Gabriel – West Coast Premiere at North Coast Repertory Theatre

The island of Guernsey was one of the very few pieces of British soil occupied by the Germans in World War 2. It therefore makes for the unique setting of “Gabriel,” a thriller by Moira Buffini.

The excellent production made its West Coast premiere at North Coast Repertory Theatre, directed by Christopher Williams. In his production notes, Williams comments that to many people, the fate of occupied Guernsey was unknown.

The storyline revolves around the eponymous title character, whose origin and fate remain unknown throughout the story. Washed up on shore, naked with near total amnesia he becomes a character on which each of the other characters can paint their desires and fears. The plot is complex and understandably takes a long time to unfold.

Clockwise Richard Baird, Jessica John, Catalina Zelles, Lilli Passero and Alan Liitlehales (photo by Christopher Williams)

The six person cast is uniformly excellent. Opening and closing the evening is Catalina Zelles, who plays the 10-year-old Estelle. Having already build her repertoire across a range of roles, Zelles here maintains a significant presence, and shows an astonishing stamina and range for her age. We will be hearing much more from her in the years to come.

Playing her mother Jeanne is Jessica John. John evokes a suitable sultriness that evolves into a more maternal and protective demeanor, especially when her daughter-in-law Lily (Lilli Passero) faces greater scrutiny. Passero, a Top 10 Finalist on season 12 of NBC’s “The Voice,” is able to shift from resolute to vulnerable in telling fashion. Perhaps the most grounded character is Lake, the family’s housekeeper, assayed by Annabella Price. Price has performed myriad roles on many stages, and her skill is evident.

L-R Jessica John, Richard Baird & Catalina Zelles (photo by Aaron Rumley)

Richard Baird & Jessica John (photo by Aaron Rumley)

The two male roles are filled by Alan Littlehales in the titular role and Richard Baird as the German officer Von Pfunz. The former has the challenge of portraying an amnesiac, convincing us his mind is mostly a blank slate. The latter is perhaps the play’s most demanding role. As the island’s ranking officer of the occupying German forces, Von Pfunz must keep order, quell dissent and uphold the Nazi regime. We begin to discover that perhaps he has a poetic side, but to the playwright’s credit she does not soften the sharp edge of Von Pfunz’s political and military conviction. As a result, the nuances are more complex. Baird does a great job in a difficult role.

The action takes place in the family’s humble house, which we understand is far less grand than the house from which they were evicted by the enemy. The stalwart Marty Burnett has created an evocative interior, with angular panels.

Williams keeps the pace brisk, despite its running length. Buffini’s plot takes some surprising and compelling turns. It is not surprising that the NY Times gave it a Critic’s Pick. This is an excellent evening of intimate theatre, with superb acting by the entire cast.

Ticket information here.

 


Brad Auerbach has been covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.

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