In the realm of Los Angeles intimate theatre, efficiency and constraint are often unfortunately emphasized as budget limitations become the all-too familiar factor hovering over anyone who dreams of doing anything grandiose. So when I heard about a World War II play written by Cailin Maureen Harrison that was going to have its world premiere with the Pandelia’s Canary Yellow Company, I was intrigued because my burning question was: How exactly do you stage a WWII story in a black box setting and do so compellingly??
But if I was intrigued and a tad concerned at first, I paid even more attention when I learned it was going to be directed by Reena Dutt. A woman of color directing a WWII story? Without knowing too much of her work at first, I was already ALL IN.
But before I go into my review, I want to put a special spotlight on her:
Reena Dutt’s theatre work has been seen in New York City, Los Angeles and San Francisco. She has directed at A Noise Within in conjunction with East West Players (staged reading of Snow in Midsummer by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig), the Road Theatre (staged reading of Kissing Che by Augusto Federico Amador), and Sacred Fools (staged reading of Monkey Love by Madhuri Shekar and the upcoming Antigone, Presented by the Girls of St. Catherine’s also written by Shekar).
Prior to that she Assistant Directed for Jo Bonney at The Geffen Playhouse on Jose Rivera‘s world premiere of The Untranslatable Secrets of Nikki Corona, and Dramaleague’s Jennifer Chang on The Fountain Theatre‘s Los Angeles premier of Hannah and the Dread Gazebo. Dutt also directs for film and television and has an extensive producing history. Dutt is a member of the Lincoln Center Directors’ Lab (New York City), Directors Lab West (Los Angeles), and a Semi Finalist for Dramaleague’s Hangar Directing Fellowship. She is a graduate of the Media Arts program at the University of Arizona, Tucson, and the acting program at William Esper Studio, New York. Most important, Dutt is a city girl with a country soul who creates with a conscience, on and off screen.
It is rare that a PoC artist is given a chance to direct white people historical/period pieces and after seeing Defenders, Reena Dutt was wisely chosen to be their captain. It is for that reason alone that it was a tremendous honor when their PR team contacted me to review this play.
And oh my goodness, this play did not disappoint whatsoever.
My burning question from earlier was answered with a masterful stroke as Defenders is a gripping and thought-provoking piece that uses its small black box space to its fullest awe-dropping potential with fantastic scenic design by David Goldstein, costume design by Shon LeBlanc, lighting design by Dominik Krzanowski, and sound design by Jesse Mandapat. All of these design elements come together splendidly along with a well rounded cast (kudos to casting director Michael Donovan for this) and of course Reena Dutt guiding the ship with precision and passion.
The play follows three American G.I.s who are shipwrecked on the remote island of Hrisey off Iceland’s northern coast. The stranded G.I.s find themselves with missing weapons, few supplies, and a broken radio. They realize they must rely on the locals for survival but, like current-day warfare, the locals fear the loss of their culture, their women and their safety with the presence of foreigners on their land.
When it comes to play openings that grab you from the get go, Defenders is a top notch example as it explodes into action immediately putting you right into the situation. As the play continues, it relies on the strengths of the actor’s performances to carry it through in its quieter moments. While the script at times bog the pace down a bit in said quieter moments, it is through the strength of the actors’ performances that it is able to be carried through.
All the actors gave superb performances but a special shoutout must be given to Bryan Porter whose portrayal of Lieutenant Marcus Jansen goes through quite a harrowing journey within the play’s 90 minute running time. Without spoiling too much, the stranded G.I.s encounter a supernatural element on the Icelandic remote island and Porter’s character receives the brunt end of it at the cost of his sanity.
Bottom line: go watch this play immediately, if not for the fact that you will be treated to a WWII play done superbly well, but to see a fine PoC female director at work with a tremendous cast and team to back her up.
Defenders is now playing with performances on Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 3 p.m., and Mondays at 8:00 p.m. through December 8. General admission is $30 for performances. The Broadwater Black Box is located at 6322 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038. For more information and to purchase tickets, call (323) 960-5770 or go to www.Onstage411.com/defenders.