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The Arts
08.13.08

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Phaedra

Too Hot : Gene Gillette explodes onstage as Pale in 'Burn This,' playing at Shakespeare Santa Cruz through Aug. 31.

Feel The 'Burn'

Variations on the theme of narcissism form the edgy backbone of 'Burn This,' Shakespeare Santa Cruz's final salvo.

By Christina Waters


Last weekend's performance of Lanford Wilson's Burn This blistered the paint right off the mainstage walls. The caution that this production is intended "for mature audiences" is no joke. Just in case anybody had missed the fact that this year's Shakespeare Santa Cruz festival has been completely revamped --psychodramatically speaking--Burn This is artistic director Marco Barricelli's in-your-face reminder.

An urban elegy to artistic ambitions and emotional emptiness, Burn This offers juicy roles for three men and one woman. In a spacious loft apartment we first meet Anna (Yvonne Woods) and Larry (Stephen Bel Davies) in the throes of confusion and grief over the death of their third roommate, Robbie. Anna's on-again, off-again romance with a wealthy Hollywood scriptwriter, Burton (David Arrow), is abruptly interrupted by the electrifying presence of the dead roommate's older brother, Pale (played with ferocious energy by Gene Gillette). As these four try to unpack their tightly insulated emotional needs, playwright Wilson unleashes an uneven barrage of brilliant social critique, letter-perfect gay cultural subtext and a surprising love story that almost achieves traction. Though it falls short in delivering the denouement it promises, the play provides enough gritty realism to keep Sex and the City buffs breathing hard.

Drama aficionados will be ensnared by Pulitzer Prize winner Wilson's attempt to work postmodern angst, the dream of artistic fame and the reigning self-involvement of our era against a gay Greek chorus provided by the delightful Davies. Unsure whether to be a tragic sitcom or a comedy of terrors, Burn This might have worked as a searing three-part series. At play's end, I couldn't help but feel that Wilson and his characters had only just found themselves, and that with a few more hours of development we might have been moved to the sort of discovery that great theater can inspire. As it was, I felt I had watched a rough draft of what might become a penetrating study of four people struggling with each other's epiphanies.

The set of Burn This is fantastic, with moody, believable ambient lighting by David Lee Cuthbert and a functional interior by set designer John Iacovelli. Director Michael Barakiva had seemingly endless talent to burn in the explosive Gillette, an actor whose expletive-laced speeches threatened to go nuclear. You could feel ears scorching and paint peeling as Gillette worked to the very edges of his character, haunted by the ghost of George C. Scott and just a touch of Tony Soprano. Gillette could have gone even further, but the playwright couldn't. Nor did the character of Anna, written as mono-dimensional and utterly unsympathetic. A workaholic dancer who begins to suspect that life might be more than just carry-out dinners and one-night stands, Anna had no chance, given the lack of chemistry between Woods and any of the other players.

Another key weakness in the play was the cardboard construction of Burton, a wealthy, entitled "success" whose vacant dialogue and clichéd gestures suggested Ben Affleck channeling Ryan O'Neal. Or maybe Robert Goulet in cashmere. Good as Gillette is--and he is a powerhouse--his character felt oddly dated, as though Jack Kerouac suddenly appeared on the stage, spouting beat jargon and getting all worked up. Perhaps that was Wilson's point--that what's needed in a jaded twilight of cultural history is a pistol of existential energy. But what's also needed to glue four restless characters together is something like believable motivation. Suddenly yelling, suddenly weeping--they take us for a wild ride, but we usually have no idea why. (Nor, frankly, do we much care.)

Burn This is four characters, each in search of a life, shot through with sudden moments of insight, explicit adult humor and gritty confessions, and a highly polished launch. This terrific production lacked only a more fully realized play in order to deliver what the audience wanted. It does, however, flesh out a season in which passion is the theme played out in a quartet of diverse dramas.


BURN THIS by Lanford Wilson, a Shakespeare Santa Cruz production, runs through Aug. 31 at indoor Theatre Arts Mainstage Theater, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $25-$44; see www.shakespearesantacruz.org for tickets and schedule; 831.459.2159.


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