Noah J Nelson on Friday, Jun. 22nd
Continuing our coverage of the Hollywood Fringe Festival.
To be an audience member at a Fringe is to step into the role of prospector. You hope against hope that you will strike it big, and content yourself with whatever nuggets you can pull from the stream.
Zenith Ensemble’s production of Rise is staked out on a rich claim: Cal Barnes’ layered new play about a preacher confronted by the demons of his past in the form of an abandoned lover, come to test his faith and her own resolve. The text itself is exceptionally strong in terms of content: elements of the biblical story of Job are woven trough the play, and cliched story beats are turned on their head in such a way that they act as a twisting of the knife. However the structure of the play- a series of revelations that raise the stakes in an uneven fashion- might be holding back the play from the greatness it’s moment to moment strengths promise.
Brett Colbeth plays Henry Donner, here a hipster reverend in Los Angeles who has built up his “New Heart Church” from the ashes of his own substance abuse problems. There’s an earnestness to Colbeth’s portrayal that puts him beyond suspicion of being a religious hypocrite. That is not at stake here, but the question of whether he can hold on to his faith in the face of an ever mounting docket of past sins is.
His tormentor is Alexandra (Gowire Hayden), who at first seems like she might be a stalker, or even the devil himself come to test Henry’s Job. The first great revelation- and there is no way to discuss the play without discussing this- is that she’s the lover he abandoned in New York a decade past. She has finally tracked him down and seeks to either rekindle their codependent romance or find closure.
This first revelation asks a lot from the audience in terms of suspension of disbelief, setting a pattern that continues throughout the play. It is as much a matter of content as it is of the staging: the play asks us to believe that Henry is unable to recognize someone we come to understand is one of the most important people in his life– a difficult scenario to stage. As the story unfolds our credulity around that moment is retroactively stretched thinner and thinner.
Metaphorically the play is structured as a series of gates that the characters pass through- and with each step further into Henry’s own personal Hell the two actor’s are allowed to display more intimacy with each other. This makes for a gripping second half of the show when Colbeth and Hayden’s strong stage presences and chemistry is allowed to cut loose. However you can almost sense Hayden chomping at the bit to get to that part of the play. Is this character choice or a failing of the ensemble, as directed by Aaron Lyons to find the proper tension for the top of play through staging? Either way it’s muddled, and when the material is this rich that’s just shy of a crime.
Commendations are in order, however, because this is a difficult puzzle the group has taken on for themselves, and if a degree of precision that could match the energy and intensity of the second half of the play was brought to the first Rise could have some serious legs well beyond Fringe and Los Angeles.
As we stand at the moment, and to mangle my prospecting metaphor from our first graph, Rise is a diamond in the rough. Brought forth by the daring souls of Zenith Ensemble, this is the kind of work that makes the Fringe festival a noble endeavor.
Rise plays again tonight at 8:30PM and Saturday and Sunday, June 23rd and 24th at 4PM at the Theatre Asylum 6320 Santa Monica Blvs, Hollywood as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival.