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Davis, California

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Stories on Stage presents author Anthony Marra

Guess what crazy thing I did Saturday night? I went to a book reading at the Pence Gallery! I know, pretty badass, am I right? Okay, so maybe it wasn’t the ideal “wild Saturday night out,” but it was actually quite enjoyable.

Every month the Pence Gallery on D Street hosts “Stories on Stage.” During the event local actors read aloud excerpts from books or short works by a successful author and a promising young writer.

I dragged a few friends with me to the show to find there was only standing room in the excessively small gallery area and that everyone seemed to be perspiring. Pence Gallery was set to showcase New York Times Bestseller Anthony Marra, so everyone and their mothers were in attendance.

The show started with a reading from Maria Kuznetsova’s (a rising author) story “The Foreigner.” Actress Gia Battista, artistic director of the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble, read an excerpt from the book about a young Russian girl attempting to live normally during wartime.

Kuznetsova’s written word was easy to grasp and crisp with a sort of original innocence and curiosity. The piece was written simply, nuancing the dialogue with bits of accessible sadness and unwonted revelation. Battista brought Yulia (the young girl in the story) to life with an aura of vulnerability, her actions soft and longing. She was vocally and physically expressive and seemed to develop a melancholy glaze over her eyes as she retrieved the pain of a young woman. I’m pretty sure I was tearing up at the end of the reading, though it could have just been sweat.

Next Dr. Andy Jones, UC Davis Professor and KDVS DJ, read an excerpt from Marra’s newest book A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. The story follow’s doctors Sonja and Akhmed and orphaned girl Harra in a Chechen hospital during the Chechen wars in the 1990s.

The one thing that stood out to me most about the story was Marra’s ability to make a dark situation into a genuine work of comedy. No, I’m not saying the story wasn’t emotionally riveting or serious, but it offered light to what could have otherwise been a hopeless situation. The dialogue was, to put it in best terms, simply human, and was the pinnacle of perfection that made the novel the incredible work it is. Dr. Jones read with tremendous poise, carefully sorting through the phrases, giving each emotion vitality and pushing the audience to the edge of their seats.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena did not affect me as emotionally as Kuznetsova’s piece, but it made me laugh without feeling detached from the characters’ dilemmas. I did tear up, but mostly because I was laughing too hard… or maybe it was just sweat. As a reader who’s extremely critical of her comedy, I was pleasantly surprised at how well Marra pulled off the balance of funny and serious.

All in all, the readings were spectacular. The whole event brought me back to the days of theatre radio (I’m actually 90 years old) and I now appreciate the spoken word much more.

If you’re an avid reader, I definitely recommend picking up copies of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena and “The Foreigner.” If you’re interested in discovering the wonderful art form of storytelling, then I super recommend attending Stories on Stage at the Pence Gallery. Just make sure to get there early for seating and wear lots of deodorant [like, just roll in some Old Spice (maybe I’m just a really sweaty person, who knows?)]


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