I couldn't take my beady brown eyes off the nightie Christy Yael wears in North Coast Repertory Theatre's Madagascar, but not for the reason you fat young horn-dogs think. Yes, Yael cuts a mighty fine figger of a woman, and she has the acting chops to match—but costumer Peter Herman's decision to dress her character in sleepwear is a minor stroke of genius. June is beset by memories of a missing family member, and when better to ponder this bereavement but in the dead of night? Such common sense reaches beyond Yael's sartorials. To boot, June's a tour guide, ironic for somebody whose absentee loved one could be hanging anywhere in the world.
Those observations don't mean much by themselves. But the incredible thing about this show is that nothing spills out of context—June's travel bug was perhaps fueled by her mother Lilian's jet-setting ways; Nathan was a close friend of Lilian's late celebrity husband; each character's place in time feeds off the other, like a roulette wheel that never stops on the same numbers twice. And if Madagascar is exceptionally lean and forceful—which it is—then North Coast's treatments only deepen its mysteries and sanction its exhaustive heart. No single production value eclipses another in the least here, any more than the text favors a particular character. This is an absolutely outstanding performance piece, steeped every instant in a mesmerizing convergence of theater art and science.
Playwright J.T. Rogers paints the missing Paul as a vagabond—far-flung destinations like Madagascar claimed Paul's heart long ago. He was on his way there when he decided not to deplane; either that or something happened to him during one of his connections. He's gone, and his memory fuels the others' befuddlement from above the Spanish Steps of Rome's Piazza di Spagna.
But Paul's disappearance is only the tie that binds the principals and beckons them toward the deeply personal stories of their lives, told within a five-year chronology. There's one indication, for example, that Nathan (Frank Corrado) was boning Lilian even as he was putting people to sleep with his umpteenth lecture on economics, his profession; June's job was, among other things, her ticket out from under Lilian's hopelessly doctrinaire bearing; Lilian betrays a bit of a death wish—for herself and everybody else aboard—as she offhandedly fantasizes about a plane crash. Back and forth the stories go, growing and massaging each other into an unending series of metaphors—and just as Paul's fate is uncertain, closure will never color these people's revelations.
The characters never address each other, as Rogers finds it more effective to isolate them in their misery. It's an ideal device against Marty Burnett's scene design—beiges and pastels create neutrality, placing the focus on the characters and their individual dilemmas. Director David Ellenstein takes it from there; he's got three sharply separate studies here, from that of the sweetly forthcoming June to rumpled Nathan to self-styled diva Lilian. Rosina Reynolds always excels at subtle conceit—and now that she's got the subtly conceited Lilian's speeches to herself, she's absolutely first-rate.
“If you choose to vanish,” June says, “you probably won't be found.” How ironic, then, that Paul's choice weighed into the life stories of three people who took the opposite course. They air a boatload of dirty laundry here; in so doing, their lives take on an exquisitely deeper meaning. Pity Paul's not around to witness their epiphanies, to say nothing of the wonderful show that portrays them. Even as this marks the end of North Coast's 26th season, the company's on a roll. This review is based on the opening-night performance of July 5. Madagascar runs through Aug. 3 at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. $28-$35. 858-481-1055 or www.northcoastrep.org.