni is deliciously seductive as the "live" Melissa. And Axel Parker gives Gunnar an oafish, simple attractiveness that prevents his character from becoming a puppy dog write-off.

The production is renegade funky; the stage is divided into three set areas sequestered, as needed, by lighting—props to lighting designer Erin "Jaws" Murphy. Scenes often end in an abrupt cut to black at the mention of the curse, requiring tight timing. Conserving Melissa is funny and quirky, but never silly, so it makes a smooth shift from comedy to drama for the heated scene between Cherise and Gunnar. With the help of fluid performances by Thomas and Parker, this scene, in which the couple discover that truth in relationships is sometimes more frightening than scary stories, has the power to bring some of the play's thoughtful darker questions to life.


Conserving Melissa, a Renegade Theatre Experiment production, plays Thursday-Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through Aug. 14 at the Benson Theatre, Bellarmine College Preparatory, 895 Emory Ave., San Jose. Tickets are $15/$15. (408.351.4440)


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From the August 4-10, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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