Take a man and a woman with a shared past, place them in an enclosed space with no intermission to lessen the tension, and you’ve got a recipe for dramatic sparks. Scottish playwright David Harrower did just this in his multiple-Scenie-winning Blackbird, and Cal Barnes follows that example in his Hollywood Fringe Festival hit Rise, currently keeping audiences on the edge of their seats at Elephant Stages.

 While not yet at Harrower’s level, the 24-year-old Barnes shows considerable promise in his debut play, in which storefront California preacher Henry Donner (Brett Colbeth) is visited by the alluring, mysterious, and potentially lethal Alexandra Riverton (Gowrie Hayden) an hour before he is to deliver his latest sermon.

Having just seen Henry sermonizing us as his flock, we already know a bit about him, and can imagine churchgoers being attracted to this sexy, bearded, pony-tailed preacher man, who challenges his congregation to “rise” regardless of whatever circumstances threaten to bring them down. Little does he know that a woman from his past is about to rip his own carefully constructed world apart.

 It takes us only seconds to figure out from Alexandra’s cryptic taunts that this uninvited guest knows more about Henry than he does about her; however, it’s not until Alex picks up Henry’s guitar and starts singing that it seemingly dawns on Henry just who this young woman is. (It’s left up to us to decide whether Henry has only been pretending not to recognize his visitor.)

Once the truth begins little by little to be revealed, it becomes clear why Alexandra might have a bone to pick with Henry, a one-time junkie who ten years ago walked out on an equally addicted Alex on the mean streets of New York before setting off on a journey towards a new life in which she was not to be a part.

Though Henry claims to have cleaned up his act, Alex has most certainly not turned her back on demon whiskey, a bottle of which she has brought along in a backpack which appears still dangerously heavy even after she’s pulled out the Jack Daniels and a pair of shot glasses, one of which we suspect Henry will eventually be unable to resist.

 Rise won its writer the Best New Play award at this past summer’s Hollywood Fringe Festival, and though it could still use some tweaking (it’s hard to believe that one particularly traumatic event in Henry and Alex’s past gets brought up so late in the game), it is nonetheless the work of a very talented writer, and a play that could easily have legs after its current midweek run at the Elephant.

Aaron Lyons’ direction is dynamic and assured, and he could hardly have found two more electric, charismatic actors than his two stars.

The song “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” could have been written with Hayden in mind. Resisting the temptation to play Alex on a single angry note, the gifted young actress gives one of the most thrilling, multi-layered, in-the-moment performances you’re likely to see anytime soon. Colbeth’s assignment is in some ways a tougher one, since Henry holds so much behind the confident mask he presents to the world, something which makes it all the more gutwrenching when Alex’s stream of taunts and reproaches (and more than just one swig of Jack Daniels) reveal the still tormented soul lurking beneath the surface.

 Rise is performed midweek on Elephant Stageworks’ simple but effective set. Matt Richter’s accomplished lighting design and some very effective music choices in his equally fine sound design give Rise a professional look and sound that Fringe Festival conditions could not have made possible. Caitlin Rucker is stage manager.

Audiences can thank David Fofi for finding Rise at the Fringe and bringing it to the Elephant, where the producer’s own Elephant Theatre Company has staged similarly adventurous fare. Lovers of exciting, edgy theater are hereby advised to check out Rise, whose Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday schedule makes it particularly easy to find a spot for on all but the most crowded calendars. Busy as this reviewer is, I am glad indeed that I took a chance on Rise.

Elephant Theatre, 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood.

–Steven Stanley
November 20, 2012
Photos: Natalie Hsieh

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