Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Blog Exclusive Review: Hesperia at the Right Brain Project

Full Disclosure: Playwright Randall Colburn is a friend of mine, and I'm friendly with director Nathan Robbel as well. I stand by the fairness and honesty of the review, but take it as you will.

Searching for Redemption

(Billy Fenderson and Katy Albert)

The desire for redemption is powerful: who hasn't felt they have sins that need to be washed away? But the drive to get away from your own sins can hurt other people horribly. That's the conflict that animates Hesperia, the second play in the Randall Colburn season at the Right Brain Project. It's not a perfect play, but it does enough things exceptionally well to be well worth a trip.

Claudia (Natalie DiCristofano) used to be a porn star named Jess. But one year ago, she fled L. A. and her old life and ran to Hesperia, a small, conservative, evangelical midwestern town near the one where she grew up. She's engaged to Trick (Nick Freed), the local youth pastor, and feels that she's gotten beyond her past. But now Ian (Billy Fenderson), her former lover and porn partner, who went to LA with her, has also come to Hesperia, looking for the same solution.

It's a plot setup ripe for sensationalism, which Colburn entirely avoids. In fact, the play does a remarkably good job at showing the appeal of religious conservatism. It was quite a surprise for someone, like myself, who has never been particularly religious--I felt the sense of belonging, of having one's toughest problems cared for, that must make an overwhelmingly religious communities so sustaining. The play is full of revelations like that--Colburn has a razor-sharp eye for the details of human behavior, and it's a joy to see moment after moment that's funny, moving, and painfully recognizable. (The production certainly helps in this respect.) It's rare for a play to have so many uncomfortably honest moments, and something special for this reason alone.

But while the truth of the characters and situations and the quality of the acting (more on that later) make the show consistently interesting to watch, the plotting doesn't always help. There isn't much plot tension to hold the show together. A plot strand that should provide an air of tension and sense of urgency feels perfunctory and is poorly devloped, such that when it gets resolved it almost doesn't register. It's not that it was ever supposed to be a highly plotty show (or at least it doesn't seem that way). But at this point it still has moments where it feels meandering, even though it's less than 90 minutes long, and the ending doesn't pack quite the punch that it should. (I'd also like another play, or a second act, to see what happens to these characters in the next few years, but that's beyond the scope of this review.)

Robbel knows Colburn's work (they collaborated on Pretty Penny a few months ago), and he leads his actors to excellent performances. DiCristofano has the least knowable character onstage (Claudia keeps a lot back), but she's always believable and sympathetic, even at her worst. Fenderson is likable, if a little frightening, as a man overwhelmed by the chance to will his past away. Freed is exceptional, making a character who could easily be a buffoon into the most sympathetic one onstage. Katy Albert, as a potential love interest for Ian, gives a hugely appealing and natural performance, despite the fact that her subplot needs more development.

Hesperia isn't a perfect play (and I think that Pretty Penny was better), but it's still damn impressive, and the folks at the RBP clearly know how to showcase Colburn's work to its best advantage. It's worth checking out for anyone interested in quality new plays, and hopefully a prelude to bigger things from all concerned.

1 comment:

Ian said...

Well Done Mr. Valancy, as always your reviews make short work to get to the heart of the play, giving a fair and thoughtful account of exactly what the play is and what the play is not. As for Hesperia, you've certainly hit the nail on the head in its plethora of uncomfortably honest moments, the audience is really taken to a place where there isn't much to hide behind.