BWW Reviews: Tea Meets Sympathy Flavored with Wit in MANDATE MEMORIES
Unexpected twists, jarring conflict, and candid emotional revelation kept the audience on edge in the world premiere of British playwright Lionel Goldstein's disturbing drama Mandate Memories at San Diego's North Coast Rep Theatre http://northcoastrep.org/. Masterful performances by its sole leads, Apollo Dukakis and Rosina Reynolds, riveted spectators to their seats from the first moment of the play. Questions were asked, layers came off the onion, but at the end the proficient playwright left the door open for the most thought-provoking question of all.
At times witty, at times brutally honest, but always tightly crafted, the characters' two- hour journey evolved from an awkward dialogue between utter strangers to one in which the two individuals aired intimate thoughts and charged feelings seldom revealed in lifelong relationships. The crux of their confrontations focused on the oft-hidden details of the British Mandate for Palestine, namely the pledge to create a national home for the Jews. In response to intense strong-arming by the Arabs, the British created the Peel Commission to investigate the problematic situation and in 1936 recommended partition of the area. Despite the Jews' agreeing to these proposals, the Arabs rejected the plan and in 1939, yielding to Arab pressure, the British published their infamous White Paper limiting Jewish immigration, ultimately exposing countless Jews to the horrors of the Holocaust who otherwise might have been saved if the original plan had been implemented.
Goldstein uses the stories of eighty-year-old Holocaust survivor Gustav Frolich (Dukakis) and British widow Jane Stirling (Reynolds), two decades his junior, to personalize the implications of these startling pre-World War II circumstances. Arriving at Stirling's bucolic countryside cottage purportedly to give her a letter of great personal import to her, Frolich begins accounting for his presence in a gentle, benevolent manner but gradually upends the widow's sheltered existence in a slow, painful narrative, finally divulging family secrets that hit her like thunderbolts. Her responses morph from classic British politesse to denial, anger, an accusatory stance, and eventual resignation.
Both actors skillfully portrayed their characters' transformations. In a charged atmosphere, not unlike My Dinner with André but with British tea instead of a chic restaurant meal, the characters laid bare some of the most provocative topics of the last century - anti-Semitism, the Holocaust, all the cringe-worthy subtopics that arise from such a discussion - bringing up the inevitable questions that have never quite been answered over the past seventy years. Making full use of Goldstein's razor-sharp dialogue, Dukakis and Reynolds deftly thrust and parried their verbal jabs, alternately wounding and placating each other. The variety of their facial expressions, clearly visible from every location in the small, intimate theater, expertly unmasked the panoply of emotions their roles required, and they admirably handled the sheer volume of dialogue their roles demanded of them. The two actors' performances were perfectly matched in temperament and expertise, reflecting their impressive wealth of experience garnered from numerous performances in theaters across the United States.
North County Rep Artistic Director David Ellenstein used his expertise as both an actor and director to mold his characters and bring them to life. In a dialogue-rich drama such as Mandate Memories, with only two roles, a director might be tempted to micro-manage the actors' interpretations. Ellenstein skirted that risk like a skilled orchestra conductor, guiding, and more importantly, getting out of the way, when needed, allowing the actors to create their own stage magic.
London-based playwright Goldstein, who was in the audience on opening night, lived through the nightmare of World War II as a school-aged child and suffered through the relentless bombings of the Luftwaffe. His works often reflect his feelings about difficult experiences related to British and Jewish themes. Best known for his TV play Halpern and Johnson, which he also adapted for the stage, he has shown unhesitating closeness to similar subjects in Mandate Memories. Both two-character plays candidly explore his background, melding British wit with immense complexity and keen insight into the characters' psyches, giving them equal and alternate opportunities to dominate the action and freely express their anger, frustration, and tenderness.
The skilled, highly professional North County Rep production team of Marty Burnett (scenic design), Matt Novotny (lighting design), Alina Bokovikova (costumes), and Melanie Chen (sound design), tied the drama together with the expertise of a repertory company that accomplishes their joint effort with both precision and individuality.
With complete, in-depth portrayals, dazzling writing, and vividly depicted reminders of our political past, Mandate Memories is packed with interest for playgoers of all generations. One leaves the theater feeling immensely satisfied, yet eager to go back for a second viewing, to learn more about a place and time that impacts all of us.