Photo by Matt Richter
Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder
There’s one thing that really, really good Hollywood Fringe Festival entries have in common: their run is traditionally too short, too randomly scheduled, and ultimately too often shortchanged, buried in the festival’s incredibly prolific collection of month-long theatrical offerings. So it is with this exceptionally moving and thought-provoking rendition of David Harrower’s gritty two-character 2007 Olivier Award Best Play Blackbird, an effort which deserves so much more than eight performances.
From the moment Charlotte Gulezian and Bradley Fisher hit the small litter-strewn stage until the play’s jaw-dropping climax, these two brilliant performers, continuously circling one another like hungry caged tigers under director Anna Stromberg’s remarkably riveting and unrelentingly ominous staging, never stop moving, creating a palpable, almost sickening tension that makes their audience collectively move to the edges of their seats and stay there for the next 70 minutes.
Una (Gulezian) has arrived at the workplace of Peter (Fisher), whom she knows as Ray. She demands to see him and he quickly ushers her into the company’s claustrophobic concrete breakroom, desperately trying to get her to leave or go outside to talk or just simply keep her voice down. Ray has a lot about which to keep quiet, as neither his coworkers nor his current girlfriend know anything about his former life, the life that ended with a prison term after his three-month affair with Una when she was 13 years old changed both of their lives forever.
Una wants him to pay for what he has done to her once again since, although he is no longer incarcerated and apparently leads a normal—or should I say more societally acceptable—life, her own has been spiraling downward since their passion for one another took over their sensibilities 15 years earlier.
Stromberg’s direction is never static, boldly accentuated by unrealistic and quirky light shifts which provide a theatricalized touch that continuously makes inquiring minds want to know if they are part of Harrower’s vision and included in his script or if the unique device was imagined and developed by the director and her team.
Fisher is an impressive and truly wonderful actor, although here he is a tad miscast, his lack of corporeal presence rather distracting when, if Ray is played by a more physically substantial performer (Jeff Daniels played the role on Broadway twice, in 2007 opposite Alison Pill and last season in the acclaimed revival opposite Michelle Williams), Una’s obsession with him—not to mention her obvious ability to huff and puff and blow him across the room along with the aforementioned mounds of onstage trash—would make more sense.
As it is, Gulezian’s Una overpowers her tormenter easily for two reasons. Firstly, she stands straight and proud and shows off her muscles in costumer Wendy Barillas’ Goth-inspired clubwear, while Fisher delivers most of his lines bent substantially forward from the waist, visually giving up any power he might hold or once held over someone he dominated all those years ago—something he still should be able to conjure if the play’s ending is to make sense.
The other problem is that, although Fisher plays beautifully off his sparring partner despite this distraction, he is partnered with Gulezian, who is an actor so formidable, so compelling, so able to emanate waves of mysteriously personal internal conflicts, that playing off of her must be somewhat akin to that old adage from W.C. Fields about kids and animals. Her take on Una is mesmerizing, bubbling up menacingly from someplace so deep within her that one wonders how she can go there without ending up like Ronald Coleman in A Double Life.
Una’s palpable desire—a desire to understand Ray, a desire to hurt him as deeply as he hurt her, and eventually the most primal desire, to be loved with a passion that, although clearly dangerous, she seems to never have found again—electrifies her performance and reaches so deep inside that her traumatized yet still intrigued character appears to leap and transform and instantly transcend those troubled 15 years that have passed between she and Peter seamlessly.
Oddly enough, to the credit of Stromberg and her exceptional performers, what this courageously brazen playwright, unfettered by societal mores that might make him a target for our current conservative “leadership,” eventually manages to accomplish is to make us feel a tremendous well of sympathy for both Una and Peter despite the nature of a crime that, in our culture, is considered abhorrent in every regard.
What Blackbird leaves us wondering, if we’re really willing to listen, is how much human behavior, all those things that should be allowed to be decided on a private and individual basis, turns twisted because we are told it is twisted. Do such things destroy lives because they’re inherently evil—or is it because our accepted and religiously-spawned heritage demands it must be?
THROUGH JULY 2: Davidson/Valentini Theatre, LA LGBT Center, 1125 N. McCadden Pl., LA. lalgbtcenter.org/theatre or 323.860.7300