Stuart Bousel is having a heck of a year. The local playwright and director’s adaptation of Rat Girl, Throwing Muses singer/songwriter Kristin Hersh’s memoir, debuted at the EXIT Theatre’s DIVAfest in May, followed by his brilliantly funny romantic comedy Everybody Here Says Hello! in July. Now Bousel unveils yet another new play, Pastorella, about backstage drama in a small theater company’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. Like the rest, this one’s at the EXIT Stage Left, the same theater he's been returning to all year. Unlike the others, Pastorella is directed by Bousel himself under the aegis of his own company, No Nude Men Productions.
The setting is a dressing room, with racks of costumes, makeup tables, a few water bottles and other personal items. Outside the theater are posted headshots of all the cast, but the bios next to the photos are not for the real-life actors but the fictional ones they portray.
Despite the name, Pastorella has nothing to do with traditional shepherd plays about the nativity like the one El Teatro Campesino produces in San Juan Bautista (that would be Pastorela anyway). It’s very much a play about and for theater people, with lots of in-jokes about the plum roles and lesser ones in plays from Arcadia to Hamlet to Angels in America.
There isn’t really a plot per se, but there is drama. Perpetual supporting player Warren (Justin Gillman) resents his handsome boyfriend Josh (Nathan Brown) for always getting the lead roles and is terribly catty about it behind his back — he insists he’s snarky, not bitchy, but he’s kidding himself. If Josh is always cast as Hamlet, Warren’s always Laertes. Warren also has a terribly stilted habit of referring to himself in the third person: “Young man looks askance at the love of his life.” But Josh is hardly any better, callous and self-centered and seemingly none too bright.
Kat Bushnell is omnipresent but unknowable as Gwen, the new actor in the company, a fly on the wall who mostly listens quietly to everybody else. She does have a speech at the very beginning, but it’s hard to understand for several reasons — it’s mumbled, unnaturally bookish, and competing with another simultaneous monologue that’s much livelier. Gwen and Larissa Archer’s listless Anya — the director’s wife and seeming partner in running the company — have a scene together toward the end, but they remain the two vaguest characters in the play.
But then, there are a lot of characters, and most of them we really only know one or two things about. Valerie Fachman’s pricelessly haughty Bettina is a grande dame diva who’s supposedly seen much better days and much bigger stages, and her daughter Electra (Brandice Thompson) is a sulky starlet who’d rather be making commercials than doing theater. Ben Calabrese is amusingly overenthusiastic in his inane ramblings as the upbeat and very green first-time actor Toby, though his habit of making wide crazy eyes whenever Toby’s uncomfortable is unnerving. Andrew Chung’s Roy Wang is a boisterous dude-bro with a cringe-worthy habit of trying to talk “street,” and Charles Lewis III’s Cliff is a continually irritated stage manager with a small role in the play they’re putting on.
Of course we never see or hear even a tiny bit of Stoppard’s play, nor even hear much about it except for the names of the characters that people are playing. Aside from the pastoral titles of both Stoppard’s play and Bousel’s, in fact, it doesn’t seem particularly relevant which play the troupe’s putting on. The director, like Lord Byron in Arcadia, is never seen, though we don’t really hear enough to be particularly curious about him.
It’s an odd little play in which not much happens, and that’s clearly by design because there’s a speech about exactly that. Only Warren and Josh have any kind of dramatic arc; the rest are seemingly there just for a bit of flavor. Most of them get a chance to tell a story about their respective theatrical backgrounds, in a recurring device of two overlapping monologues on different sides of the stage that never quite clicks. Simple scene changes are oddly drawn out into lackadaisical sequences of people wandering around the room silently in blue light while various indie-pop songs play (Fleet Foxes, Trashcan Sinatras).
And yet there are terrific moments scattered throughout the show. When Warren and Josh finally have their inevitable clash, it’s raw and resonant and difficult to take. The pettish and perpetually texting Electra gives an unexpectedly marvelous and uncomfortably dead-on speech about how every ingénue role she’s had in the theater has involved rape. The show may be largely a theatrical in-joke, but every now and then it welcomes and even draws you into its insider world.
Pastorella runs through October 25, 2014 at the EXIT Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit theexit.org.
All photos by Cody Rishell.