Annabella in July brings fantasy and a microscope on relationships at North Coast Rep through Oct. 2
by Cassiopeia Guthrie, September 11, 2022
The flame of love can be kindled and extinguished, but sometimes is simply neglected for too long; this theme, which may be familiar to couples over time who find themselves simply sinking into the ordinary, is exactly the case for the couple at the center of North Coast Repertory Theatre’s newest offering, Annabella in July by Richard Strand, running through October 2.
Helmed by Artistic Director David Ellenstein, this show is described in the production materials in a way that establishes intrigue: “This World Premiere comedic fantasy transforms a ski resort during the off-season into a strangely magical environment of self-discovery.” Going in, I admit that I wasn’t too sure what to think. Coming out, in many ways, I felt much the same.
As the play opens, we meet Nebraskan road-trippers Vanessa and Brian, a couple hitting a 20th anniversary milestone by getting lost in the California mountains in their old station wagon. While they claim to be “celebrating,” it becomes clear rather early on that their relationship is characterized more by a parallel following of their own pursuits and a half-hearted, tired “old married couple” vibe. But when Vanessa and Brian, played by Jacquelyn Ritz and Louis Lotorto, stumble into an empty ski resort restaurant on a July afternoon, they soon realize that things are not as they seem. Somehow, the only three inhabitants of the lodge recognize Vanessa immediately… not as Vanessa, but rather as the stunningly beautiful, athletic, and mysterious Annabella, with whom each has developed a deep relationship. There’s the owner/hostess/cook Camelia (Leilani Smith), the young waitress Piper (Catalina Zelles), and the ostentatious - and very stereotypically French - amorous suitor, Alexander (Bruce Turk). So is Vanessa actually Annabella? Or isn’t she?
The performers in this production do a good job with the script. I was entertained by Alexander’s shift from intended fiancée to jolly, good-natured relationship coach to Brian (“Mon Dieu! Just say yes!”) as well as scenes where the men fawn over photos of the perfect Annabella while Vanessa seethes over her own perceived inadequacy in the background. And, by far, the lightest moments of the production come in the second act in which the two leading males lead off swapping personas. It is the first hint of the fantasy that will materialize when the titular charmer finally makes her appearance.
The show was effectively housed in a wood and stone chalet by Marty Burnett. Cooler lights, designed by Matt Novotny, marked an outdoor balcony, whereas indoor lights were on warmer rotation. Transitions in the show were also marked by projection renderings of mountains outside the resort “windows” upstage (Aaron Rumley). Some simple errors plagued the performance that I attended, including line stumbles, some incontinuity with the actors’ handling of the frigid night air on the balcony (Was it cold? Wasn’t it? This seemed to differ between actors in Act II), as well as some tech issues with both the projections and the sticky door. However, for the most part, all pieces were in place to set the scene for a show that had the audience laughing at the many moments of implausibility.
Annabella in July runs through October 2 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach with evening performances on Wednesdays and Sundays at 7pm, Thursday-Saturday at 8 p.m. and matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at northcoastrep.org.