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Theater Review: “At This Evening’s Performance”

Katie MacNichol, Bruce Turk, Richard Baird, Paul Turbiak & Sierra Jolene.
Photo credit:
Aaron Rumley

Theater and politics mix, albeit uneasily in Nagle Jackson’s “At This Evening’s Performance,” onstage through Aug. 6 at North Coast Repertory Theatre.

A provincial theater troupe run by Gunther Posnik (Bruce Turk) struggles to find audiences for its slate of stale old classics.

Gunther tries to convince us (and his actors) that he doesn’t like new, more modern plays, but the fact is he’s working in a fictional 1970s East European police state called Strevia (known for bathhouses and radishes), where the wrong words can get you in very big trouble.

The usual theatrical shenanigans play out. Gunther is romancing pretty ingenue lead Saskia (Sierra Jolene).

Meanwhile, Gunther’s prima donna wife Hippolyta (Katie MacNichol) is chasing after young male lead Piers (Paul Turbiak).

Elderly character actor Oskar (Kyle Colerider-Krugh) is around to reminisce about the good old days of playing in such wonderful places as Paris.

When word comes via newly hired stage manager Valdez (Richard Baird) that one cast member will be shot by an audience member at this evening’s performance (presumably for espionage), Gunther is thrown into a tailspin – especially when he learns that the line that will cue the shot is his.

It sounds like an old-fashioned farce à la “Noises Off,” but unfortunately is nowhere near as funny, especially as played with exaggerated actions and stultified acting styles.

That sort of thing works in a good farce; here it comes off as silly and stupid, sometimes even boring.

Baird, for example, is forced to spend his whole time on stage skulking around in black, glowering menacingly and growling at Gunther and his group.

Is Valdez in on the plot or maybe a plant? Could be, but this is a criminal misuse of Baird’s considerable talents.

Which brings me to the final character: Minister of Culture Pankoff (John Nutten), who comes backstage at intermission with a proposal for Gunther: behave, and your troupe will become sole proprietors of the soon-to-be-formed National Theatre of Strevia, and be housed in the spectacular Esterschnazy (get it?) Palace.

“Behave” means no dissent or satire about the regime. Oh, and since Pankoff is a failed playwright himself, you must also perform some of his plays.

Gunther’s decision will affect livelihoods, perhaps even lives.

Jackson doesn’t seem to know whether this is comedy, farce or satire, so he includes elements of all three, and tosses in some slapstick. They don’t play well together.

As comedy, it’s not as funny as it should be. The farcical elements are too standard to be of much interest.

And as for satire – well, it’s easy to see Pankoff as a certain contemporary politician with demagogic tendencies (though this was written well before that politician came to prominence). The other characters are clearly right out of the Farce 101 handbook.

The cast works extremely hard to keep it light and funny, but there’s not much you can do when the words aren’t there. Turk’s Gunther at least gets to struggle mightily with the precarious balance between art and political reality. 

Katie MacNichol (Turk’s real-life wife) plays his pretend wife, prima donna Hippolyta, who could be describing the whole cast when she complains about Gunther, “He can’t just say a line. He has to semaphore it.”

Paul Turbiak and Sierra Jolene play the young, handsome (or pretty) young leads with some panache. 

Kyle Colerider-Krugh’s elderly Oskar may be the sanest of the bunch, even if he does tend to live in the past.

But John Nutten’s Pankoff is by far the most interesting character -- one of those bad guys with power, and a willingness to use it to his benefit. 

Set designer Marty Burnett works his usual magic, with two somewhat shabby side-by-side dressing rooms. Costumes (Elisa Benzoni), lighting (Matt Novotny) and sound (Aaron Rumley) are all fine. It’s just that script.

A rewrite is in order.

The details

“At This Evening’s Performance” plays through August 6, 2017 at North Coast Repertory Theatre, 987 Lomas Santa Fe Drive in Solana Beach.

Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 and 7 pm. 

Tickets: (858) 481-1055 or www.northcoastrep.org