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BARCELONA by Bess Wohl | Geffen Playhouse
BED by Sheila Callaghan | Echo Theater Company
POCATELLO by Samuel D. Hunter | Rogue Machine Theatre
ROMEO AND JULIET by William Shakespeare | A Noise Within

Betty Gilpin and Carlos Leal in Bess Wohl's 'Barcelona,' directed by Trip Cullman at the Geffen Playhouse. Photo by Michael Lamont

The beautiful american

The beautiful woman at the Barcelona bar exhibits two intoxicating traits. There's a hint of crazy abandon in how she drinks with her bachelorette friends. And, as the mature observer will spot, there's an unmistakable sadness lingering behind the partying. Together they create a "join me-help me" siren call that can prove irresistible to some.

Bess Wohl's Barcelona, with plenty of laughter and wisdom behind the seemingly straightforward story, is equally irresistible. In its West Coast premiere at the Geffen Playhouse (through March 13), director Trip Cullman creates a carefully delineated, highly enjoyable production with a performance likely to be this site's 2016 favorite.

Barcelona opens after the mature Spanish observer, Manuel (in a beautifully shaped performance by Carlos Leal), has caught the eye of the beautiful crazy-sad woman at the bar, Irene (Betty Gilpin), and invited her back to his flat. The couple are barely in the door before they're laughing through stand-up sex that has Irene pushing away furniture as Manuel drives her like a lawn mower over a stubborn patch of weeds.

Finally exhausted, they collapse, and with the Barcelona skyline twinkling in the wide upstage windows of Mark Wendland's dark, cluttered set, they slowly reveal who they are and what has led them to this moment together. Irene is a real estate agent in Denver. Compared to her European host, she is unsophisticated about international relations, but insists she's no slogan-slinging xenophobe. I'm a "lower-case american." Still, she's taken aback by his sweeping anti-Americanism and general bitterness. He may have a point about Americans lacking awareness about other countries' internal affairs, but his insistence that "No one deserves to be happy," hints that he's hiding far greater sadness than what Irene conceals.

Wohl keeps these two characters unspectacular yet intriguing from start to finish. We're out of the common theatrical milieu of brilliant artists and tragic writers and into the relaxed territory of plain folk you meet at reunions, or bus stops, or bars. Irene, especially, is what you might discover behind the REALTOR badge were you to take your agent out for a thank you drink and let the evening and bar tab get away from you.

That is what makes Gilpin's work here so memorable. Her revelations come almost accidentally, giving the standard acting requirement of spontaneity a shiny layer of inebriated candor. Wohl’s expertly choreographed exchanges of dialogue aren't invigorated by heightened language – as is Sheila Callaghan’s superb Bed (seen within the same 24 hours and, coincidentally, also kick-started by the drunken coupling of a newly minted couple). Instead it has the naturalness of the overheard, and not the abstraction of the overwrought.

Gilpin has calibrated how the buzz dissipates in real time, such that when, at the end of the play, she retells how her pioneer ancestors walked from Virginia to Utah, we know that this is the first time she'll remember having said it. Gradually, Irene and Manuel open themselves and satisfy each other's desperate need for some simple perspective. For Manuel, the unsophisticated clarity Irene provides the jaded European is just what he needs for another shot at the happiness he deserves.

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directed by TRIP CULLMAN


February 2-March 13, 2016
(Opened 2/10, Rev’d 2/20m)

CAST Betty Gilpin, Carlos Leal

PRODUCTION Mark Wendland, set; Leah Katznelson, costumes; Japhy Weideman, lights; Vincent Olivieri, sound; Peter Katona, fights; Phyllis Schuringa, casting; Maggie Swing/Amy Ramsdell, stage management

HISTORY Support from Olympus Theatricals West Coast Premiere

Betty Gilpin, Carlos Leal
Michael Lamont
TW Leshner and Kate Morgan in 'Bed' by Sheila Callaghan, directed by Jennifer Chambers for Echo Theater Company. Photo by Darrett Sanders


The last thing characters achieve in Sheila Callaghan’s Bed is rest. In this Echo Theater Company world premiere, under the direction of Jennifer Chambers at Atwater Village Theatre, bed is boxing ring, confessional and court of appeals. It's also where one more one-night stand leads to a decade-long relationship in which a brilliant woman will struggle to embrace the family she creates while protecting the inner demon that drives the art she creates.

Actually, Holly (Kate Morgan Chadwick) doesn't so much protect the molten turmoil within her as avoid thinking about it. Callaghan is a bold writer who takes chances, and such avoidance, while it can create holes and sudden behavioral leaps, is one of the realistic and rewarding elements of this script. Holly speaks to deflect and disguise. Her conversation, like her paintings and music, is raw, vivid and meant to both show off and conceal her.

