BWW Review: Will Eno's Quirky GNIT is Hit and Miss at Tampa Rep, but the Supporting Cast Saves the Day
"The farther one travels, the less one knows." --The Beatles, "The Inner Light"
Remember the scene. A pencil in the eye. We're only two weeks into 2018, and we already have a sequence that's the one to beat this year. Last year's Scene of the Year for me--one character feeding Chinese food to another in The Other Place--was in a Tampa Rep production. Let's see what the year, or even the rest of January, has in store for us before we crown this year's best moment just yet.
The scene in question takes place in GNIT, Will Eno's quirky wink to Henrik Ibsen's Peer Gynt at Tampa Rep, and it features the comic gold of Jonelle Meyer, who actually stabs a pencil in her eye (okay, not actually, but you would think so). It's such an odd moment in Eno Land that when I exited the theatre after the show, I kept remembering that image: a pencil in the eye. It's something not to be missed in a play that's not simple casual viewing. GNIT is quite hilarious, with some incredibly funny dialogue and giggle-worthy quips, but there's an underlying sadness that makes for an uneasy ride. And the play will more than once test your endurance. But the actors, especially the supporting cast, get you through it and we wind up if not illuminated, then at least asking the right questions.
It's hard when the lead character in a play is an intended cypher. Imagine a dinner party with the best appetizers, the best side dishes, and the best desserts, but someone forgot to bring out the main course. That's the feeling I got while watching GNIT. It has some of the finest actors in our area, including one immensely talented newcomer, but the central character doesn't really exist, no matter how many times he proclaims that he does. Although purposeful, it doesn't always make for enjoyable viewing.
Jon VanMiddlesworth as Peter Gnit tries his hardest, and talented as he obviously is, he's just not someone we want to follow here. He meanders around the globe, but we want to stay put and let him go. VanMiddlesworth has shown his skill in past productions; I recall him as a particularly sturdy Jack Crawford in Jobsite's Silence: The Musical and as a variety of characters, each effectively performed, in The Other Place. Here, he was given a near-impossible task; it's hard to portray a character who doesn't know who he is, or who lacks a distinct personality. Peter Gnit's purpose is that he's searching for a purpose, his truest self. "When you start sentences saying 'I,'" his mother tells him, "I don't even know who you're talking about." Imagine flavorless gelatin surrounded by tiramisu, bananas foster and chocolate mousse, and that's GNIT in a nutshell. It's like a version of The Last Supper where Jesus is left unpainted.
The show starts off slow, with an interminable scene between Peter and his sick mother (well played by Lynne Locher, who is astounding in her later inevitable death scene). The opening sequence goes on and on, with some very funny lines, but it all seems DOA until the second scene, with the much-needed entrance of two strangers (Meyer and Nick Hoop), to help burst the play to life. The supporting cast (along with Eno's classic, wacky one-liners) saves the show.
Enough accolades cannot be placed on Jonelle Meyer and Lauren Buglioli. Both of these local talents are very different in their approaches to the stage, but when you watch them perform, especially like here in a variety of roles, you are in for a treat.
Meyer makes her presence known the moment she hits the stage. She can just stand there, doing nothing, and just be, and she'll be funny. Some performers have that natural humor gene and some don't; she definitely HAS it. Meyer plays a variety of roles, from a bride to a Valley Girl groupie, from a case worker to the best of them all, a very funny pastor. I would rather sit and stand with her for two and half hours instead of following the exploits of the title void that forms the crux of the play.
As for Buglioli, I saw her almost two years ago when she made for one of the finest Sally Bowles in Cabaret I have ever seen. Strong work in The Great Gatsby was followed by her extraordinarily hilarious turn as a daffy nun in Disaster: The Musical. She's just as good here, another standout performance, with her Solvay exuding loveliness. In other roles, her bartender was particularly memorable. In another part, donning black, she looks like a character straight out of La Dolce Vita. And her auctioneer had me laughing out loud.
Nick Hoop, always a blessing onstage, also appears in numerous small roles, from the voice of the Sphinx to a Pale Man, each distinct and full of zest. Wearing round sunglasses at one point, he looks just like Alan Arkin in Wait Until Dark.
Newcomer TR Butler is a real find here, playing an entire town. It sounds strange, and it is, but it's quite striking to behold. It's like watching a person with multiple personalities talking to himself, dozens of people with various accents at the same time, each one very specific and equally funny. It's a cartoony gimmick, and he's like a cartoon character sprung to life, but it pays off. Watching him argue with himself is a joyous hoot. That said, there is oftentimes a sameness to some of the townies that he portrays, but this may be Eno's point.
Lea Umberger's set is quite creative, like a giant treasure map, or an old-style game board, a schizoid Sparksnotes Atlas. Colorless, incomplete, like Peter Gnit's character. Britney Remy's costumes work quite nicely (there are a myriad of quick-changes in this production). Anthony Vito's lighting gets the mood across without being intrusive; Matt Cowley's sound design captures a surprising earthquake and fire without overdoing it. The Igor Santos music sets the tone just right.
The props are interesting, especially handmade cardboard cutout weaponry, like something you'd find in the old Mr. Toad's Wild Ride.
Every city needs a theatre company like Tampa Rep--a company that produces smaller, edgier, more thought-provoking work. Some hit, some miss, and some are in that in-between state (like GNIT). But we're awfully glad they're here.
GNIT runs thru January 28 at Studio 120 at the University of South Florida (3837 USF Holly Drive, Tampa, FL). Seating is General Admission.