By Jack Lyons Theatre and Film Critic. Member of American Theatre Critics Association

North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) of Solana Beach, never fails to come up with little known plays or playwrights for its audiences turning them into performance gems.  That is precisely what is currently taking place on the stage of NCRT’s West Coast Premiere of the drama “Gabriel” a World War II thriller.

Prolific British playwright Moira Buffini has written a strong drama incorporating many facts, both known and unknown, about the war that engulfed all of Europe and that tight little island known as England.  Those were perilous days for everyone. In addition to the soldiers fighting in the war, the civilians at home had to deal with being occupied by German troops.  “Buffini’s “Gabriel”, is not only mysterious, and a bit enigmatic, but it infuses its characters with a sense of the absurd as well as the inevitable light comedy relief moments of everyone’s situations.

Staged and deftly directed by Christopher Williams, “Gabriel” gives all six characters juicy roles to play, but more about this outstanding ensemble cast later.

Clockwise_ Richards Baird, Jessica John, Annabella Price, Catalina Zelles, Lilli Passero & Alan Littlehales – photo by Aaron Rumley

The story takes place in 1943 in the wind-swept Nazi-occupied Isle of Guernsey (Many people forget that England’s Channel Island of Guernsey is just 40 miles west of the Normandy coast and was indeed occupied by German troops).

A mysterious handsome young man is washed ashore late one night and is discovered by 10-year-old Estelle (astonishingly played by Catalina Zelles). The three adult British women living in the home with Estelle, decide to protect him from the German troops based on the island through cunning deceptions and bravery. 

Jeanne Becquet, Estelle’s beautiful mother, terrifically performed by Jessica John, is wary that the young man known only as ‘Gabriel’ (solidly played by Alan Littlehales), who upon awakening realizes he has lost his memory. He has no idea who he is or where he is; whereby he is immediately christened by Estelle as Gabriel, after the Angel.  Jeanne and Lili fear that his presence if discovered, will bring trouble to their home in the form of SS Major Von Pfunz (brilliantly played by Richard Baird), who imagines himself as a poet as well as a German Officer; who has taken a fancy to Jeanne.

Catalina Zelles- photo by Aaron Rumley

Also living in the household is Jeanne’s daughter-in-law Lilly, now a widow, nicely played by Lili Passero, who admits to Jeanne that she is Jewish and fears for the consequences if discovered. Providing some of the lighter side to life in the Becquet household is neighbor Lake who does the cooking, odd jobs and chores for Jeanne is whimsically played by Annabella Price, in a little gem of a comedy performance.

In addition to the poetic nature of playwright Buffini’s dialogue and structure,  the beauty of this play lies in the performances of the actors who are firing on all cylinders; individually and in an ensemble performance format.   Richard Baird and Jessica John’s stage chemistry produces two actors at the top of their games as antagonist and protagonist, respectively. The boldness and range of Mr. Baird’s talent has no boundaries.  His Major Von Pfunz portrayal is both menacing and intriguing as he plays his game of cat and mouse with Jeanne.

Richard Baird & Jessica John – photo by Aaron Rumley

Ms. John is equal to task of protecting her family as well as Gabriel.  Her fiery portrayal reminds me of the last time these two fine actors performed together in the New Fortune Theatre production of “Les Liaison Dangereuses”, as the Marquessa and Mr. Baird as Valmont.  They were mesmerizing then and are stunning again in NCRT’s “Gabriel”.

This impressive production has the fingerprints of director Williams all over it.  From solving the traffic management issues of six performers working in a relatively small stage space, yet still able to draw the audience into the story with its wonderful ensemble cast.

In the technical areas, the creative team led by director Williams includes:  a functional set design by resident design wizard Marty Burnett, along with Lighting designer Matthew Novotny, and the outstanding costume designs of Elisa Benzoni.  Sound Design by Ryan Ford, and Props by Phillip Korth, complete the creative team.  Andrea Gutierrez stage manages the production.

“Gabriel” is a highly entertaining evening in the theatre that performs at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, CA and runs through March 17, 2019. 


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