Ringing down the curtain could very well spell curtains for an unsuspecting character in “At This Evening’s Performance” at the North Coast Rep.
A struggling company of classically trained actors is reduced to playing in the sticks of a fictional Eastern European police state in the 1970s. Heretofore, the thespians have had a hard time finding an audience. Lately, playhouses throughout the rural provinces are packed. It’s certainly not the acting chops of self-proclaimed artist Gunther Posnik (Bruce Turk), his grandiose wife Hippolyta Posnik (Katie MacNichol), ingénue Saskia (Sierra Jolene), heartthrob Piers (Paul Turbiak) and long-in-the-tooth trouper Oskar (Kyle Colerider-Krugh) that’s selling tickets. Instead, audiences sit in rapt attention awaiting a sign from one of the actors on stage. He is a member of a resistance movement and his secret signal sets in motion a daring plan for dissidents to escape to freedom in the West.
Gunther learns from stage manager Valdez (Richard Baird), who is a thug for the regime, that the authorities are wise to the scheme but don’t know who the traitor is. In order to plant fear in the mind of political agitators they plan to shoot an actor on stage at tonight’s performance after a certain line is uttered in the third act. But what line is the trigger (so to speak) and who will be plugged?
Gunther becomes convinced that he will be the target. This prompts him to confess his love for Saskia and clue in the rest of the cast to the fateful on-stage drama about to unfold. But unbeknownst to Gunther, Saskia plans to marry Piers who has been in a dalliance with Hippolyta. Oh, what a tangled web.
In walks not-to-be-trusted minister of culture Pankoff (John Nutten) who dangles in front of the actors what he trusts is an irresistible offer: Rat on the political enemy among them and be rewarded by being installed as the resident company in his newly created state theatre. There’s just one catch. They have to perform the cringe-worthy plays Pankoff has written. Perhaps being shot is preferable.
The actors take their places for what will be someone’s final performance and this is when the real fun begins as they weave and duck after speaking their lines and otherwise hide behind every piece of furniture, column, potted plant and pillow on stage. Did I mention Oskar has tripped on his toga just before the house lights dim and is out cold? His understudy is strongman Valdez who hasn’t memorized his four lines. Prompting from the wings has never been so uproarious.
Most of the action takes place in back-stage rooms that set designer Marty Burnett and prop designer Andrea Gutierrez have convincing outfitted with dressing tables, wig stands, prostatic body parts, overflowing costume trunks and Yorick’s skull resting comfortably on a shelf. Costume designer Elisa Benzoni has draped the theatrical troupe in fetching Shakespearean-worthy garb. Valdez is suitably menacing in black with leather gloves he constantly works with his hands itching for punishing action. Pankoff wears a mini-version of a Dracula cape over a business suit sporting a chest full of comrade-worthy medals. Can’t say enough about hair and wig designer Aaron Rumley whose tresses for the ladies defy both description and gravity. Light design by Matt Novotny; sound design by Aaron Rumley and fight direction courtesy of Benjamin Cole.
You couldn’t pull off a performance like this if there was a weak link anywhere in the acting chain. Happy to report this is a cast of forged steel under the solid direction of Andrew Barnicle.