Bedeviled bargaining

  • by Richard Dodds
  • Wednesday November 15, 2017
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Even the devil needs his diversions. When not manipulating situations to further the careers of his "wards," he's busy writing Yelp reviews. "Rule number one is listen to the milk," he admonishes after an unsatisfactory visit to a coffee shop. But Brenn's current obsession is an artist named Hunter, and he vicariously feeds off the creative talents he himself does not possess while Hunter increasingly bristles at this demanding presence in his life. "Deal with the Dragon" at first seems a variation on Faustian bargains, but the devil is in the details as this tale takes off in utterly unexpected directions that still find a way to come together in the end.

Kevin Rolston's one-man play began life at the 2014 SF Fringe Festival and has had several developmental stagings around the Bay Area since then. The current run at New Conservatory Theatre Center is billed as its final local production before moving to New York, and it offers a rich and dense 70 minutes of sublime writing, acting, and staging.

Rolston is able to create conversations between the ominously Teutonic mentor and the insecure artist in which he shape-shifts between the characters both physically and vocally. But "Dragon" takes us far beyond these dialogues, as we see Brenn at work in the 16th century, and then in Hunter's childhood as the future artist's abusive father punishes him for playing with dolls - and demonstrably showing favor for the prince figurine over the princess - and thereby secures parchment signed in blood assuring Hunter a protector through life.

This flashback, itself presented in the form of a fairytale, has it own vivid tone, but it can't prepare us for a sudden shift to an AA meeting in San Francisco, in which an entirely new character addresses the audience as if it were at the meeting as well. Gandy Schwartz, who happens to be Hunter's main competition for an exhibition at a prestigious museum, is a substitute speaker, and the attendees get more than they bargained for. The acerbic queen takes off on a steam-of-consciousness jeremiad about his addictions both illicitly pharmacological and compulsively sexual. This is a genuine tour-de-force monologue that incorporates sardonic wit and self-flagellating revelations.

The play's various tangents find commonality as it proceeds, and only the final scene - a coda, of sorts - loses a tight grip on the audience with a bland moral-to-our-story cheeriness. But otherwise "Dragon," sharply directed by (and developed with) M. Graham Smith on a bare stage, creates a complex world both scary and funny and completely unpredictable.

"Deal with the Dragon" will run at New Conservatory Theatre Center through Dec. 3. Tickets are $15-$25. Call (415) 861-8972 or go to

Kevin Ralston plays three characters in "Deal with the Dragon," his solo show about the treacherous bargains we make, now at New Conservatory Theatre Center. Photo: Kenny Yun