Earthquake Play Shakes but Fails to Stir

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The San Andreas Fault (Michael Uy Kelly) comes for “earth empath” Debórah Eliezer in foolsFURY’s Faulted.

Natural events don't get much more dramatic than an earthquake, and that experience is replicated in a visceral, bone-shaking way in Faulted, the world premiere that foolsFURY Theater Company has unveiled at Thick House. But seismic shifts alone can’t make a drama, and the often bizarre human interactions that propel Angela Santillo’s script left this viewer unmoved.

In theory a play about a huge impending earthquake should be a perfect fit for San Francisco audiences, but Faulted is very much a Los Angeles story. Aurora, an  “earth empath” who can sense earthquakes before they happen, lives  in a trailer in the San Fernando Valley.  A young researcher from Cal Tech,  Mitch, has come to study her and see whether and how this power of hers works.

Mitch (Sam Bertken) tries to appease girlfriend Noreen (Grace Ng) in foolsFURY’s Faulted.
Mitch (Sam Bertken) tries to appease girlfriend Noreen (Grace Ng) in foolsFURY’s Faulted.

Sam Bertken’s Mitch seems like your typical, straitlaced scientist (“Feelings are not scientific!” he maintains). He's also perpetually annoyed, and understandably so.  Aurora, as played by foolsFURY co-artistic director Debórah Eliezer, comes off more as a flaky hippie than a grounded soothsayer, even if we know from the beginning that what she’s saying is true. She’s maddeningly evasive about even the simplest personal questions -- not to any particular purpose but just because she’s so quirky -- and Eliezer plays her avoidance very broadly.  Mitch gets no respite at home, where his girlfriend, Noreen (Grace Ng),  micromanages everything he eats and says.  (Somehow  their exhausting conversations are the most amusing part of the show.)

But this world of human foibles and interactions is is barely half of the play, as indicated by Noor Adabachi’s diptych scenery, which shows  the cramped RV interior on one side and a jagged-edged, multilevel platform on the other, upon which personified fault lines live.

Gustavo Alonso and Paul Collins idly embody minor fault lines in foolsFURY’s Faulted.
Gustavo Alonso and Paul Collins idly embody minor fault lines.

On the geological side of the stage,  the fault lines just hang out together waiting to quake. They're the sort of diverse group who rarely hang out together in real life: Paul Collins’ Fernando is a leering punk-rock provocateur who can’t wait to stuff himself with In-N-Out Burgers until he bursts. (Earthquakes  here are likened both to upset stomach and near-sexual release.) Joan Howard’s athletic Susanna, clad in workout clothes, is chiding and fretful, trying to keep everyone under control so they won’t crack the beautiful freeways she can’t stop rhapsodizing about. And Gustavo Alonso’s Chatsworth, a jolly surfer type with blonde dreadlocks, is an inactive fault line and generally ineffectual dude who spends all his time gawking at people having sex. (I have no idea what that has to do with anything, although there’s the obligatory joke about the earth moving.)

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These two storylines run in parallel throughout the play, and it’s actually surprising how little they connect and, ultimately, how little either one of them matters. The real star of the show is the Big One that’s coming—and boy does he know it. Swaggering down the aisle in a leisure suit is Michael Uy Kelly’s Andreas, as in the San Andreas Fault, exuding menace and what might be called cockiness if he weren’t exactly as powerful as he thinks he is. He smoothly spouts inane doggerel about L.A. culture as if it were profound, literally practicing his Oscar acceptance speech from the moment he enters.

Sam Bertken, Grace Ng and Debórah Eliezer in foolsFURY’s Faulted.
Noreen (Grace Ng) goes ballistic on Mitch (Sam Bertken) and Aurora (Debórah Eliezer) in foolsFURY’s Faulted.

The most effective part of the show is not Santillo’s metaphor-laden dialogue, which is occasionally clever but more often grating, but the physicality of the performances, brought out dynamically by director Evren Odcikin’s staging. Aurora doesn't just drift off into her visions of coming quakes; she’s yanked and tossed around by them. As the lurking faults become fit to burst with pent-up energy, their movements become adrenaline-crazed and increasingly violent. And when that release finally comes, this production features probably the most credible and bone-rattling representation of an earthquake that I’ve ever experienced.

It’s a story that can’t help but be climactic, in the sense that it’s all leading up to one big moment that inevitably comes. But when it does, what’s striking is how little it means. We’re told over and over that something’s going to happen, and people and not-quite-people talk about what might be done about it, but the answer ultimately appears to be nothing. The ninety minutes of nattering and squabbling and assorted high jinks all comes to naught.

Maybe that’s appropriate in the sense that there’s not much anyone can do in the face of a force of nature like an earthquake. But it also has the effect of making everything that goes on in the play seem utterly without consequence.

Faulted runs through December 6, 2014 at Thick House in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit foolsfury.org.

All photos by Ben Yalom.