As the French say: “plus ce change, plus c’est la meme chose.” And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Especially when it comes to the medium of the stage where ideas, words, and insight become the tools of actors as a way of engaging their audiences into accepting old concepts and making them new again.
Playwright Lee Blessing, back in 1988, debuted his fact-based drama “A Walk in the Woods,” about two arms negotiators; one American John Honeyman (J.Todd Adams) and one Russian Andrey Botvinnik (David Ellenstein), is now wowing audiences at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach, CA
The late ’80s were especially nervous times of great peril for all mankind. Nuclear powers America and Russia had been adversaries for forty years. Several times each side came close to a nuclear-fueled shooting war. Ronald Reagan publically asked, then Soviet Chairman Mikhail Gorbachev, during a speech while in Berlin, shouted “ Mr. Gorbachev … tear down this Wall.” The Berlin Wall did indeed, come tumbling down in 1989, bringing the old Soviet regime with it; allowing the world to once again breathe a welcome sigh of relief.
Theatre savvy North Coast Repertory Theatre (NCRT) Artistic Director David Ellenstein, continues to select interesting and compelling stories to present on the stage of NCRT. His choice of playwright Lee Blessing’s penetrating drama “A Walk in the Woods,” was a prescient decision. Today’s unstable political climate is just as jitteringly relevant in 2019 as it was in in the 1980s, perhaps, even more so.
Blessings’ tale of two diplomats vying for a solution to an escalating arms race of short-range missiles is intriguing to watch as we follow their secret meetings over a period of a year in a wooded area outside Geneva, Switzerland.
The diplomatic dialogue in “Woods” is cleverly leavened with humor as a way engaging the audience. Wary of one another at first, Honeyman and Botvinnik’s discussions revolve around the work at hand. Eventually, their collaboration leads to mutual respect, and a genuine friendship is forged. Unfortunately, their superiors are still locked into old cold war rigid suspicions mode.
Two-character plays by their nature are talky and challenge the attention span of audiences. But this production is brilliantly performed by David Ellenstein and J.Todd Adams, who work their magic on the audience that is masterfully and seamlessly directed by award-winning director/actor/producer Richard Baird.
Ellenstein’s Russian Andrey Botvinnik negotiator is a study in how Russian diplomats approach their work and still remain human beings. His gregarious, open, yet business-like approach in doing his job – that of a skilled negotiator – is what moves this telling story forward. “A Walk in the Woods,” is a celebratory play about Integrity, trust, and good faith by both sides, all hallmark components in any high stakes agreement made by participants.
Adams’ American diplomat character John Honeyman, is looking for total capitulation to his proposal. It’s his government’s hardline position that must be agreed upon. Period. If the art of the deal doesn’t allow room for compromise, the outcome is doomed to fail. Adams’ character is impatient, somewhat officious, and stuffy. Botvinnik is like a cuddly bear eager to engage in banal conversation as a way of getting what his government is seeking. Something, however, has to give. How it’s accomplished is what makes this production so compelling and entertaining. No spoiler alerts from me. One has to see it for one’s self.
Actors Ellenstein and Adams are two professionals who draw the audience into the plays’ dilemma/ premise with consummate skill. Actors are such a joy to watch when they’re really ‘cooking’ up on that stage.
A non-verbal “character” in this excellent production is the wonderful set design by the incredible Marty Burnett along with resident lighting designer Matt Novotny’s vision of how to light a forest and the onstage actors who together, transform the intimate North Coast Rep stage into a 3-D visual Swiss forest. The trees and the lighting are first-rate technical effects that enhance the overall enjoyment of this splendid production. The costumes designed by Elissa Benzoni, have the look of spot-on authenticity of diplomats of the period.
Other technical, creative credits also led by director Baird feature original music by Michael Roth, with guitar accompaniment by Peter Sprague; sound design by Aaron Rumley who also stage manages and Props design by Phillip Korth, complete the creative team.
“A Walk in the Woods,” now on stage at the North Coast Repertory Theatre is a triumphant production and a Must See show that runs through June 23, 2019. Remember, a great nation deserves great art. Support local Arts!