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At Fresno City College, ‘Baggage’ is an intense original play

Fresno City College theater professor Charles Erven, an accomplished and award-winning playwright, is unveiling his latest creation this weekend. I got a chance to see the play “Baggage Check,” which he also directs, at a dress rehearsal two nights before opening. Here’s a rundown:

The play: It’s an intense, two-person, character-driven drama about Gordon (James Knudsen) and Dot (Danielle Cash), divorced couple with simmering issues remaining from their marriage. (They also had three kids together.) When Dot flies in to Tucson for a business meeting, she asks Gordon to pick her up at the airport. From there on, it’s a day filled with revelations and confronting long-age tragedies, all the while peppered with bickering, flirting, frustrations, laughter and all the complexities of two people who remain intertwined with each other whether they want to or not.

Pictured at top:James Knudsen, left, and Danielle Cash portray a divorced couple in ‘Baggage Check.’ Photo / Mark Tabay, Fresno City College

The occasion: You might wonder at the timing of the production, coming as it does at the very beginning of the academic year. “Baggage Check” is a special presentation and a fundraiser for the Fresno City College Theatre Department and a chance to showcase Erven’s work. Three performances remain: 7:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 24; and 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 25. Tickets are $15.

Having only seen a dress rehearsal, this isn’t a formal review. But with the blessing of the director, I offer some preliminary thoughts. (A few might be considered partial-spoiler alerts):

The characters: Erven offers a deft portrayal of these quirky, flawed individuals. Gordon’s know-it-all smugness (he has an obnoxious habit of beginning his pontifications with “Did you know …”) and brittle, deadpan humor are not endearing qualities, but there’s also something in Erven’s writing (and Knudsen’s performance) that lets you see how this character can charm others. Dot is a study in contrasts — she wants to come across as decisive and matter-of-fact, but beneath that veneer of self-control is an emotional and spiritual wanderlust. (At one point, she wonders how it is that she became the responsible one in not only her life but those close to her.)

The storyline: There’s a tinge of the obvious in the narrative, at least when it comes to the backstory about the great tragedy that affected Gordon and Dot’s lives. Perhaps Erven introduces that tragedy, via a specific name, too soon or too obviously? I just know that from my perspective, I could guess the arc of the rest of the play from that point on. While there were certainly revelations to come that I couldn’t foresee, I was pretty close to being able to map out the rest of the trajectory. Still, the final hotel scenes are emotionally masterful.

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Other thoughts: Dot reveals early on that she’s struggling financially. And she’s also emphatic that she’ll be able to dig herself out of that fiscal hole with help from Gordon. But I think it’s odd that Gordon doesn’t quiz her more on this, if only for the sake of their daughters. Even if she had a “get rich quick” scheme up her sleeve, it would seem more plausible. Also, unrelated to this, I wrote down the line involving “gooey chunks of leftover soul.” Even though one of the characters remarks on the ripeness of this prose just moments later, that self-awareness doesn’t truly mitigate that it sounds more like a playwright overreaching than something a character would truly say. Finally: While I appreciate the circular nature of starting and ending the play at the airport, I think it would actually be stronger to end it with the penultimate scene, or some variation thereof.

Finally: What a pleasure and privilege it is to experience another of Erven’s original works. I think his characters are stronger than his storyline in this particular production, but it’s still a powerful and, at times, haunting work.

 

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

donaldfresnoarts@gmail.com

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