“Madagascar,” J.T. Rogers’ mystery making its West Coast premiere at North Coast Repertory Theatre, begins like a lamb and finishes like a lion. Producing artistic director David Ellenstein said in his introduction to the play, “J. T. Rogers is an important new voice in world theatre and will be for many years to come. We are delighted to be premiering his work in San Diego for the first time.”
The play opens with three people in a hotel room above the Piazza di Spagna in Rome. June (Christy Yael), a young woman dressed in a thin, white nightgown speaks first. “If you choose to vanish you probably won’t be found,” are the first haunting words she says. June, along with her mother Lilian (Rosina Reynolds) and her father’s good friend, Nathan (Frank Corrado), unfold a powerful story through three different timelines: June’s a few days earlier, Lilian’s five years ago and Nathan’s the present.
June recounts that her brother is missing. A vibrant young man in his prime, Paul – referred to as Gideon by his mother – worked in Madagascar but always stayed in touch with his sister and mother. The last memories June recalls of him were at their father’s funeral, where she noticed something was amiss with her beloved brother.
Rogers uses a circular storytelling style to explain and unfurl this mystery. The set consists of a hotel room with a bed, a desk, two seats and two windows in which actual pictures of Rome or other elements significant to the play appear in them as the actors speak. The characters move about and address the audience one at a time, telling their own poignant version of how Paul’s disappearance affects them.
At first the lack of much physical activity and the fact that the actors never speak to each other, left me disconnected with the story. Yet, the more I heard Roger’s beautifully written, poetic and exceptionally delivered words, I was captivated.
Playing characters in a normal production requires talent. In this production, the three actors are required to be a storytellerwithin him or herself and show emotion, joy and heartfelt sorrow while examining his or her own actions in relation to each other and the missing Paul. The room itself is a character as they explore what they have in common in this particular place.
Yael is the least animated in the story as she explains June’s job as a tour guide, and the last time she heard from her brother and then went to Madagascar to look for him. In the moments when she explains their young lives together, her agonizing confessions that her mother always liked Paul best pull at your heartstrings.
Lilian’s role requires Reynolds to be sharp tongued and quick thinking as Lilian often jumps in and refutes other’s statements as they speak. Lilian is clearly refined, a world traveler and an overbearing, almost narcissistic mother. Working within the confines of the play’s style, Reynolds is a standout in dropping enough tidbits to keep the story captivating. But it’s her mesmerizing emotions of Lilian’s loss and need for regret that make every word spoken in the play that more enthralling.
Nathan is an odd duck in the scenario. A university economist and former friend of Lilian’s deceased husband, Walter, he was seduced by Lilian and ultimately became a prime player in her, June and Paul’s lives. It’s up to Corrado to demonstrate the culpability Nathan feels about Paul’s disappearance, along with his own anger and misgivings about his relationships with Lilian and June. Corrado excels at threading the needle that pulls the three character’s narratives together.
Beneath the subtleties of this story, Roger’s intent seems broader than pure entertainment, rather to make us question among ourselves who we are and what actually define our own conclusion of that answer. In the written-word world directive of “show” don’t “tell,” “Madagascar” is one play that throws that rule out the window. The play is well directed, thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking.
“Madagascar” runs through August 3. More information: (858) 481-1055,