•The thought-provoking “Iris” was honored by the Kennedy Center.
•The central theme of the children’s play is memory.
Fresno City College’s “Still Life With Iris,” directed with insight by Janine Christl, is a charming and sophisticated piece of children’s theater. It’s a title that can play well to both adults and older children.
For kids, the imaginative fantasy world created on stage, along with colorful costumes and bits of gentle juvenile humor, should be appealing. (And any time adults play children’s roles, I think it adds a special connection to a younger generation.)
For adults, there’s a surprising amount of depth — and melancholy — in Steven Dietz’s writing. “Iris” was honored by the Kennedy Center’s Fund for New American Plays, and it feels like the kind of nuanced experience that would appeal to theater judges.
We meet Iris (a buoyant and compelling Olivia Stemler) in the land of Nocturno, where the happy citizenry performs a sort of mythological creation-story function for the world: They raise the sun in the sky each morning, teach flies how to fly, put spots on ladybugs and teach the wind how to whistle. (Wind is very hard to train, so the training is continual.)
As the play opens, Iris is up for a promotion: She’s going to be in charge of putting the fog in valleys in the morning and removing it later in the day.
The central theme of the play is memory. In the land of Nocturno, the citizens keep their memories in their coats. If they lose those coats, their memories disappear. When a mysterious man (Nathan Cates) appears one day, his goal seems sinister: to take Iris away. In order to cause the least amount of pain, he takes both her coat and her mother’s (a strong Megan DeWitt) so they won’t remember what they’ve lost.
The recommended age for “Still Life with Iris” is third grade and up, but I was struck by just how somber — and perhaps scary for children — it can be to contemplate having the memory of one’s mother simply wiped away. I think that for some third- and fourth-graders, say, it could be distressing.
There’s lots of humor as well, particularly when Iris meets her new “parents” — a pathetic yet ominous couple named the Goods (Aaron Gomes and Marikah Christine Leal, both displaying good comic timing.) Their peculiar affinities help lighten the mood a bit, as do two friends for Iris who pop up: a pirate (a standout Thuy Duong) and a young Mozart (a fine Gage Cornwell).
The Fresno City creative team (scenic and lighting design by Christopher R. Boltz, costumes and makeup by Debra Erven and sound design by Jeff Barrett) is at its usual clever and proficient level, though I did have a tiny quibble with the hand-lettered sign welcoming visitors to Nocturno in the first scene. (It can be possible to be too homespun.) The acting in the show was at times a little uneven, and there needed to be more snap and verve in terms of dialogue and pacing in the first act.
But overall I enjoyed this thought-provoking play, which along with memory has something to say about how tyranny can come in wry and unexpected forms. I’ll remember it the next time I see a ladybug and wonder who put on the spots.