Clearly there's something dark and not-of-her-making behind both the art and the persona. While we only hear descriptions of the paintings, she shreds through her guitar-based punk-metal compositions with fierce command and a voice to match.

She has also shred through relationships, arriving for the play as we did through the theater entrance. Deposited inside the front doors as if spit up by her own past, she pauses, then drags herself across the theater floor and climbs into the bed that sits on a jagged platform that, like Holly, seems torn from its foundation.

Suddenly we are in the present, with Cliff (TW Leshner), an attractive opposite whom she met earlier that night. While he is open, accommodating and sexually satisfying, she dispenses anti-exposition. When he asks about her folks, she responds "My father is a corkboard. My mother is a lawn mower." As a result, when she mentions an action by her father that would traumatize anyone, we're not sure if it's just more poetic license. Despite her art of deflection, Cliff falls in love. While the wannabe novelist isn't calculating, he likely is drawn to a partner of validating brilliance.

Then, in one of the play's unsupported jumps, they marry and have a few years concentrating on careers. She swears off motherhood and, in another leap, is immediately caressing a blanket-wrapped newborn, offering her daughter an impromptu prayer that pours out as publishable poetry. Meanwhile Cliff struggles on. He reads an overwrought opening graph and then, glancing at his wife, writes effortlessly from his heart about first meeting her.

Why Holly launches into an affair with Cliff's brother JC (Johnathan McClain) is no clearer. Perhaps it's to stockpile more evidence that she must be punished, as she often says. Or, it's just to undermine happiness based in stability. The notion of being punished for settling for happiness gives Cliff and Holly a twisted echo of Albee's George and Martha. It's Martha who says she will not forgive George "for having come to rest; for having seen me and having said: yes; this will do; who has made the hideous, the hurting, the insulting mistake of loving me and must be punished for it."

Ultimately, Cliff will answer her demand for punishment in a mock murder. It is introduced in a weaker proposition that a life of boredom is worse than death. We wonder, is he killing her, her ambition, her independence, her boredom, or her demon? Callaghan sends us home pondering all this as well as issues her characters aren't capable of addressing: the sources of creativity, the nature of genius, and the sexual politics of a woman far more talented than her mate.

Chambers has the firm grasp on both story and cast that Callaghan requires. Chadwick, as she did in the under-appreciated Nobody Loves You, has the acting and musical chops needed to give Holly the full dimension she needs. Leshner is a strong presence for her to play against while McClain provides the proper shallowness for JC in his one scene. Se Oh has created the set, which allows entrances from within the mattress. Michael Mullen designed the costumes, Sean Mallary the lights and Sophocles Papavasilopoulous and Maxwell Gualtieri wrote Holly's music. Jeff Gardner handled sound and Meg Fister was casting director.

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February 3 through March 13, 2016 (extended through March 26)
(Opened 2/6, rev'd 2/19)

CAST Kate Morgan Chadwick, TW Leshner, Johnathan McLain

PRODUCTION Se Oh, set; Michael Mullen, costumes; Sean Mallary, lights; Sophocles Papavasilopoulous/Maxwell Gualtieri, music; Jeff Gardner, sound; Meg Fister, casting; Samantha McCann, stage management; Tara Karsian/Emyli Gudmundson, producers

HISTORY World premiere

Atwater Village Theatre
3269 Casitas Avenue, Atwater Village, CA 90039
Echo Theater Company
Atwater Village Theatre

TW Leshner, Kate Morgan Chadwick
Darrett Sanders
Jennifer Pollono, Rebecca Larsen, Anne Gee Byrd, Matthew Elkins and Rob Nagle in 'Pocatello' at Rogue Machine Theatre. Photo by John Perrin Flynn

Unhappy hour

The Pocatello, Idaho of playwright Samuel D. Hunter sits in the path of what passes for progress these days. In Pocatello, another in his series of plays set in his native region, there is a conflicting message that national chain stores and fast food franchises are coming to a town that people are abandoning.

This is the first production Rogue Machine Theatre is staging in The Met, its new home since it was forced to abandon its two-stage home of eight years on West Pico. [That story is covered in Theatertimes' January feature, Going Rogue.]

