MODESTO -- Downtown Modesto just got a little bit hipper thanks to the arrival of a black box theater at 11th and J streets.
Center Stage Conservatory's intimate 50-seat Lower Level Studio, across from Galletto Ristorante, is a surprisingly comfortable space, given the nonprofit's bare-bones budget. There are some cushioned theater seats mixed with hard-backed chairs, space for cabaret seating, and a bartender who takes audience members' drink orders before the show.
The company, which has previously staged youth productions, is moving into the territory staked out by Modesto's Prospect Theater Project in launching an adult season featuring challenging, thought-provoking plays. The first show of the season, which opened Friday, is Nobel Prize-winner Harold Pinter's 1978 drama "Betrayal."
Director Traci Sprague, a graduate of the California State University, Stanislaus, theater department, offers a production that is professionally presented and conveys the emotional turbulence of infidelity in marriage.
What makes this play distinctive is that it tells the story of an adulterous affair in reverse chronology, with the play beginning after it's over and continuing back to its beginning nine years earlier. In the beginning of the show, the performers are cynical and disillusioned. By the end, they are happy and carefree.
Beautiful Megan Lynch is a bundle of emotion as Emma, who carries on the lengthy affair with her husband's married best friend. She is never at ease and always seems a little insecure, even when her lover is showering her with affection. She has no trouble showing bitterness when the affair fizzles out.
As her lover Jerry, Spencer James is more in love with the idea of love than with Emma. He is so wrapped up in his illusions that he has no idea what is really going on. Jerry is the most out-of-touch character on stage.
Colton Dennis, who plays betrayed husband Robert, has only a few moments of shock about the affair and then recovers his unshakeable cool. It turns out he may have some secrets of his own.
Travis Blansit rounds out the cast in a bit part as a waiter. All four performers double as stage-hands and spend a lot of time moving furniture between scenes. One flaw with the production is that the set changes go on too long, in part because the actors move in what looks like a choreographed dance while 1970s rock music is playing. It would be better if the actors just moved the set pieces as quickly as possible.
The show can drag at times because of lengthy, action-free conversations. But the intensity of the actors makes the play more engaging.
Jackie Lieberman's costumes are 1970s fabulous and include colorful, patterned pants for the men. Lynch and Sprague's minimal set pieces are perfect for the theater-in-the-round setting.
It's great to see another theater open in Modesto and it's wonderful that the ticket prices are only $10, making this little gem affordable to all.
Bee arts writer Lisa Millegan Renner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2313.
WHERE: Center Stage Conservatory's Lower Level Studio, 948 11th St., lower level at corner of J Street, Modesto. Enter on J Street.
WHEN: Through Oct. 7; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. Sundays.
RUNNING TIME: 1 hour 45 minutes; no intermission
INFORMATION: (209) 846-0179 or www.centerstagemodesto.com
**** Excellent; *** Good; ** Fair; * Poor