Review: The Gulf at Signature Theatre

TheatreBloom rating:

Do you ever stop and think about your life in reverse? Pause a moment and find that one moment where your life is exactly as it could be and allow that moment to wash over you and fill the gulf of emptiness and restlessness that occupies all human beings on one level or another. In an evocative new dramedy, award-winning playwright Audrey Cefaly delivers her latest work, The Gulf to Signature Theatre. Making its world premiere under Director Joe Calarco, Cefaly’s titillating new work traverses human interaction at its most basic level. Profoundly crafted with a striking emotional core, the play explores the notion of its title in every literal definition of the word, boldly and unabashedly plunging the depths of the dynamic relationship shared between the two characters. Innovative, jarring, and emotionally blindsiding there is an earnest conversation about the relevancy of the human condition unfolding before the audiences’ eyes; the magic of realism sparks conversation for hours thereafter.

Set in the Gulf of Mexico in the backwoods bayous of Alabama, the entirety of the play takes place in a small fishing boat. Scenic Designer Paige Hathaway captures the epitome of this locale with the stacked marble flooring and some hundred mason jars with twinkling lights inside of them. The skeletal framework of the boat itself, fondly reminiscent of the gargantuan horse-puppets used in War Horse, invites the audience into the world of the play and theatricalizes, with realistic suspension of disbelief, the world of this southern swampland in a vein of reality. The boat itself, which spins in a circular motion amid the theatre-in-the-round configuration, appears to move up and down the fictitious river without ever actually leaving its central spot. Combined with the mesmerizing efforts of Lighting Designer Andrew Cizzna and the enchanting soundscape composed by Sound Designer Kenny Neal, the world of the play becomes a living breathing third character which interacts with the two characters as much as they interact with themselves.

Maria Rizzo (left) as Betty and Rachel Zampelli (right) as Kendra in The Gulf by Audrey Cefaly
Maria Rizzo (left) as Betty and Rachel Zampelli (right) as Kendra in The Gulf by Audrey Cefaly Margot Schulman

Audrey Cefaly’s work is deceptively simple. Two women in a boat in the swamp out fishing, dealing with their relationship, and yet the vast complexities of their relationship dynamic are both overwhelming and stimulating. Cefaly articulates her work with nuance and finesse while doing so in the practiced patois of the gulf vernacular. Delivering a heaping ladle of Alabama in the dialogue, there is a surprisingly available emotional intelligence into the scenario which she has penned. Shutting out the noise of modernity, save for a wildly humorous political nod here and there, Cefaly removes this current day existence of her work from time itself and gives it an ephemeral and simultaneously eternal feel in the way the conflict arises, explodes, and eventually settles.

Unapologetically approaching the vicious cycle of dissatisfaction, as well as the juxtaposition of needing more from life verses being engaged and satisfied with what one already possesses, Cefaly’s work speaks universally to all relationships regardless of gender, though her focus in the piece falls to the shoulders of two women. Expertly articulate when it comes to echoing the themes of her work in broad strokes, there are great parallels between the two character’s topics of discussion and their experiences with one another. Raw moments of human vulnerability are threaded liberally throughout Cefaly’s work, showcasing her ability to not only understand humanity on a primitive level but to display it in a hauntingly relatable fashion.

Practically a poet for the imagery she crafts in her words, Cefaly provides each of the characters with meaty monologues that quickly gut the heart of their interiors and put the visceral feelings of these two women in prime view. A masterful playwright with a penchant for building tension that erupts in a shockingly unexpected moment, Cefaly lures the audience into the work one cast line at a time. Playing with memory, silences, argument structure, and a myriad of other subtly disguised theatrical devices, Cefaly folds the work in on itself and creates an evocative masterpiece that speaks on multiple levels to the mind, spirit, and soul of anyone who has ever found themselves in an unhealthy relationship.

Rachel Zampelli (left) as Kendra and Maria Rizzo (right) as Betty in The Gulf by Audrey Cefaly
Rachel Zampelli (left) as Kendra and Maria Rizzo (right) as Betty in The Gulf by Audrey Cefaly Margot Schulman

Director Jo Calarco’s one misstep in this production is not fully trusting the gravity and precision of Cefaly’s words. Just beyond the midway point of the performance, Calarco actualizes the representation of the mire in which the characters find themselves by physically taking them out of the boat for a moment of memory. The use of Cissna’s lighting design and Neal’s sound work are enough to trigger the moment clearly as a recollection without pulling them out of the well and consistently established physical perimeters of the play’s spatial allocation (being inside the boat as the boat is actively on the river.) This moment, as penned, is written with such clarity that this directorial choice smacks of overkill. This one scene aside, Calarco does an exceptional job of spatial awareness and relation with the two characters, balancing how they interact with one another, in addition to layering that over the tumultuous emotional force that surges ever present at the play’s center.

Maria Rizzo and Rachel Zampelli were all but written to play Betty and Kendra. Their working relationship is delivered in earnest with nothing but exposed emotional expression between them, even when they are withholding their full cathartic trajectory from one another. The give and take, push and pull, ebb and flow of the way these two women interact with one another is astonishing, truly investing the audience in their stories, their conflicts, their relations, and every intricate detail of their lives as it is exposed to us over the course of 85 minutes.

Rachel Zampelli (left) as Kendra and Maria Rizzo (right) as Betty in The Gulf by Audrey Cefaly
Rachel Zampelli (left) as Kendra and Maria Rizzo (right) as Betty in The Gulf by Audrey Cefaly Margot Schulman

Rizzo, as the gabby-gifted Betty, is— much like the work on the whole— deceptively simple. At first glance appearing to be nothing more than a free-spirited, chatty, energetic vibrator that simply cannot sit still, Rizzo mines the character for tremendous depth and unearths Betty one layer at a time as the play progresses. This sharp and striking contrast to the bristly, ‘backwoods basic’ approach that Zampelli brings to the stoic and deadpan-delivery of Kendra is riveting and draws the audience that much further into the situation. Both performers excel with their southern drawl and their overall textual delivery when it comes to speed and intensity. Emotional currents run hard through both characters, though Rizzo and Zampelli have vastly different approaches— each appropriate for their character— to channeling and conducting these feelings.

The moments of stillness, even when they do not occur in silence, which befalls the pair are as shocking and brutally engaging as the moments of high-octane action and movement— particularly once the play erupts to its climax. Zampelli and Rizzo, under Calarco’s visionary direction— with Cefaly’s phenomenal words in their arsenal— create a captivating experience which draws theatergoers into the unrelenting whirlpool of their relationship dynamic. The play itself feels fully complete but leaves you wondering, desperately questioning the outcome and there can be no finer achievement for playwright, director, or performer, than to know that the audience walks away with their mind riled and ready to ask questions.

 Running Time: Approximately 85 minutes with no intermission

The Gulf plays through November 6, 2016 on the Ark Theatre stage at Signature Theatre— 4200 Campbell Avenue in Arlington, VA. For tickets call the box office at (703) 820-9771 or purchase them online.

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