Regional Reviews: San Diego
Also see Bill's review of At the Old Place
Jackson's story starts in the dressing rooms (brought to vivid life by set designer Marty Burnett) of a 1970s theatre in the fictitious Eastern European autocracy of Strevia. The cast's problems are fairly normal ones, with the biggest conflicts occurring between the unhappily married thespians Gunther (Bruce Turk) and Hippolyta Posnik (Katie MacNichol). A normal night becomes strange when the intimidating stage manager Valdez (Richard Baird) reveals shocking news. Valdez tells Gunther that one of the actors is suspected of being an underground agent, and that the suspected rebel is in danger.
Comical tension grows as the plot kicks into gear, slowly building up the life-changing circumstances that Piers and his fellow players go through. An added element is the complicated relationships among the main characters. Many of them are humorously disrespectful to each other and can appear self-centered. Regardless of attitude, they have a lot of history together and seem incredibly loyal to each other.
The cast in the play within the play have known each other for a long time and are hilarious to watch as they prepare to appear live. Each player wears Elisa Benzoni's costumes for the Shakespearian-esque tale they are scheduled to perform. Turk's smug attitude as Gunther never becomes overwhelming, mainly because of his likable rapport with others, and Jackson's hilarious writing. Jackson fully commits to Gunther's development as the egomaniac begins to realize the human cruelty that exists in Strevia. Speaking in a frequently sarcastic tone, MacNichol takes part in a hilarious tongue-in-cheek, melodramatic sequence toward the ending. Although Kyle Colerider-Krugh, Paul Turbiak, and Sierra Jolene provide offbeat laughs, special attention should be given to Baird. Everything, from his strange posture to his unusual way of talking, turns Valdez into a strange creature. Baird is equally threatening and hysterically idiotic whenever he appears.
At This Evening's Performance might start off with believable conversations, but director Andrew Barnicle takes his time with the initial setup. This makes the bigger plot points and punchlines much more effective. Barnicle's design team reflects the manner in which the narrative expands toward the end. At first, Matt Novotny's lighting is pretty straightforward and Aaron Rumley's audio is barely used in act one. Once things are set up for the final third of the script, their work helps contribute to the action that happens onstage as the suspense builds to a boiling point.
San Diegans can substitute the name Strevia for any totalitarian state that treats their people with cruelty and indifference. Pankoff (John Nutten), the uncaring Minister of Culture, describes the horrible ways that the higher-ups treat citizens they can't trust. Four decades after the events in At This Evening's Performance take place, there are still similar horrors occurring in the world today. Jackson finds laughter through the terror with parallels to the classic 1942 movie To Be or Not to Be, about actors in Nazi-occupied Poland. If you have seen that film, you might be able to predict a few of the events that occur, but that won't get in the way of the overall entertainment value.
An element that could have been dropped concerns the marital problems that Gunther and Hippolyta suffer from. Certain aspects and issues with their loveless marriage are brushed aside completely, and are rarely brought up again after the introduction. I wished that Jackson had further explored how poor their bond has become, or just made them a couple who lost their spark. That being said, the relationship they share concludes in a satisfying manner.
Smart and hilarious, Jackson's rendition ends North Coast Rep's 35th season on a high note. It's another example why this remains a premier theater company.
North Coast Repertory Theatre presents At This Evening's Performance through August 6, 2017. Performs Sundays through Saturdays at 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive, Suite D, Solana Beach CA. Tickets start at $44.00 and can be purchased online at www.northcoastrep.org or by phone at 1-858-481-1055.