By C. Denby Swanson; Directed by Hamilton Clancy
Produced by The Drilling Company
Off Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 3.26.18
North of History, 445 Columbus Avenue
by Asya Danilova on 3.15.18
Jane Bradley, Rachel A. Collins and Brandi Varnell in Gabriel: A Polemic. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.
BOTTOM LINE:A theological debate on women’s reproductive rights and sisterly support are at the center of C. Denby Swanson’s relevant play.
Did Mary willingly agree to bear Jesus? Did she have a choice? Susan (Jane Bradley) poses this question to her guests at a weekly Saturday pot luck dinner, starting a heated, nearly 90-minute debate. C. Denby Swanson’s timely play, Gabriel: A Polemic, bears that subtitle for a good reason. Nearly all the time at the table is spent arguing about female reproductive rights and the moral implications of choice.
In the Drilling Company's production, the four women on stage are bound by the Christian faith and by their individual reproductive issues. But despite their common religious beliefs and personal struggles, their sisterhood is threatened by the single question: “Did Mary have free will?” As Susan puts on a hilarious puppet show of the Annunciation, using cutlery for the angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary, and a napkin for the Holy Ghost, everybody is ill at ease. Jennifer (Brandi Varnell), always with a Bible verse at the tip of her tongue, strongly disapproves of her sister’s frivolities with scripture. Brenda (Rachel Collins), for the most part shadowing Jennifer, quickly gets overwhelmed from being a buffer between the two feisty sisters. Finally Louise (Elaine Ivy Harris), the “prodigal daughter” of the group, shows up late and takes the discussion in a new direction.
A fair amount of Gabriel is spent discussing food and eating. Swanson uses this as another window into a person’s soul. Jennifer is skilled and proud of her sophisticated culinary technique. Susan takes equal pride in ordering delivery, yet makes a cheesecake for this particular dinner, which has its grand entrance accompanied by "Also Sprach Zarathustra." This moment and the following dynamic, physical scene between Jennifer and Susan liven up the play greatly, though it does seem odd to go on with a civilized dinner and conversation afterwards.
The play is firmly anchored around the dinner table, a risky move considering how stale such scenes can look in the theatre. However, the layout works, especially in the intimate space of the North of History gallery, with audience members seated in a single row around the table, like an outer circle of sisterhood. Director Hamilton Clancy embraces the realistic dialogue and stages the entire dinner very subtly, with no unnecessary movement, allowing the words to be heard. (Be aware that you won’t see everybody clearly at any given time. My side of the audience only saw the back of one actress throughout the show, which I actually found clever.)
Gabriel presents an honest and relevant conversation with witty jokes and compelling characters portrayed by wonderful actresses, though it might benefit from being shortened. Despite Swanson’s intention that everybody at the table be heard, audience members are likely to dismiss some of the views expressed because of personal biases. Yet the random choice of your seat will, in a way, determine who you will “side with,” making Gabriel’s impact somewhat different for each observer.
(Gabriel: A Polemic plays at North of History, 445 Columbus Avenue, through March 26, 2018. The running time is 90 minutes with no intermission. Performances are Mondays at 8, Fridays and Saturdays at 8, and Sundays at 7. Tickets are $25 general admission, $20 for seniors and students and are available at drillingcompany.org;by calling 212-868-4444.)
Gabriel: A Polemic is by C. Denby Swanson. Directed by Hamilton Clancy. Scenic Design by Jennifer Varbalow. Lighting and Technical Design by Eric Nightengale. Dramaturgy by Maggie Rothberg. Stage Managers are Niamh Ryan and Denis Hough.
The cast is Jane Bradley, Rachel Collins, Elaine Ivy Harris, and Brandi Varnell.