Tuesday, January 15, 2013
Theater review: Solve the mystery of Gabriel‘s identity at Stage West Theatre
Emotions in the play run high, as Nazis take stronghold over the community.
FORT WORTH For five years during World War II, German Nazi forces occupied a piece of England called the Channel Islands. Guernsey, Jersey and other islands near the coast of Normandy, France were fortified against an allied invasion. For the native English on the islands during this occupation, life was difficult and dangerous, especially for women who became enmeshed with the German soldiers in order to survive. By the end of the war, the population was near starvation.
Gabriel, by Moira Buffini, tells the story of a small group of women who must survive with Nazis all around them. One day a naked body washes on shore and the women take him in and nurse him back to life. This man, named Gabriel by the women, does not know who he is. Buffini is an award-winning English playwright and actor who wrote Gabriel in 1997.
The play at Stage West Theatre in Fort Worth was a classic who-dun-it mystery with a riveting storyline. After the first act it seemed we were walking a razor's edge in this story with an imminent threat of something dangerous and violent. It continued through Act 2 as little bits of evidence revealed the deeper story and put the audience on edge from start to end, though it continually punctuated tension with little bits of humor.
The acting was superb. Each of the six actors created multi-leveled characters with breadth and depth, both interesting and complicated for the audience.
Dana Schultes' Jeanne Becquet, owner of the house which Nazi leaders occupied, ran a little cottage she was banished to with two other women and her young daughter. Becquet was part vixen, part collaborator, a little bit resistance and a heroine. Becquet represented the women on the isle who walked a line between survival and collaboration as they made choices to save their families. Schultes ranged easily through complex emotions and motivations to make us wonder if she was collaborating to save her family or to save her vanity and status. It seemed there might even be a bit of pleasure as well.
Michael Corolla's evil character, Von Pfunz, was both sensitive to Becquet about her situation, possibly smitten by her, and seeking her acceptance. However, he was caught within the Nazi system he had to command and his strong belief in the higher ideals of the Nazi regime, to "cleanse" European civilization. Corolla gave us an evil character that displayed his inner struggle with the actions of the European Nazis and showed a soft side we seldom see in war movies. In Von Pfunz, we saw that not all Germans were fanatical followers of Hitler and many had true ideals for their actions, though we now despise how they implement them.
Garrett Storms developed his title character, Gabriel, into a real gem. Representing the innocence of the age, even more than the child, Estelle, Gabriel had a complete loss of memory and played the juxtaposition of several possible characters. He could be a Hitler youth, an English pilot or native collaborator. No one knew. With a mysterious illness, which Storms played with finesse and sensitivity, his sudden appearance after a magical incantation by the child, Estelle, and his naked appearance on the beach, he conveyed an angelic quality which fostered the mystery and walked the line between pure innocence and dangerous potential. His identity was a major question of the play.
The other three characters, Estelle, played by 6th grader Hayley Lenamon; Lake, played by Kelly Pino; and Lily, played by Tabitha Ray, each added layers to their characters which kept them individually interesting while telling crucial parts of the story and representing major themes of the larger story of war and occupation. Estelle's youthful innocence allowed her to pester Nazis, especially Von Pfunz, while honestly believing in the magic of her incantations. Pino's Lake supported and challenged Jeanne Becquet's quest to survive by collaborating, but Pino also showed Lake's shrewd self-survival instincts. And Tabitha Ray created an emotional Lily, Becquet's daughter-in-law, with a certain resigned acceptance of being an outcast while exploring the role of Jews in the struggle. Her romantic connection with Gabriel brought out crucial information about him.
The production values in this performance were tightly linked to the story, not just as a framework, but as part of the story itself. Jim Covault directed Gabriel with deft handling of the sensitive topics and strong dramatic content. He was superb at allowing the script to keep the mystery hidden until the last moment. He designed a one-piece set which provided a downstairs playing area and an upstairs loft on the same stage level. Covault's choice of colors in the set created a very low-brow cottage feel of the period, while furnishings were simple and functional, but implied an upper-class pride in the place. Lynn Lovett added decorations which created a lived-in feel while providing important props for the story, such as the liquor cantor and glasses on the chimney shelf, used often in scenes between Von Pfunz and Becquet.
Michael O'Brien's lighting implied a frequent Nazi power blackout and lit the stage with candles during them. He added lighting from flashlights through windows to show ominous outside activity and deftly moved between scenic playing areas with subtle shifts in stage lighting. Scene changes were lit just enough to see the changes and this was a minor problem. Audiences suspend belief to get into a story normally, but in this ultra-sensitive story I was brought back to reality each scene change and it upset my flow a bit too much. Covault also designed a soundtrack for this story using works by Benjamin Britten and Bang On The Can, a musical group I can only suggest finding on Wikipedia, as it was hard to classify. But this subtle soundtrack was luscious and perfectly blended with the story. It's a nice example of how a sound designer can do something so simple it's not even credited in the program, yet it sets an atmosphere that powerfully supports the story.
The costuming by Michael O'Brien and Dallas Costume Shoppe was also superb, whether the requirement to handle a naked actor or a German officer, whose costume looked more accurate than most representations I've seen on theater Nazis. There were a few fights and Jakie Cabe provided choreography for the fight scenes. The slapping scenes with the child, Estelle, were a little fake from where I sat, but the later fights were entirely believable, even shocking.
Stage West production teams always seem to produce great settings for its plays, but this one created a strong, palpable atmosphere of ominous danger, with just enough humor to help the audience survive the tension over two hours. The quality of this production and the level of professional acting show a strong vision by Director Covault and a sense of pride in Stage West's production team. I think most patrons left the theater with a sense of contemplation and wonder.
Gabriel was a well built mystery which indicted the Nazis but also asked questions about truth and belief systems which apply even today. I walked away with impressions of the themes and questions about Gabriel, but had no clear answers. It was a play I couldn't form opinions about until the last minute and, even then, I wasn't sure. This was a production well worth the evening's experience.
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