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Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

A Few Good Men
Hillbarn Theatre
Review by Eddie Reynolds | Season Schedule

Also see Eddie's recent review of Outside Mullingar


Photo: Brad Satterwhite and
Thomas Gorrebeeck

Photo by Mark and Tracy Photography
"Unit, company, God, country."

For the Marines based in Guantanamo Bay in Aaron Sorkin's fiction-based-on-some-truth play of 1989, A Few Good Men, this is the order of loyalty drilled into their heads, shouted into their ears. That ordering leads two young recruits—both barely shaving and each still with the looks as much boy as man—to follow the "Code Red" order of a god-fearing, barking lieutenant to discipline in the dark of night a fellow Marine seen as a complainer, a shirker, and not a team player for the unit—especially when he requests to be transferred with the threat of exposing a misdeed by a fellow Marine if not. The resulting death sets up murder charges against the two and a major cover-up by their commanders. In an electrically charged production with outstanding cast and direction by Hillbarn Theatre, everything leads to a tense, gripping court-martial drama that fills the second act of this current A Few Good Men.

Joshua Marx directs this Tony-nominated Best Play, later Oscar-nominated Best Picture with an eye of barely letting the audience catch its collective breath from the opening, elevated scene in dark shadows of the hazing incident to the climactic courtroom moment at the end when the dirty truth of corruption finally blasts to full light. Scenes on Carlos Aceves' smart multi-level stage blend from one to another—left to right to middle to upper to stage lip—with almost no pause, save the familiar chant of Marines marching somewhere in the distance (the latter thanks to the excellent sound design of Jon Hayward). Both diffused patterns and stark, angular shadows, as beautifully designed in lighting by David Gottlieb, fall over the wide stage and its back walls, highlighting the subterfuge and the harsh realities of the story playing out before us. In uniforms both starched and dressy and wrinkled and camouflaged as created by Mae Haegerty-Matos, the large cast moves with precision in and out of the many scenes, attacking this script under Mr. Marx's direction with uncanny mixtures of humor, fury, exasperation, sarcasm, and fear.

After some verbal pushing and shoving among themselves and with their higher ups, three Naval lawyers become a team to defend the two alleged murderers of Private First Class William T. Santiago (Mohamed Ismail). Leading the team is Lt. Daniel Kaffee—handsome and cocky, more interested in the beginning in just getting a quick settlement and getting back to more interesting things like honing his softball skills. With a tendency to be late or a possibility of even showing up with a bourbon bottle in hand, with a mouth full of sometimes childish quips ("Liar, liar, with your pants on fire"), but with an increasing zeal to use his astute knowledge of the law to win a case that looks doomed from the beginning, Lt. Kaffee is portrayed with a skilled combination of outward bravado, inner torture, and all-encompassing drive by Thomas Gorrebeeck.

Yin to his yang is a precise, business-first-and-always lawyer from Internal Affairs, Lt. Cmdr. Joanne Galloway, who inserts herself much to Kaffee's chagrin into this case because she smells a rat somewhere in the prosecution's case and because she does not trust (at least at first) that Lt. Kaffee is capable or cares enough to save the two defendants from a possibly unjust verdict. Erin Yvette is excellent as the young lawyer who must constantly deal with a machismo culture of the Navy and Marines (including remarks from commanders that would make Trump's alleged remarks looks normal). She also has a mouth of her own that sometimes speaks with ideas and/or courtroom antics and objections before she has totally thought them through. Her fearlessness so well encapsulated by Erin Yvette is shadowed by a hidden sense of insecurity and self-doubt that the actor also captures so well.

The third member is a guy along for the ride, Lt. Sam Weinberg, who is happy just to have as few responsibilities as possible so that he can hurry up and get home to hear his fourteen-month-old daughter say her first word (and hopefully win a lucrative bet that 'da' will be that word). Drew Reitz is an amiable, play-it-cool Sam who tries to keep the peace between his oft-bickering two teammates and who slowly uncovers Lt. Weinberg's own commitment, passion, and intelligence in terms of the case they are together tackling.

Brad Satterwhite and Noah Boger are the two accused defendants in the case at hand, Lance Corporal Harold Dawson and Private First Class Louden Downey, respectively. Each displays the strict discipline, often expressionless demeanor of a Marine who responds with as few words as possible, only when directly addressed, and always with a loud "Sir, Yes/No, Sir" attached. The shorter, mostly down-looking Downey follows the lead of the more outwardly defiant Dawson; but both are stubborn in their sole defense of "We did our job ... We did nothing wrong," and each is reluctant to point fingers anywhere else.

Where increasingly it becomes clear that fingers of guilt might be pointed is somewhere among the Gitmo military hierarchy above the defendants. John Girot is stunningly, startlingly scary as Lt. Jonathan James Kendrick. The only voice volume he knows is a loud, bulldog barking, and the word most out of his mouth seems to be "God." "God is watching" is a frequent response of his, and when he admonishes, "Get your house in order," it is clear he has biblical revelations in mind as well as Marine discipline. The steely, all-too-calm stares of Lt. Kendrick coupled with his sudden burst of holy vitriol combine for an exceptional performance by Mr. Girot.

Perhaps even more arresting is the overall performance of Christopher C. Starling as the Marine's Lieutenant Colonel Nathan Jessep. Mr. Starling is himself a retired, twenty-six-year veteran of the Marine Corps and steps onto the Hillbarn stage in his debut acting role. As a novice, he shows much acting maturity as the play progresses. While his initial scenes are a bit over-played and one-dimensional in his own series of barks and bites, his climactic courtroom appearance on the stand in furious conflict with defense lawyer Lt. Kaffee is about as good as live theatre can get for spell-binding drama at its highest.

A number of other actors step in for passing but important roles to round out this cast in notable fashion. Gary M. Giurbino is Captain Matthew Markinson, a longtime friend and now on the Jessup's staff, but a man of integrity who knows and seeks to provide courtroom proof that all is not as slam-dunk as the prosecution and his commanding boss are making it out to be. The desperate acts that Mr. Giurbino carries out as Markinson are captured in two eerie, heart-stopping scenes as directed by Joshua Marx in dim light high above the main stage.

Zach Padlo is the zealously determined, floor-pacing prosecutor, Lt. Jack Ross, who believes ardently in saving face for the military, would rather plea bargain than pursue the case, but is key on winning with a precise line of attack once forced onto the courtroom arena. Holding reign over the proceedings is Judge Randolph, a female in Hillbarn's version of the play—played with some credence and a little hesitation by Nicole Martin. Gary Pugh Newman, Lauren Hayes (another female insertion in this production that is probably inaccurate for the 1989, male-dominated Marine Corps), Tad Cruz, and Andy Rotchadl round out the cast of military leaders and personnel.

Many audience members probably arrive with Tom Cruise, Jack Nicolson, and Demi Moore in their mind's eyes in the roles of Kaffee, Jessup, and Galloway. The wonderful aspect of live theatre and of a production so well cast, directed, and presented as Hillbarn's is that it is almost a guarantee that no one will walk away disappointed by this latest version of A Few Good Men.

A Few Good Men continues through October 23, 2016, at 1285 East Hillsdale Boulevard, Foster City, CA. Tickets are available online at www.hillbarntheatre.org or by calling 650-349-6411.


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