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Photo courtesy of Alison Martin

Barbara Gagnon and Alissa Morrow in The Empty Space Theatre production of "Wit."

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Courtesy of Debby Hand

Alaskan singer-songwriter Kray Van Kirk.

Other than being a whole lot of fun for both the actors and the audience, the thing I enjoy most about melodrama is the characters' names.

And "Sunset Trail," which opens Friday at the Masonic Temple, has several that give me mental images of the kind of characters they are.

I mean, where else would you find a villain who goes by the name of Sly Vester (Chris Selzer) or an aging actress called Norma Desperate (Stephanie Lewis)?

It's obviously a parody of the Gloria Swanson movie "Sunset Boulevard," only it's set in the 1880s.

Even the bit players in this Black Gold Productions' show get names to help define their characters.

For instance, there's Cactus (Mike Handren) a crusty fellow who's been with Norma for most of her career; he now runs the hotel she owns in Lizard Gulch.

"Norma is an old, washed-up, has-been actress," Handren said. "She's a little bit off-kilter now and wants to revive her career."

Her tenants live at Hotel Desperate free of charge but in return, they are required to applaud and shout "bravo" every time she appears. Now Norma is planning a comeback with her version of "Cinderella."

Director Stacey Briseno says her favorite scene is when Norma and several maids try on the magic slipper. But instead of being gold or silver, it's actually an old chewed-up bedroom slipper. Also playing lead roles are Dan Sliter as Johnny Straightshooter, the new sheriff; Zaelin Brown as Amy Sweet, the schoolmarm; and Rachelle Leone as Delilah Desdemonda Dilly, the villain's sidekick.

"Sunset Trail" was written by Tim Kelly with music by Bill Francouer. The actors sing live accompanied by recorded instrumental music. Marvin Ramey did the choreography.

This is the 14th annual show produced by Black Gold Productions and is chiefly a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society's Relay for Life. The all-volunteer theater troupe is made up of people who work in the oil industry.

Since its inception, Black Gold has raised more than $400,000 for the cancer society, according to Laurie Alexander. Dinner proceeds benefit the San Joaquin Valley Chapter of the American Petroleum Institute's local scholarship fund. Final performances are on March 15-16.

Drama at The Empty Space

"Wit," a Pulitzer Prize-winning drama about a woman who is dying of ovarian cancer, deals with sensitive issues that some people would prefer to avoid.

In the play, which opens Friday at The Empty Space, Alissa Morrow appears as Vivian Bearing, an English professor who has an affinity for the poetry of John Donne.

Porter Jamison, director of the play by Margaret Edson, says he's wanted to do "Wit" ever since it was first published in 1999.

And for a number of reasons.

"It's a challenging, layered, deeply humorous text," he said. "It speaks of the things a person begins to understand fully only when facing death."

He points out that even though we all know our lives will end some day, we are reluctant to let ourselves be aware of it.

"On top of that, we deal with little deaths many times; careers end, lovers break up, friends move, loss of youth, loss of strength, loss of health," he said. "Each of these is a trauma, the death of life as we knew it."

Serving as a unifying element in the drama are the lines from Donne's poem "Death be not Proud" that the woman recites intermittently throughout the play.

"What Vivian Bearing learns during the course of the play," Jamison said, "is what we all can learn if we're paying attention -- what is actually important in life, what is significant."

Others in the cast are Jared Cantrell, Barbara Gagnon, Claire Rock and Andrew Ansolabehere. Performances of "Wit" continue weekends through March 23.

Fiddlers Crossing

Alaskan singer-songwriter Kray Van Kirk will perform Friday evening at Fiddlers Crossing in Tehachapi.

"Van Kirk sings in the straight-ahead folk ballad tradition of such north-of-the-border legends as Stan Rogers, Ian Tyson and Gordon Lightfoot," said Debby Hand, owner of the venue, in a press release. "He accompanies himself on 12- and six-string Rainsong graphite guitars."

Hand also quoted Van Kirk on his marketing methods, which are quite a bit different from those of most touring musicians who typically bring a boxful of CDs to sell at their concerts.

He no longer makes and sells CD recordings, but fans can listen to his music for free on the Internet. "Music without borders, music without cost," is the tagline on his website.

His explanation: "We've already got enough things headed for the landfills.

"Now, every time I finish a new song I let it sit for a bit, and then it gets recorded and given a home on the music page (of his website) with all the other little digital penguins, waiting to waddle their way across the world leaving no footprints in the snow."