The rest of America's loss is Long Beach's gain when it comes to Festen, currently playing onboard the Queen Mary in the new home of California Repertory Company. Cal Rep, the graduate theater arm of Cal State Long Beach's theater program, has bounced around at several venues over the past five years, but has apparently found a new roost in the Royal Theater, a very cool 99-seat theater tucked at the back end of the venerable ocean liner that's called Long Beach home for nearly 40 years.
And what a show artistic director Joanne Gordon has chosen to inaugurate her company's new space: David Eldridge's fascinating take on perhaps the mother of all taboos, incest. (Sorry for the spoiler, but it's pretty much impossible to write a review of this play without mentioning the sordid subject matter prominently. But take my word for it: you could know this play inside and out and still be mesmerized by both the writing, and Gordon's equally riveting direction).
Playwright Eldridge adapted his piece from the Danish film The Celebration, which was one of the first Dogme 95 Collective films. Having never seen that avant-garde piece of cinema, there's no way I can report how much Eldridge borrowed from that film. But if the movie carries a dollop of the power that Festen does, it's worth checking out.
The set-up is deceptively simple: it's the 60th birthday party for the patriarch of a family that is clearly well off, but just as clearly fractured. Christian, the oldest son, is a relatively successful restaurateur in Paris; younger brother Michael is a less successful café owner; daughter Helene is the Bohemian of the bunch. There's also mom, granddad and a couple of the old guy's lodge brothers at the party.
The enormous cloud hovering over the party is the death of Christian's twin sister, who passed some two months before. The three remaining siblings, whose relationships with each other and their parents are strained at best, have come together to both honor dad and to say goodbye to their lost family member.
There's a great deal of singing, dancing, drinking, teasing, spiteful backbiting and good-natured ribaldry, but it's all a smoke screen, at least for Christian. He's there to finally spill the truth about what dad did to he and his twin some 30 years before. It's a bomb, to say the least, but rather than devastating the family, the news reveals the deep fissures in the clan's dynamic. There's denial, anger, guilt, blame, all of them understandable, but none of them easy to deal with. To watch the family fragment into various alliances should be horrible; but this train wreck is impossible to not be fixated by.
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A synopsis of the plot doesn't do Eldridge's intense script justice, nor does it even remotely capture director Gordon's frenetic, frequently astonishing staging. While each member of the ensemble attacks his or her roles with gusto, Gordon is the real star of this production. Honestly, I can't remember a play in the more than 10 years I've reviewed theater for OC Weekly that was so masterfully directed. From her use of the entire space--audience and backstage--to her use of actor-supplied audio effects and a wonderfully effective two-minute soliloquy of perfect silence, Gordon builds each moment to its relentless climax and sobering denouement.
It's an exhilarating production of a play that did great business in England during its initial 2004 run only to bomb in New York two years later. According to Gordon, the playwright was so pissed about his poor reviews he swore to never produce Festen in the U.S. again. But after relentless wrangling the play's producer, Gordon finally acquired the rights.
Based on this production, it's clear that Festen is a monumental piece of theater--and that New York critics must have had their collective head up their collective ass when it touched down in New York. As unsavory as the subject matter may be, Festen is an incredibly powerful play and this is an exceptionally executed production.
Festen produced by California Repertory at the Queen Mary's Royal Theater, 1126 Queen's Hwy., Long Beach (562) 985-5526. Tues.-Thurs., 8 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 6 p.m. Thru Oct 17. $16-$20, www.calrep.org.