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Spellbinding “Belleville” opens the 55th Dobama season

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Dobama may be entering its 55th year (I was present the moment founding artistic director Don Bianchi declared its existence), but it is actually in its first season.  What?   Late last season, the Dobama board voted to change the status of venue to that of a full professional theatre.  This makes Dobama, like Great Lakes Theatre and Cleveland Play House, a stage where all actors are paid by equity standards and the production staff are members of the appropriate staging unions.

The change in professional designation may be new, but as evidenced by “Belleville,” Amy Herzog’s compelling mystery-drama, the opening play of the 2014-15 season, Bianchi’s vision of producing relevant, well-crafted, important new plays is still on the theatre’s masthead.

“Belleville” is a spooky play, not in the sense of ghosts or spirits, but in the sense of taking the viewer to a place in the theatre landscape which is scary, penetrating into personal psyches, forcing the questions of “OMG what’s going to happen next?,” “who is fooling whom?,” and “is this for real?”

Pulitzer Prize winner, Amy Herzog, is one of today’s most esteemed playwrights.  Locals were exposed to her Chekov-like writing when Dobama staged “4000 Miles” several years ago.  Herzog, like Chekov, is noted for her naturalistic writing.  Her language is the pattern and style of real people, in real situations.  There is nothing theatrical about her characters.  The actors can’t act the roles she writes, they must live them.  They must listen to their fellow performers and react to what they say, not feign, but feel, think and present honesty.

Her plays revolve around secrets being revealed.  Her revelations emerge naturally, through pitch-perfect dialogue, rather than being imposed by the demands of plot.  Her written language is filled with intrigue as it explores what lurks in the world of relationships.  The audience gets rapped up in the naturalness of the characters and the tale they tell through a breathtaking intermissionless hour and three-quarters.

“Belleville” made its debut in 2011 at the Yale Repertory Theatre and was later performed off-Broadway.

The story revolves around newly married Americans, Zack and Abby, who are living in Paris, supposedly because Abby has always wanted to relive her parents wonderful experiences in the city of love.  The desire got stronger when Abby’s mother died.  The duo is renting an apartment in the multi-ethnic Belleville neighborhood, which is managed by a Muslim couple.

A series of small happenings escalate the tension between the newlyweds.   Questions arise about Zack’s MD degree from Johns Hopkins University, his employment in Paris as an AIDS researcher, why he can’t pay the rent and spends much time smoking pot, his laid back attitude and sudden maniacal mood swings.  Why has Amy dropped out of her French classes, become obsessed with her family back in the US, and the yoga classes she teaches but where no students show up?  What’s true?  What’s a lie?

Dobama’s founding director, used to say that the playwright is the predominant voice in the room (the theatre).  Corey Atkins, the director of “Belleville,” learned this lesson well.  He understandings underlying motives of Herzog’s writing style, and has honed his actors to carry out the author’s intent and purpose.  The psychology of the characters, the mystery and danger of the plot, are all accented.  The realism required to make the lines live is present.

Llewie Nuñez takes on the role of Abby and wears it with tenacity.  She is always just on the edge of falling off the high wire of rationality.  She clearly creates a fragile woman caught up in a life of potential stumbles and disaster.

Matt O’Shea follows up his performance as the co-star with Dorothy Silver, in Dobama’s production of Herzog’s “4000 Miles,” with another spell-binding portrayal.   His Zack is an obsessed young man filled with contradictions.  Is he a liar, abuser, game player, or a psychopath?  Whatever, O’Shea is totally convincing.

Robert Hunter (Alioune) and Carly Germany (Amina) are character correct as the bi-lingual Muslim couple who manage the building in which Abby and Zack live.  Each develops a real person.  Their spoken French is excellent.  Whether they speak the language, or were well honed by dialect coach Donald Carrier, they are believable.

Jill Davis’s French apartment design of a living room-kitchen, with sight into a bathroom and bedroom, is completely realistic.  Marcus Dana’s lighting design well highlights scenes, as well as adding tension through special effects.  Sound designer Tom Linsenmeier has added outside street noises, running shower water effects and other sounds, which enhance the action.

CAPSULE JUDGMENT: ”Belleville” is a dark, draining play.  It looks at the limits of trust, truth, deception and dependency.  Dobama’s production is superb.  The writing, acting, staging and technical aspects all blend together to make for a compelling evening at the theatre.  It’s a must see for anyone interested in theatre and the limits of the human condition.

“Belleville” runs through October 5, 2014 at Dobama Theatre.  Call 216-932-3396 or for tickets.