BWW Review: Dive into THE GULF - A Sexy and Edgy World Premiere at Signature Theatre
You have to hand it to Arlington's Signature Theatre. Never satisfied to rest on laurels, the Tony Award-winning regional theatre is certainly a force to contend with in the Metropolitan DC area and has made its mark with a number of musical shows over the years.
Signature is also committed to presenting new, non-musical works, and their current production may have only have two actresses on stage, it could be another title that has a huge impact at other regional theaters and beyond.
Audrey Cefaly's new play THE GULF is an exciting premiere to say the least. As funny as it is powerful, as tender as it is passionate, THE GULF reveals a pair of volatile lovers whose relationship is as sharp as a fishing knife - pointed and dangerous. As directed by Joe Calarco, the play is also a duo-de-force for the actresses who bring the love, sex and honky-tonk to a small fishing boat floating aimlessly in the Gulf of Mexico.
Calarco, director of recent Signature Productions such as THE FLICK and GYPSY, is the theater's Director of New Works. He discovered the play when DC playwright Cefaly submitted THE GULF to SigWorks Monday Night Reading Series, for which it was selected. Following the reading, Calarco and artistic director Eric Schaeffer decided THE GULF would be fully produced and included in the 2016-17 season.
During a lazy day, floating along the shallow waters of the Gulf of Mexico, Kendra and Betty playfully banter with each other, as only two lovers can do. With humor, biting wit, and a heap of honesty, Kendra and Betty's relationship is laid bare - the tenderness, the heat and the pain. Cefaly's two characters are no mere caricatures of gritty lesbians; there is an honesty and clarity shown in these infinitely fascinating characters. There is also a universality to Betty and Kendra; you think you know them, you might even be closer to them than you think - straight, gay, bi or any other permutation of human that can engage in a love affair and war affair with another human. If (some of us) live in this new world of "love is love is love," Kendra and Betty represent just one twisted equation. And it makes for theatre that grips the heart.
The playwright is served not only by the exacting and truth revealing direction by Calarco, but
the intense performances by two of the DC area's most gifted actresses: Rachel Zampelli as Kendra and Maria Rizzo as Betty. Given the intimacy of this production - the ARK Theatre is transformed into a microcosm of the gulf, completely surrounding the action with only a few feet to spare - Zampelli and Rizzo's dynamic and honest performances are achingly real.
DC audiences will recognize these two talents from a number of high profile productions. Rizzo was Louise in Signature's GYPSY two seasons ago, among several productions, and was featured in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF at Arena Stage. Prominent appearances at Olney Theatre Center and Keegan are also on her resume. Zampelli is also a veteran of such Signature shows as THE FIX, DYING CITY and MOTHER RUSSIA, as well as roles at Studio Theatre's 2nd Stage, and Olney Theatre Center, just to name a few.
As Kendra, Zampelli represents the home-body, the grounded one, who is never happier than fishing in her beloved skinny waters and sipping a beer. By contrast, Rizzo's Betty is the dreamer, the one with aspirations beyond their small town, beyond the Gulf. Opposites attract and Kendra and Betty share moments of unbridled passion for each other, to be sure. Their differences also lead to friction, and there upon they find a gulf that is more than just a body of water.
Zampelli and Rizzo share an easy chemistry between each other that makes the relationship beyond believable. They use the intimate setting to their advantage, with nuanced performances that allow for the smallest gesture to speak volumes. The wardrobe for the actresses, designed by Frank Labovitz, accentuates the steamy relationship and practicality of two women dwelling on a tiny boat in the heat of the sun. Kendra's comfortable tank top and oversized shorts contrast with Betty's short shorts and form-hugging camisole top. Wardrobe aside, Rizzo and Zampelli in THE GULF are two of the most riveting performances I have seen this season so far, among a slate of excellent productions, large and small.
The two actresses are aided by the magnificent design work by Paige Hathaway and Andrew Cissna, for scenery and lights, respectively. The aforementioned setting of the Gulf - rendered in stylized lucite, wood, and paint - is almost a third character. With subtle and dramatic lighting changes, and the ever shifting, skeletal fishing boat in nearly constant motion, the illusion of Kendra and Betty's odyssey on the water is realized in a stunning manner. Kenny Neal's sound design, starting with an orchestra of crickets and extending to a dreamy soundscape, enhances the production with a natural overlay.
THE GULF shows off and exciting new voice for the theatre in playwright Audrey Cefaly, coupled with two riveting performances. This is an eight week run in Signature's smaller ARK, so I predict ordering tickets early would be the only guarantee of getting swallowed up in THE GULF like I was.
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THE GULF by Audrey Cefaly
Running time, 1 hour, 20 minutes - no intermission. Be advised: this play contains adult language and themes.
Single Ticket sales, subscriptions/Groups: (703) 820-9771.
Signature Theatre • 4200 Campbell Avenue • Arlington, VA 22206
Photo Credit: MARGOT SCHULMAN