Friday, March 1, 2019

North Coast Rep. “Gabriel: Edge of Seat Drama.


I often wonder if I would have been able to survive the Holocaust; whether I had the survival instincts to kill, to cheat, to rob, to know when to keep silent, to be hidden for months on end or just be led like sheep as millions of others had.

In Moira Buffini’s taught drama, “Gabriel”, now in a master acting class production at the North Coast Repertory Theatre through March 17th, five characters convinced that each is doing the right thing to survive a Nazi takeover of their little island, play a game of Chess where each is a Pawn and no one is above being Checkmated.
(Clockwise) Richard Baird, Jessica John, Annabella Price, Catalina Zelles, Lilli Passero and Alan Littehales 
In 1943 the British Island of Guernsey off the coast of Normandy was occupied by Germany for lack of any significant appropriations; a calculation by Churchill that that it was too vulnerable to defend, ergo it was under German rule for five years. All necessary munitions were removed, most of the Jews left and those few Jews staying felt safer here than fleeing. It is here that Buffini’s story begins.

In a two story (Marty Burnett) bare boned and crumbling farmhouse with loosely placed slats barely keeping the elements out, Buffini’s play under the deft direction of Christopher Williams and a perfect cast of top notch actors, her story masterfully weaves its tale of lies, deception, secrets and chutzpah.    
Richard Baird and Jessica John
At its head in the more comfortable residence not far from the crumbling shack, Von Pfunz calls the shots. He and his henchmen took over the great house once occupied by Jeanne Becquet, her ten-year old daughter Estelle, her housekeeper Margaret Lake and her daughter-in-law Lily and moved them to a smaller, old farmhouse with limited or rather scant amenities. 

Von Pfunz, the German officer who is currently courting Jeanne, or maybe the other way around, and a young man they called Gabriel, (He lost his memory in whatever accident he might have had.) who was washed up on the shores of Guernsey and dragged to the farmhouse by Lily and Estelle, are the anchors that we might consider the standards by which we live: Good vs. Evil.
Alan Littlehales and Lilli Passero
In a stunning and flawless production headed by an amazing cast with Jessica John as the finagling and concerned Jeanne who trades on the black market and will do anything to protect her family, and Richard Baird as Von Pfunz an ego centric cold hearted evil bastard who tries to pass himself off as compassionate and gifted, we watch the cat and mouse games played out by the numbers as each tries to manipulate and curry favors. She uses her body as a trading card and he holds the cards for those he can hurt both physically and mentally.
Richard Baird and Catalina Zelles
Both Baird who sports a hairdo similar the one worn by Kim Jong- Un, (in recent photos), and a smug half grin of one who knows he’s in charge but can’t seem to nail down why he’s not respected or understood, and John who is fighting for her children’s and her own survival and with eyes piercing into Von Pfuntz’, are as credible and engrossing to watch as one might expect from these two seasoned actors. Bravo!

The role of one who passes the chutzpah test, to be exactly as she paints herself to be, is Estelle (Catalina Zelles), Jeanne’s ten year old who thinks, as most youngsters do, that nothing will happen to them, therefore they take risks most adults avoid.

She absolutely hates Von Pfunz and will do anything to aggravate like urinating in his best dress Gestapo Boots, or steal his personal diary and deny it till the cows come home or play ghostly stunts while he is sleeping; or even kill.
Richard Baird and Alan Littlehales
But Van Pfunz,  aware of her antics, warns Jeanne that Estelle is as vulnerable as the rest of the household: “My dear, there is something you have not yet comprehended about war”, referring to the fact that just because Estelle is a child, she can suffer the same fate any adult faces. Fortunately for both he puts up with it until the revelation that Lily, Jeanne’s daughter-in-law is Jewish. “What happened to your son’s wife, the Jew?”  

Both Lily (Lilli Passero) and Lake, the housekeeper (Annabella Price) are important to the plot as Lake, a native of the island who hates the German's and one who can move around unnoticed goes to town to gather supplies and all the local gossip. Price is a priceless find as she adds some common sense wisdom and a bit of humor to the rest of the household.

Passero, always aware of her status, focuses on the health and recovery of ‘Gabriel’ who she thinks is her late husband incarnate. Both expand the story as believable characters also caught up in the quagmire.  
Jessica John, Annabell Price and Alan Littlehales
And what of our mystery man Gabriel (a solid Alan Littehales)? Is he an angel sent from above as Estelle and Lily imagine? Is he a spy? Is he a German? Is he American? He speaks both English and  fluent German. Is he a bookkeeper, a banker dealing in German finances as Jeanne thinks? Is he Lily’s long lost husband and did they actually have one night romp? Can he change the outcome of their fate? Does he have magical powers? Is he real?

All valid questions, but the playwright offers no answers.

Over a two ++ hour production you too will be confronted with as many questions without answers, as the rest of the audience, but this is not an idle exercise. Buffini's "Gabriel" has brilliantly taken a slice of history, fictionalized it to becoming a thoughtful and provocative play. It premiered in London in 1997 and opened Off Broadway in 2010. It's time to take another look. 

Technical support also comes in big doses adding to the authenticity of what we have just seen. Elisa Benzoni’s period costumes are right on target; John looks stunning and elegant, Baird is authentically dressed to kill and young Estelle is suitably attired.

Matt Novotnoy’s lighting gives a big assist to Marty Burnett’s set; Peter Herman’s wigs, Ryan Ford’s sound and Phillip Korth’s props hold it together.

One more bravo: Victoria Hanlin is dialect coach extraordinaire and what better example is it that a ten year old Catalina Zelles (Estelle) can pull of an amazingly perfect British accent throughout? 

As in the war itself and the aftermath of what really happened in those camps and on those islands and in the streets of Poland and Germany, as Von Pfunz details in his ‘book of poems’, and as a Jew, I found myself once again fearing that the atmosphere and the air that I’m breathing are once again in jeopardy. The universal call to ‘Never Forget’ feels as right now as at the camps when the Jews were liberated. 

To paraphrase a tune from “Wicked”: Are people born Wicked?”  “Or do they have Wickedness thrust upon them?”

Discuss, but only after you see this wonderful theatre piece yourself.

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through March 17th
Organization: North Coast Repertory Theatre
Phone: 858-4811055
Production Type: Drama
Where: 987 Lomas Santa Fe Dr. ST #D, Solana Beach
Ticket Prices: Start at $42.00
Web: northcoastrep.org.
Photo: Aaron Rumley

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