That kind of conflict is carried into the characters, especially Nick (Rob Nagle), whose return, with wife Kelly (Rebecca Larsen), to the hometown he left behind, is the play's primary plot stimulator. The visit means he can see his mother, Doris (Anne Gee Byrd), and brother, Eddie (Matthew Elkins), who is the proud owner of the Italian family restaurant in which the play is set. The fact that Eddie isn't Italian and has yet to foster a family of his own is bitter irony, but hardly the reason the restaurant is failing. Rather, it is a combination of the corporate invasion and Eddie's inner gentleness that puts helping people ahead of heaping profits.

Among those he cares for are his staff and their families, who fill out the large cast of characters. There are three servers: Max (Trevor Peterson), a recovering addict who'll still dabble with drugs and diddle after hours with fellow server Isabelle (Jen Pollono), and Troy (Justin Okin). Troy's longtime wife Tammy (Tracie Lockwood), pressuring him to re-light their relationship, their teenage daughter Becky (Eden Brolin), and Tammy's failing father Cole (Mark L. Taylor), are regulars.

Like the town, these characters are stuck in the path of things beyond their control. Whether its Max's urges or Becky's anger or Cole's dementia, there isn't much they can do besides maintain the unhappy limbo between wrestling and coping with their troubles. Hunter makes it a realistic snapshot of people he must have known back home. They are plainspoken and the events are as ordinary as they are overwhelming.

It falls to director John Perrin Flynn's cast to find the deeper subtext in the all too familiar, and makes it more than an unhappy hour in the company of strangers stuck in their ways. Some are up to it. Byrd, whose talent is by now a matter of public record, is on hand to make the most of the final scene, in which Eddie and his mother start to unpack some of the issues that their broken family has boxed up. Pollono, Peterson and especially Brolin also find that tricky mix of resignation and optimism.

The non-relationship between Eddie and Nick is the most important. There is a reason Nick has relatively little stage time. Hunter makes it the character's own choice. He is the most conflicted of all characters, coming back to merely pass through town. Despite constantly asking if Eddie is okay, he isn't interested and can't wait to get to the sky trip further north that he has pre-arranged for Kelly and himself. While his wife is happy to adjust the timetable, he is adamant about quickly moving on. There's some long-simmering feud at play, perhaps the fact that Eddie is gay. There are hints of that in the final scene, but getting a sense of what's eating Nick, rather than just seeing his irritability, would help.

The first Hunter play reviewed by Theatertimes, The Whale, also had at its core a sad gay man in peril. Key among the other characters was his highly intelligent but angry daughter. That relationship is mirrored here between Eddie and Becky, and is again where Hunter sounds real depth, with Elkins and Brolin serving the full dimension.

The second Hunter play was Rest. In that review, it was pointed out that "The characters float in their own self-interest without the investment in anything to create much conflict or dramatic engagement." This seems the kind of uncharged, lifelike interaction that Hunter is after in Pocatello. Unlike the wholly satisfying Whale, the dispersal of story among equals here, while admirable for it subtlety, leaves it light fare.

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February 20 - March 27, 2016
(Opened, Rev’d 2/20)

CAST Eden Brolin, Anne Gee Byrd, Matthew Elkins, Rebecca Larsen, Tracie Lockwood, Rob Nagle, Justin Okin, Trevor Peterson, Jennifer Pollono, and Mark L. Taylor; alts: Michaela Slezak, Shad Willingham

PRODUCTION Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, set; Elizabeth Cox, costumes; Ric Zimmerman, lights; Chris Moscatiello, sound; Ramón Valdez, stage management

HISTORY West Coast Premiere

Jennifer Pollono, Rebecca Larsen, Anne Gee Byrd, Matthew Elkins, Rob Nagle
John Perrin Flynn
June Carryl, Will Bradley, Charlotte Gulezian, Rafael Goldstein, and members of the ensemble in 'Romeo and Juliet' at A Noise Within. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Bold as love

Damaso Rodriguez' staging of Romeo and Juliet, which over the weekend launched the second half of A Noise Within's 2015-16 repertory season, blows the canopy dust off the ancient coming-of-age tragedy with the assured gust of a theater that has solidly come of age.

Everything from the top-to-bottom banner cast to the thick, glossy programs that bear their bios, from ranks of new donors to exciting pre-publicity images from Dan Reichert suggest that the emotional muscle and maturity Rodriguez has allowed the play's lead lovers also resonates through the institution. The company's leading couple, Artistic Directors Julia and Geoff Elliott, clearly have the willingness and wherewithal to shine with "the fairest stars in all the heaven."

