Review: ‘The Gulf’ at Signature Theatre

Signature’s premiere of The Gulf written by Audrey Cefaly is a daring dark venture about two women entwined with heartache and sadness. It is a scorching two-hander character study that takes place in the cramped intimacy of a small boat that is just plain stuck in some wicked shallows; the shallows of some backwater Alabama gulf coast tributary and the deeper shallows of two unhappy people stuck together by habit after 6 years of their relationship.

Maria Rizzo and Rachel Zampelli. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Maria Rizzo and Rachel Zampelli. Photo by Margot Schulman.

The Gulf richly traffics in both silence and the abundant pent-up forces of two people past the first passions of love. The two characters are those beyond those seen before on DC area stages; working class women from a small town in Alabama who are not written to be or acted as comic raging caricatures. Rather, the two are candid, honest and damn real with Cefaly’s handsome, award-winning script (the play was adapted from a one-act version, which won the 40th Annual Samuel French Off Off Broadway Short Play Festival, 2015) as the production’s fine bones, the sure hands of director Joe Calarco (The Fix) who knows his way around holding actors still to build tension through silence and the breathtaking, fearless acting prowess of Maria Rizzo and Rachel Zampelli.

What the audience witnesses in the purposely cramped confines (kudos to scenic design by Paige Hathaway for the inventive use of a turn-table and a myriad of mason jars, along with the skeleton of a dingy) of Signature’s ARK is way more than “just” two women stuck on a boat, with plenty of lust, love, betrayal and violence (with eye-popping physicality choreographed by Casey Kaleba).

What the audience truly witnesses is likely known to them perhaps in different circumstances. What happens after the first bright blush of love is gone? What’s next after the initial great sex isn’t strong glue as “flaws” begin to appear in one’s love object?

The set-up for the The Gulf is simple enough. It’s a deceptively tranquil summer evening, as Kendra (Rachel Zampelli) and Betty (Maria Rizzo) are fishing. Well, at least Kendra is. Betty is verbally picking at Kendra about her dead-end life working in a sewage plant. She is using the book What Color is Your Parachute as her designate weapon against Kendra. Then their little craft has a breakdown, and so do they. The gulf is no longer just a term for water, as palpable disturbances take place in the vast space between them. From teasing humor, to the nasty way each pokes at long standing grievances to verbal and physical violence, the two are locked together, like fighting cats. The claws are out and neither can extricate from the other.

As Betty, Rizzo is a sensation as the chatty, jokey, colorful story-telling about cats, bar-tender character who wants to leave the local, dead-end area to attend community college to become a social worker.  But over time, she shows her own desperations and pain. She calls herself “insatiable” when it comes to her desires for intimacy and contact. Will her needs sabotage what she has with Kendra?

As Kendra, Zampelli is presented at first glance as a taciturn, distant almost numb in appearance reactive type. We can watch her grit her teeth and set her jaw as Rizzo talks and talks about the detritus of the day.  She is a volcano, with the hot lava ready to spew forth; waiting and waiting and then into a spectacular explosion. She is slow to explore as she spews her own hot words to Rizzo like, “You look down at me” or, “I am not the answer!”

And the explosion comes with the conking out of motor and the smell of roses. And you will not believe what happens a few feet from your own eyes.  The power of it, the unexpected nature of it. Lives of pain going into a great eruption in which Zampelli and Rizzo match any on-stage physical encounter I have seen before. And it feels both necessary and right.
Let me add this as a coda: Both Rizzo and Zampelli are always in the moment.  They are who they are; they don’t swerve and veer or try to catch a breath and hide somewhere.

The production is well-served by veteran costume designer Frank Labovitz’s everyday fishing boat grunge look of outfits, as well as the slowing darkening lighting design from Andrew Cissna. Kenny Neal’s sound and music design was a quietly resplendent underpinning of the visual work, the Delta electric slide guitar blues, and then Aretha Franklin as a marvelous musical moment.

The Gulf continues Signature’s impressive use of its ARK space for non-musical productions filled with abundant bite and arresting production values.The Gulf also has several great comedic lines about Chef Boyardee, Ritz crackers, and using EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer), and one well-placed ‘political’ piece of dialogue that is, as they say, priceless.

Rachel Zampelli and Maria Rizzo. Photo by Margot Schulman.
Rachel Zampelli and Maria Rizzo. Photo by Margot Schulman.

Signature’s premiere of The Gulf is a bundle of pent-up frustration and desperation of two women wanting to be free – but needing help to be set free. The portrayals by Maria Rizzo and Rachel Zampelli will be talked about beyond DC, as they should. They set a high bar for those who come after them, when The Gulf become a play produced through the United States, as I am sure it will be. The parts are meaty, the situations universal, and the writing of Cefaly a marvel of details built on silence as well as language.

Running Time: Approximately 80 minutes, with no intermission.

The Gulf  plays through Sunday, November 6, 2016 at Signature Theatre – 4200 Campbell Avenue, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771, or purchase them online.

Magic Time! “I Think About How Badly I Can Break a Heart Today”: A Q&A with Audrey Cefaly, Author of ‘The Gulf’ at Signature Theatre by John Stoltenberg.

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