FIVE-ALARM ACTING SETS THE STAGE ABLAZE IN FIREMEN
After sixteen years of a nomadic existence, Echo Theater Company has finally found a permanent home at the Atwater Village Theater. If their world premiere production of Firemen is any indication, they’ll be burning up the boards in these new digs for a long time to come.
Set in rural Washington State during the Gulf War, the incendiary yarn tells the tale of forbidden love and the flames that fan it, leaving everything in its fiery wake torched and in ashes. It starts with middle school-student Ben sitting in a detention room being lectured by a teacher, Gary, for allegedly sending a note of an inappropriate and sexually suggestive nature to the Principal’s secretary Susan. Ben heads home to dinner with mom Annie, and tells her he’s in love, neglecting to add that the object of his affection is Susan: a grown woman, wife and mother of Kyle, a prepubescent boy for whom Ben has babysat. The sparks of desire ignite into heated passion, and the five characters mix and mingle in unexpected and often shocking encounters that smolder until the action erupts into a fully engulfed blaze.
Playwright Tommy Smith has a way with words. His dialogue is so natural and smooth that it flows from the actors’ mouths with effortless ease. As an audience member, you feel like a fly on the wall eavesdropping on real life conversations. He presents the theatergoers with a series of ethical dilemmas leaving them to wallow in their own confused and conflicted feelings. There is never an overkill of explanation to bore you to death with endless exposition. The moral judgments are left solely to the viewer. While some of the interconnectivity of the plotting seems a bit contrived, and the discovery and resolution of some of the more important issues a bit glossed over, they are merely minor distractions to the overall effectiveness of the piece.
I was a big fan of director Chris Fields’ work on A Family Thing, another excellent production from Echo Theater; he’s done an outstanding job yet again. There is a saying that in order to be a great actor you have to be willing to let down your guard and “show ass.” To do so, the director must create an environment in which the performers feel safe and secure. Based on the amount of figurative ass being shown on that stage, Mr. Fields has succeeded in spades. With his guidance, the cast excels and gives some of the bravest performances you are likely to see on any stage.
The entire ensemble is fantastic: As the love struck adolescent Ben, Ian Bamberg delivers a heartfelt and gut-wrenching portrayal. Even though Zach Callison appears in only one scene as Kyle, you will be knocked out by his deeply moving and accomplished work. especially considering his young age. The grown-ups do just as well. Rebecca Gray has layered Susan with so many underpinnings that she’s simply hypnotic to watch. Michael McColl gives one of the most naturalistic performances that I’ve seen in years as Gary; his interpretation is so pure and real it resonates on every level, never hitting a false note. As the single working mom struggling to survive, Amanda Saunders imbues the role of Annie with amazing pith, pathos and believability.
The simple set design by Angel Herrera divides the oblong space into three distinct sections with a wall of vertical blinds behind them. The stage is bookended by a bedroom and a living room, but the center section is multi-functional, serving as the detention room, dining room, restaurant, office and other locations I won’t mention for fear of giving away plot points. The blinds are opened and closed or swept back, affording lighting designer Matt Richter the opportunity to show off his abilities: His very effective illuminating goes from warm and inviting to cold and harsh at all the right times.
While the subject matter may be at times difficult to watch, you will be swept up in ecstasy witnessing the theatrical magic before you. It is simply a great production to usher in a new era of Echo Theater Company. Here’s hoping they keep the home fires burning.
photos by Jeff Galfer Photography
Echo Theater Company
Atwater Village Theater
3629 Casitas in Glendale
scheduled to end on March 16, 2014
for tickets, call (310) 307-3753 or visit www.EchoTheaterCompany.com