American Ensemble Theater’s production of Bobby Gould in Hell is the strongest production I have seen in a long time. The witty language, strong acting, and creative set kept me on the edge of my seat for the entire play.
The show started with a premiere of a short play, Navigating Turbulence, written by Zachary Fernebok, American Ensemble Theater’s playwright in residence. Directed by Kirsa Cowan and starring Matt Sparacino, the play follows a pilot whose goal is to navigate through hell. The story is based on the Charles Lindergh case, and explores Lindbergh’s emotions revolving around the death of his son. Sparacino’s energetic acting helps to provide a good transition into the story of David Mamet’s comedy.
Bobby Gould in Hell, directed by Tom Prewitt and written by David Mamet, tells the story of Bobby Gould (Slice Hicks), and his interrogation in Hell. The Interrogator (Anthony van Eyck), or who we assume to be the devil, has to cut his fishing trip short in order to deal with Bobby’s case. As a result, his main goal throughout the play is to force Gould to admit he is an evil man as quickly as possible.
Mamet’s quick and witty language is brilliant. The story itself is always escalating in drama and I found each new turn of events drew me into the story even more. This was not my first Mamet play, but his ability to combine wit and offensive language in order to make a statement on society leaves me awestruck every time.
Steven Royal’s beautiful set consists of a pile of gold objects in the center of the stage and a gold ladder off to the side. On top of the gold mountain sits a golden throne, which later becomes the interrogation chair. When I have seen plays about hell in the past, the set usually consisted of the cliché red and orange flames. I enjoyed the creative spin on Royal’s set and when combined with the tight feel of the black box theater, it helped draw me into the play.
Prewitt’s use of the set in his staging makes the play even stronger. I found the special relationships between actors extremely interesting. For example, when the Interrogator is verbally attacking Bobby, there is always a large amount of distance between them. In the beginning of the interrogation for instance, Bobby is sitting in the gold throne while the Interrogator is standing on the ladder on the other side of the stage. However, when the two characters are collaborating and in an attempt to finish a joke, they are standing close and on equal levels.
I was also glad to see that Prewitt did not fall into a trap that I have seen countless times in other plays. When there is repetition in a story line, such as Bobby’s multiple attempts to escape, I have seen many directors simply use the same staging each time. Prewitt, however, added change, which helped keep me intrigued. For example, the first time Bobby tries to escape, he uses the door at the back of the stage. The next time, he uses a door behind the audience, and the last time Bobby attempts to escape, he uses the back door again, but this time, a giant orange bear walks out and beats him up.
The acting is fantastic and never failed to impress me. The Interrogator’s Assistant (Mikael Johnson) does not have as many lines as some of the other actors, but his physical comedy is spot-on. Most of his staging involves keeping notes about the interrogation, but his reactions to the lines are outlandish and even when he was not the focus of a scene, my attention was constantly drawn to him. Eyck portrays a very convincing Interrogator and provides an interesting spin on the popular idea of “the devil” with his costume involving a Hawaiian shirt and khaki shorts. He successfully performs each ridiculous scene with a certain sense of seriousness that only adds to the humor of the play. For example, when Bobby claims that nothing is black and white and therefore he was a good man, the Interrogator whips out a stuffed panda in order to disprove the claim. The outlandish action caused the audience to burst out laughing, but Eyck acted as if nothing was out of the ordinary.
Liz Dutton (Glenna) plays the perfect crazy, high maintenance ex-girlfriend, and Hicks’ awkward businessman approach to Bobby – provides a strong performance and makes his journey of self-awareness even more fun to watch. He creates a believable character whose innocence, despite all of the sins he committed, made me root for his success.
American Ensemble Theater’s production of Bobby Gould in Hell is one helluva great production. Mamet’s witty language combined with a great cast – makes this a ‘Must See.’
Running time: 75 minutes, with no intermission.
Bobby Gould in Hell plays through June 9, 2012 at American Ensemble Theater – at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop – 545 7th Street, SE, in Washington DC. For tickets, call 1-800-838-3006, or purchase them online.