SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va., July 18, 2012 – Wrapping up our series of reviews highlighting the plays of CATF 2012, we’ve saved the best play—in our opinion at least—for last, namely Bess Wohl’s weird, quirky, exasperating, funny, tragic and occasionally even inspiring Barcelona. That Spanish city was recently in the news for its popular rioting against their government’s latest attempts to contain the country’s fiscal mess. But Wohl’s Barcelona addresses an entirely different kind of mess, one that’s emotionally up close and personal.
In a nutshell, this is a character-driven play if there ever was one. Barcelona functions without a discernable plot. Or so we think. Ditzy American blonde Irene (Anne Marie Nest) has been waging a non-stop, pre-marriage bachelorette party in Barcelona with a few offstage gal pals in tow. But when we meet her, she’s clearly had quite a few too many adult beverages, and is escorted into a messy, jumbled-up apartment by the middle-aged Spanish guy (Jason Manuel Olazàbel) that she picked up in the bar. Or was it the other way around?
In any event, it looks like it’ll be a convenient one-night stand for them both. But, as we gradually learn, things are a lot more complicated for each of these lonely people than either might have thought. Each is en route to a final reckoning with past lives, loves, and sorrows, and neither is prepared for the way things will eventually start working themselves out.
Barcelona is a deviously clever play. It runs the gamut of emotions, from deep emotional sorrow to unrestrained joy, keeping the audience guessing at every turn. The cleverly buried plot unfolds via good, old-fashioned stream-of-consciousness, and there are plenty of sub-threads buried in it to keep things interesting and outcomes tough to guess.
If we give much away here, we’ll spoil the fun for those who have not yet been lucky enough to see this bizarre little one-act masterpiece. But we’ll try to convey the flavor. Irene initially comes across as a wanton, airheaded party girl who’s ready and eager for a one-night hook-up with an exotic unknown whose name she can’t even remember. (It’s Manuel, but, to his ongoing irritation, she keeps addressing him as “Manolo.”)
Irene has a potty mouth, a limited vocabulary, and seemingly less intellectual capacity than a Valley Girl with an IQ of 80. As portrayed by Anne Marie Nest, she’s the hands-down funniest character we’ve seen in many years of attending plays at CATF. She talks nonstop, flowing effortlessly from one non-sequitur to another, to the consternation and occasional irritation of her would-be Spanish host who gradually reveals himself as a bitter yet sophisticated and even elegant man who is crushed by the heavy weights of sorrow and regret.
In the course of their evening together, both Irene and Manuel, at first tentatively, then more forcefully, compel each other to deal with their various demons, leading to some truly shocking and tragic revelations. And as events unfold, the play finds itself tentatively inching toward what could be a fascinating love story, although its final act may have to play out in the audience’s minds as they leave the theater.
Wohl is still a young playwright, but Barcelona shows that she already has gained an uncanny mastery over the art and science of indirect storytelling. Her dialogue at times seems ridiculously simplistic, but that, too, conceals her art, as even commonplace, repeated tales and endless casual vulgarity eventually prove to be layered masks behind which fear and tragedy lurk. It’s almost as if, as Wohl set out to write this play, she pondered at great length that wonderful line from Emily Dickinson, “Tell the truth but tell it slant / Success in circuit lies.”
Wohl is actually dealing with some serious, complex, deeply personal issues in this play but you’d scarcely know it given Barcelona’s nearly non-stop, whirling dervish-style entertainment value. Wohl seems to have remembered what playwright Bob Clyman sometimes forgot in his CATF play The Exceptionals which we reviewed elsewhere: show it, don’t explain it; and a work of art should delight as well as instruct. Stuff comes at you in this play when you least expect it. Its two characters continue to surprise even after you think you have them pegged.
The play itself, in a way, is a gift to any pair of actors who undertake it. But this production has also been blessed by its casting of two amazingly talented players who inhabit each role.
Anne Marie Nest, whom we’ve seen and admired in this play festival before, is at the top of her game here as Irene. Attractive, energetic, and above all, absolutely fearless, Nest grasps the essential goofiness, wildness, and, paradoxically, the hidden fragility of the nutty but not really-so-nutty-at-all Irene whose fears of a deadly dull future life can only find expression in ridiculousness. Nest’s virtuoso performance in this play is all-in. If CATF handed out its own version of the Tonys at the end of each festival, Nest would cop the Best Actress award hands-down for her performance in Barcelona. It’s that great.
Which doesn’t take a thing away from her male counterpart, Jason Manuel Olazàbel. To characterize his portrayal of Manuel as admirably fulfilling a classic “straight man” role is to entirely miss the point of what’s going on in this play. Like Irene, Manuel is dealing with serious, tragic forces that don’t allow for a means of escape. The fact that he’s older, more serious, perhaps more mature on most levels, doesn’t lessen his tragedies but instead serves to magnify them, as his old-fashioned definition of manhood requires that he bottle things up inside.
Manuel’s very taciturnity speaks volumes as Irene is able to grasp. And in so doing, the beginnings of change, the possibility of possibilities is born in them both. As portrayed by Olazàbel, Manuel is the perfect foil for the hyperkinetic Irene, which allows, in the real and metaphorical darkness, a potential for blending both elements.
Better yet, even though it’s initially imperceptible, there is a phenomenal, electric chemistry that grows between these two characters, and you can feel it. We actually saw the play twice, and this intensity only seemed to grow in the later performance, which was quite remarkable.
But Barcelona also manages to execute a hat trick here as well. It’s a great play. It’s presented by a pair of great actors, too. But the entire production benefits by the empathetic and economical direction of Charles Morey who feels for his characters but gives them room to let things out, even in the cramped messy, moving-day apartment where all the action takes place. Along with Wohl’s plot and characters, Morey gives his actors the space to create and grow, and that says a lot.
So, if we’re leaving you with the conclusion that, in our opinion, Bess Wohl’s Barcelona was the standout play in CATF 2012, well, you’ve got it right.
For this reviewer, the gold standard for any play is whether the magic happens. Some plays and performances have no magic. Some display tantalizing flashes of magic here and there leaving you frustrated and wishing for more. But the magic in CATF’s production of Barcelona bursts forth gloriously from the outset and never stops. It follows you out of the theater, into your car, and long into the night which, somehow, seems to have become magical itself.
Rating: **** (Four stars.)
CATF plays run through July 29, 2012. For tickets and information, visit the CATF website.
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