After decades of reviewing theatre, opera, dance and other performances (Cirque de Soleil, for example) in the San Francisco Bay Area, I am continually amazed, in my three years plus residency in Los Angeles, at the stunning variety and quality of the LA Theatre scene. One expects excellence in the major venues like the Taper and Ahmanson, but it is in the small, intimate theatres that I find the most joy. This is not to say that I haven’t seen a few clunkers, the kind that had me scratching my head wondering how to point out the suckiness of a production, without resorting to snarky cruelty of the kind that made New York critic John Simon so loathsome to me. I don’t savage actors and I don’t rundown theatre companies. I do point out what I think are problems in script or direction, often making suggestions for how a performance or script might be improved.
An exemplar of a great theatrical reckoning in a little room, to borrow a phrase from the death of Marlowe, is the West Coast Premiere of William Francis Hoffman’s Cal in Camo, now in production at VS. Theatre, an extraordinarily intimate 35-seat venue. Impeccably produced and stunningly performed by the cast of four, the play is a searing family drama that went straight to the heart of this audience member. Tim (Brad Raider) is a fast talking salesman trying to convince a bar owner (Andrew Thatcher) to buy his line of fruity craft beer. Tim is an effusive talker, words flowing in a desperate shower as he tries to make a sale. When we first see Tim’s wife, Cal (Bree Turner), she too shows a certain desperation as she tries to express milk with a breast pump for her three-month old baby girl, to no avail. Cal, tall and thin, carries childhood baggage that makes motherhood problematic. Her husband also has family scars and together they show a low level of conflict, even though their affinity for each other is palpable. The plot thickens with the arrival of Cal’s older brother, tall, beefy Flynt (Tim Cummings), wearing nothing other than his hunter’s camouflage suit. He is taciturn and not particularly conversational. Tim has issues with Flynt that go back to his wedding, and Flynt’s presence threatens to upset what little balance prevails in the house. And the often heard crying of a hungry baby ratchets up the tension. As the play progresses the past is pried open, and each character reveals powerful depths of emotion in a brilliant, affecting display of ensemble performance at the highest level of the craft.
Amy K. Harmon directs Cal in Camo with bold sensitivity. Scenic designer Se Hyun Oh creates a dazzling, impeccably detailed kitchen set complete with double French doors opening up on a forest, which is lit with masterful nuance by Derrick McDaniel. Costumes designed by Gali Noy support action and character. Ubiquitous sound designer, Christopher Moscatiello, underscores the action continually throughout the play starting with baby cries off stage right and ending with…no. See the play. The stage is impeccably managed by Niki Armato.
Cal in Camo, presented by Red Dog Squadron and VS. Theatre Company, is produced by James Roday, Johnny Clark, Gabrielle Doheny, Andi Chu, and David Rock. Cal in Camo continues through November 16 at VS. Theatre, 5453 Pico Blvd. in Los Angeles.