Donnla Hughes as Juliet in A Noise Within's 'Romeo and Juliet,' directed by Damaso Rodriguez. Photo by Craig Schwartz

Actors roaming the stage before curtain, on a graffiti-festooned back-alley set, wearing costumes mildly suggestive of oppression and resistance are not a breakthrough. The concept has been used by everyone from Leonard Bernstein to Baz Luhrmann. Yet as soon as Jared A. Sayeg's warm lights rise on Angela Balogh Calin's vibrant set and restrained costumes, we can hear in the actors' voices that the concept is merely to showcase the acting, not overshadow it.

And these are actors worthy of showcasing. When first seen, wandering and chatting or sitting quietly around the dimmed set, they are not in character. Again, nothing new there. But the line between part and performer will be allowed to blur throughout the show. A selection of them remain on stage after their scenes, sitting against the upstage wall that is the gritty back wall of the Capulet building. One might sit watching from Juliet's window, or find a place on the auditorium floor, hanging on the lip of the stage to listen. Is that Romeo listening to Juliet and the nurse? Or is it Will Bradley, joining the audience to appreciate Donnla Hughes and June Carryl's scene together? It's strong and coherent enough to be either, or both at once.

When Romeo and Juliet are alone together, they are the only actors on stage, which heightens their intimacy. These two are relatable, not teenagers experiencing first love but people first experiencing exceptional love – perhaps it's their first experience of the exceptional in any form. Coincidentally, most of us will be experiencing Hughes, a veteran of major theaters in the U.K. with her lone U.S. credit understudying Geffen's recent Outside Mullingar, for the first time. Hers is a subtly assured performance. She shows how deeply Juliet's quick-flowering first love has dug by the vacuum that's left after Romeo's banishment. She reacts to the proposal of marriage to Paris with a blankness that speaks volumes about the absurdity of replacing what her heart found with something her father prefers.

Maturity underpins Bradley's Romeo, too. Bradley, whose kinetic, interactive performance in Aaron Posner's Stupid Fucking Bird is one of the region's recent highlights, gives the young Veronese energy and intellect. He and Hughes put poetry and passion firmly at the center of this effort.

The supporting cast is solid down through its ranks. Longtime company stalwart Robertson Dean gives this Friar Lawrence welcome virility, adding depth to the remorse he feels after his warning fails to reach Romeo. Rafael Goldstein, another company member, who was a highlight of 2014's Tartuffe, an otherwise lesser achievement from the previous era, gives Mercutio individuality and an indulgence for substances banished to the alley underworld. When he returns, double-cast as a ski-masked Apothecary, he rises out of one of the set's two dumpsters, making it clear with whom this Romeo is dealing.

As both nurse and Prince, Carryl gives her roles backbone and sharpness. She is a welcome addition to the company with weighty credits from Ashland, Berkeley Rep and ACT. Alan Blumenthal allows his comic instincts some play in the early going, but reins them tightly for an excoriation of Juliet that becomes all the more frightening for the change in him. Jill Hill gives Lady Capulet added richness, Christian Barrillas makes his ANW as an intensely stoic Tybalt, and Charlotte Gulezian, another contributor to Posner's high-flying Bird, is the fiercely loyal Benvolio.

Rodriguez and company have reached for and grasped something significant as they toyed with the actor-character divide. The life they breathe into the old chestnut is transformative on several levels. That a jaded veteran of countless Romeos and Juliets is left verklempt is testament to A Noise Within's art. That Hill, watching the final scene from the back wall, appeared to quietly wipe a tear, not from Lady Capulet's cheek but from her own as lights rose for curtain call, is testament to its heart.

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February 14-May 8, 2016
(Opened 2/20, Rev’d 2/21m)

CAST Amir Abdullah, Christian Barillas, Alan Blumenfeld, Will Bradley, June Carryl, Robertson Dean, Charlotte Gulezian, Rafael Goldstein, Chase Green, Carina Haller, Jill Hill, Donnla Hughes, Seven Pierce-English, Marcos J. Ruiz, Lawrence Sonderling, Kathryn Ventress, and Troy Whiteley

PRODUCTION Angela Balogh Calin, set/costumes; Jared A. Sayeg, lights; Martin Carrillo, music/sound; Saundra Montijo, wigs/makeup; Ken Merckx, fights; Julia Flores, casting; Malia Arguello/Emily Burst, stage management

HISTORY The play is generally assigned a spot among Shakespeare's earlier works, being written as early as 1591 and first staged between then and 1595.

Foreground, aboveJune Carryl, Will Bradley, Charlotte Gulezian and Rafael Goldstein, with, left to right in background, Lawrence Sonderling, Seven Pierce-English, Marcos J. Ruiz, Jill Hill and Amir Abdullah; inset, Donnla Hughes
Craig Schwartz
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