[NoHo Arts District, CA] – A NoHo Arts theatre review of Crimson Square Theatre Company’s production of “Belleville” by Amy Herzog, directed by Benjamin Burt, and running through November 20 at the Beverly Hills Playhouse.
“Belleville” feels at first like a study in entitled Americans abroad. But what begins as an exchange of power dynamics slowly turns into something far more sinister, psychologically mesmerizing and oddly, uncomfortably familiar.
We all have a story about someone who turns out to be the polar opposite of what we think they are. Of what they tell us, of what our preconceived expectations of who we want their roles to be in our lives force them into becoming. Boyfriends, parents, siblings, best friends, teachers, bosses…the list is endless. How do we ever really know a person? How can we trust our own judgment or temper our ideals and demands? Mental illness is everywhere, it’s become an excepted element in our everyday lives. Which is good of course, but it can also make us vulnerable. We accept behaviours that we should not. We tolerate in others who are close to us, lies and untruths and deliberate misleading narratives. It might begin as something small and forgivable. Something easily explained or even something that we barely notice, that has no real impact. But once we get used to little misdeeds, the slow slide into more dangerous territory is inevitable.
“Belleville,” named after the delightful and diverse neighborhood in Paris where the play is set, is also the name of an asylum in New Jersey, now closed. Which struck me profoundly as the story of this tragic couple unfolded. Abby and Zack are living in Paris while Zack works as a doctor with Doctors without Borders on AIDS treatments for children. Abby is drifting, barely working as a yoga instructor. She has some challenges with depression and may be bipolar. Zack seems to be the responsible one, making sure Abby is on her meds, taking care of her…but he is unraveling, fast.
Add to this his new friend, Alioune, who manages the building they live in and his wife Amina, who is concerned about his friendship with Zack and how that reflects on their position running the building. As the tensions build and the story of Zack and Abby’s life crumbles, we see that so much is off between Abby and Zack that just about anything could happen at any moment. And what seems like a sweet co-dependant relationship is really an unhealthy mess.
To tell you more would really spoil the play. Suffice it to say I was unprepared for the revelations. Athough, from personal experience, I really should have seen it coming…
“Belleville” is a brilliant play by Amy Herzog. It feels completely real, almost unnervingly so in places. The actors who play Abby and Zack, Heidi Ramee and Tomas Pais, are astonishingly good.
They twist and turn around each other, all passive aggression and undercurrent, with a sprinkling of resentment and a dash of regret. They appear to be in love, building a life together, but it’s all awash with guilt and fear and impending doom. Like those couples you see on holiday or hiking, or co-adopting at the pound, overly perfect, overly intense, overly in total agreement about everything. Trying so hard to please that they begin to compete with each other over who is the greatest partner.
This is more subtle than that, at least at first. But “Belleville” turns into something more scary than any horror film. Because it all seems completely plausible and an utterly possible scenario. Sometimes people are just so wrapped up in their own insanity that we don’t want to see it. It would be too much for our tiny brains.
Andrew Tyree and Olabisi Kovabel play Alioune and Amina perfectly. They love each other, they are a team, they respect their lives together and it is such a gorgeous dichotomy to Zack and Abby that when their characters come into the play in the second act it is their normality, their steadiness that pulls the scales from our eyes. So very clever.
I’m still thinking about this play and it’s been quite a few days now. It’s unnerving to recognise even a small part of our own lives in a play so fraught. But then that’s probably the point isn’t it. There’s crazy in the least expected of places and sometimes it is right under our nose.
I really don’t think I’ve seen a less than brilliant play from Crimson Square Theatre Company at The Beverly Hills Playhouse.
“Belleville” is a very, very clever physiological drama that dips into the pressure to be perfect. It questions our motives to fit in to each others dream of what our lives should be rather than just trust in our own individual journeys. It’s a truly excellent production and I urge you to see it while you still can!
Heidi Ramee (Abby)
Tomas Pais (Zack)
Andrew Tyree (Alioune)
Olabisi Kovabel (Amina)
DeMarcus Brooks (Alioune)
Sean McBride (Zach)
Yaya Ogun (Amina)
Shannon Spangler (Abby)
Amy Herzog – Playwright
Benjamin Burt – Director
Allen Barton – Mentoring Director, Owner of Beverly Hills Playhouse
Crimson Square – Producer
Faye Viviana – Executive Producer
Karla Kamm – Associate Producer
Derrick McDaniel – Lighting Designer
Jeffrey Sun – Head Stage Manager
Sandra Kuker PR – Publicist
Crimson Square Theatre Company’s “Belleville”
Runs through November 20
Friday and Saturday 8PM, Sunday 7PM
The Beverly Hills Playhouse
254 S Robertson Blvd., Beverly Hills, CA 90211