Action in Gurnet Theatre’s ‘Essential Self-Defense’ engages audience

Iris Fanger

Duxbury is far off-Broadway, but the area has given birth to a snazzy, young drama troupe improbably named Gurnet Theatre Project. Townies will recognize the name of the company, taken from the piece of land that protects Duxbury Bay. 

Now 3 years old, Gurnet is in residence through June 28 at the Boston Center for the Arts in the South End to present the Boston premiere of ``Essential Self-Defense.'' 

Adam Rapp’s play taps into the angst of the post-9/11 era when fear and trembling seem to be stalking the populace. There’s definitely a generation gap in the perceptions of the characters on stage and in some of the rest of us who have tried to make peace with the constant terrors of 21st-century existence – or at least find a way to get through the day. 

Whether the paranoid personalities assembled by Rapp and their encounters add up to a coherent work of theater  is beside the point, given the high level of energy on stage that’s been expertly shaped by founder and director Brian Fahey.

A  graduate of Northeastern University with a degree in theater performance, he earned his early drama stripes at Duxbury High School under the guidance of Darin MacFarlane. 

The plot of ``Essential Self-Defense,'' if one can so describe the doings on stage, concerns a troubled loner, Yul Carroll, played by Adam Garcia, who works as a dummy in a bright yellow-padded suit at a self-defense training studio. A chipper Chelsea Cipolla takes the role of Sadie Day, one of the students. She’s a perpetually frightened young woman, but punches and beats on Yul in class. When she accidentally knocks out his tooth, she invites him out to make amends, literally kicking off the play. 

Now that’s a novel way of meeting – beyond the confines and imagination of online dating services. For all their strains of incipient insanity, Carroll and Cipolla make an adorable, latter-day Romeo and Juliet, falling in love over bottles of root beer. 

Trotting out their neuroses for two hours of frenetic action, accompanied by Timothy Hoover on an overactive drum set, the denizens of ``Bloggs, an unassuming Midwestern town, '' as Rapp describes the setting, collide and careen in trajectories that zoom between panic and hysteria. 

Rapp has written a fairy tale for our times, where a big, bad wolf alias Klieg the Butcher, portrayed by Brett Marks, menaces Sadie, the latter-day Little Red Riding Hood, with a carving knife. And he doesn’t much like Yul either. The other main characters are Sorrel Haze, a librarian by day who turns into the swinging, foul-mouthed master of ceremonies at the karaoke club by night,   played by Rachael Hunt, and her randy husband, the Russian-born poet named Isaak Glinka, brought to hilarious life by Foster Johns. 

The subtext to the play is the mysterious disappearance of 15 middle-school children, one by one. Everyone is a suspect, but none more than Yul who lost his former job for putting an ``X'' through a portrait of the nation’s president. Despite its connections to the spiraling events on stage, the last scene snuffs out the play in an inconclusive ending. To their credit, the pacing of the production under Fahey’s direction and the cheeky skills of the actors keep the   audience engaged.  Original songs, performed by each of the characters in turn, enliven the show. 

Gurnet has attracted attention from the region’s theater critics far beyond the ordinary, attesting to the impact it has made in just a few years. Next up on the troupe’s schedule is its annual, free summer production in Duxbury. 

Duxbury High graduate Kristen Schnibbe will direct ``The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)'' at the Myles Standish Monument, Aug.  7 to 10.

The Patriot Ledger