By LIZ BYRON. In old western movies, the good guy wears a white hat, and the bad guy wears a black hat. In Gabriel, the good guy (good lady?) wears a pretty dress and the bad guy wears a Nazi uniform, which seems rather unsubtle, but as the play unfolds, the divide between right and wrong and good and evil is shown to be less clear. Difficult questions arise: Do the ends justify the means? When does pragmatism win out over conscience? Do the needs of the many, indeed, outweigh the needs of the few? What if the “many” are strangers and the “few” are your loved ones?
These are all serious food for thought, and yet I never felt like I had the time to chew on them, because the story is so dramatic and fast-paced. Abstract questions on the nature of good and evil seem less pressing than questions like, “Is the Nazi Major going to shoot the girl in the next two minutes?” Ultimately, Gabriel is an intense experience with a compelling plot, but never feels like it delves into the deep philosophy as much as might be expected.
Gabriel tells the story of a household of four women living in the Nazi-occupied British island of Guernsey, and their uneasy co-existence with their German oppressors. Things get even more complicated when the women rescue a young man who literally washed up on the shore, only for him to awake without any memory of who he is. He can speak English and German fluently, and is well-educated, but has no clue as to his nationality or his history. This mysterious stranger draws the attention of a Nazi officer, and his scrutiny of the household is particularly unwelcome since one of the four inhabitants is secretly a Jew, two others are working the black market, and the fourth is a little girl with a penchant for “haunting” the Germans’ camp in hopes of scaring them off.
So, who is Gabriel, this handsome young man who doesn’t know his own name and accepts the ones his saviours invented for him? A local man gone mad? A shipwrecked SS officer? An angel? I couldn’t help but think that I should be more curious about the answer to that question than I was, but when it comes down to it, Gabriel isn’t about Gabriel; it’s about the women in whose home he lands. In fact, Gabriel himself seems more like a prop or maybe a plot device than a character; he exists to elicit reactions from the four women (well, three women, one girl). This may sound like a criticism of the actor, but it isn’t; Ross Destiche does an impressive job of what must be a difficult role: playing somebody who doesn’t really exist. No past, no real personality; just a blank slate.
Gabriel is a dramatic piece, with just enough dark humour to break up the tension from time to time. It’s a really well-produced play. A few fumbled lines aside,
the acting is solid – Katherine Kupiecki as matriarch Jeanne Becquet is confident but conflicted in a performance strong enough to anchor the play just as Jeanne anchors her family, and my hat is off to Wade A. Vaughn who played Major Von Pfunz as creepy with just enough human idiosyncrasy to keep from being a caricature. Lily Wangerin as the young girl, Estelle, gave an excellent performance as well – frequently I cringe at the prospect of children with more than a handful of lines, but Ms Wangerin was convincing and endearing as the high-spirited Estelle, and warranted a “brava” not for being a good child actor, but for being a good actor, full stop. While I’m praising people, kudos to Steve Kath for his great set. Sets aren’t usually the first thing to jump out at you as remarkable, but in this case, I was impressed by the design and functionality; the stage at the Minneapolis Theatre Garage is not huge, but Koth’s sets with Tony Stoeri’s lighting create a space that feels very much like a cramped, slightly ramshackle cottage.
I would be remiss if I didn’t warn you that this is a longer show (2 hours, 40 minutes with one intermission) and the seats are not the most comfortable in the world; they are hard, and by the end of the first act I was wondering if I could ball up my wrap and use it as a pillow to get me through the second act.
Ultimately, Gabriel was a solid piece that tells a compelling story, but it wasn’t the experience I was expecting. The ethical and philosophical questions posed never felt that important; nor did the titular character. But then, not every outing to the theatre has to launch an existential crisis and a questioning of what it means to be “a good person”. In the case of Gabriel, a strong, exciting plot performed by a solid cast, is certainly enough to make it worth your while.
Gabriel by Moira Buffini, performed by Walking Shadow Theatre Company. September 26-October 11, 2014 at Minneapolis Theatre Garage, 711 West Franklin Ave, Minneapolis, MN. Tickets $22+, with “pay what you can” night Mon, Sept 29, audio-described performance on Sun, Oct 5, and ASL-interpreted night on Thurs, Oct 9. Tickets at www.walkingshadowtheatre.org
Note: updated 8/28 22:06 to correct spelling of set designer’s name.