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Theater Review

I’ve come to the conclusion — especially after seeing Jeff DeMark perform (as only he can) a “revisited” version of his iconic, life story show, “Went to Lunch, Never Returned” — that this multi-talented writer/actor/singer/musician always seems to have more fun on stage than any other performer in Humboldt County.

And, I’m sure the audiences he mesmerized at EXIT Theatre during the show’s way-too-brief run last weekend, would agree.

In an hour filled with storytelling, original songs and nifty guitar playing (with music and sound effects added by Laura Black), he fearlessly and hilariously shared his “work history.”

This included the near-countless jobs (in a row) he was hired for, fired from or temporarily stayed with in and around San Francisco. None of which gave him the opportunity to take a chance and become the creative artist he was meant to be.

The original incarnation of the resulting show’s material premiered in 1994 at Dell’Arte’s Mad River Festival, and DeMark followed that successful debut by touring it all around the local area — as well as to scores of theaters, bars and coffee shops from San Francisco and Eugene, Oregon to Madison, Wisconsin and New York City.

However, the recent performances at EXIT were the very first (in nine years) after deciding to stage it in Humboldt again. But, not before he looked carefully at the content that was “timely in 1994,” and came to the conclusion that what he was currently going to share needed a new perspective after 30 years.

“Since I’ve changed a lot, I decided to change the show a lot, too,” he said. And, doing so was the perfect choice.

No matter how wild or wacky the individual stories of his many jobs (and the people involved) were, they were all skillfully woven together like threads in a fascinating, funny tapestry that often, almost unraveled with surprising results.

Although there were elements of consistency, including his undying love for the San Francisco Giants — a fan since once working in their stadium and actually getting the great Willie Mays to sign a baseball (he still has, and treasures).

In fact “Went to Lunch, Never Returned” is filled with lots of the unexpected people in DeMark’s life that “changed it.” Like his longtime, SF landlady and friend, Zoanne Nordstrom, a tireless activist who helped save beautiful Glen Park Canyon from being turned into a freeway. (He dedicated this show to her.)

There’s also the unforgettable Joan LaFarge, his “boss from hell” when he was a temp in her office, who somehow managed to become an unlikely lifelong friend, and was actually the person who encouraged him to follow the advice that became the title of this show.

Mind you, DeMark didn’t just “tell you” stories about various people, that’s where his ever-evolving skill as a remarkable character actor came into play, as he “became” them. He also had conversations “with” them, moving about the stage with different, physical personas that perfectly embodied “who” they were.

Laura Black and Jeff DeMark take the stage in “Went to Lunch, Never Returned, Revisited” at the EXIT Theatre, Arcata. (Photo by Christina Augello)

A peerless musician, he also interspersed some songs in between various stories, and never missed a step in how they fit into the spell he was casting throughout. And, although he had written the framework of the dialogue he performed, and obviously polished it to perfection, it never sounded like “dialogue.”

DeMark is a master at making everything he says sound so natural, that even when he’s delivering a comedic zinger, it sounds like it just “occurred to him to say it.”

And, he had also made the audience feel included (before the show began) by having them write answers to questions concerning their own, personal “work” history that were listed on the back of the show’s program:

“Have you every moved for love? From where to where?

Have you ever moved for a job? Where to where?

What’s the best job you ever had? What’s the worst or weirdest job?

How many jobs have you had?”

These were handed over to him, and he kept them with him until the end of his “scheduled performance.” After a short break that’s when he read some of the most obviously honest and funniest — and, if someone wanted to admit it was theirs, that’s when some outrageous conversations soon ensued.

In any case, the entire experience was like being in a good friend’s living room, and sharing a good time together. But DeMark also pulled it off in a way that reflected these observations he chose to quote in the program:

Jeff DeMark shares a story in “Went to Lunch, Never Returned, Revisited.” (Photo by Jaiden Clark)

“An intellectual says a simple thing in a hard way. An artist says a hard thing in a simple way.” (Charles Bukowski)

“Blessed is he who has found his work; let him ask no other blessedness.” (Thomas Carlyle)

And, luckily for audiences, DeMark has indeed found his work by creating shows that joyfully tells his unique life stories — like the endlessly intriguing and wonderful “Went to Lunch, Never Returned, Revisited.” Let’s hope that this time, he returns with more performances of it again soon!