Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company
Review by David Dixon | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of Seize the King and David's review of Voyeurs de Venus

Brian Mackey and Francis Gercke
Photo by Daren Scott
Over the last few years, the Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company has produced a variety of shows that range from classics such as The Zoo Story to more modern shows such as Bachelorette. Despite being a well-respected fairly new organization, Backyard Renaissance hasn't had a space to officially call home. However, the company is currently the 2018/2019 resident theatre company at the La Jolla Playhouse. Their first production at this venue, the San Diego premiere of Noah Haidle's Smokefall, plays around with different genres to tell a time-spanning plot with three distinct acts. Events eventually build to an emotional final chapter.

Act one, entitled "Help Me Remember," portrays an unhappy family living in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The matriarch of the family, Violet (co-founder and Executive Director Jessica John Gercke), is pregnant with twins and lives with her depressed husband Daniel (Artistic Director Francis Gercke), their daughter Beauty (Fedra Ramirez Olivares), who has taken a vow of silence, and her retired Colonel father (Antonio TJ Johnson), who is suffering from dementia. Through a narrator, known only as Footnote (Brian Mackey), audiences learn about the personal lives of each. Following this dramatic and unexpectedly funny section, the show turns into a fantasy comedy in act two, "Where We'll Never Grow Old." Set inside Violet's womb, it features the two fetuses (Francis Gercke and Mackey) discussing complicated topics such as the meaning of life, adulthood and self-doubt. Following this lengthy discussion and an intermission, the play cuts to act three, 74 years later, "The Attempt is How We Live," where decisions from the past lead to long-term consequences for the family.

Haidle's script is influenced by famous stories, but still manages to have unique aspects. His narration in act one and the way he handles time is reminiscent of Our Town, and the dialogue between the fetuses has some parallels to the conversations between Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot. Because Haidle infuses his own style of comic relief and pathos, the plot ends up going in many unpredictable directions, and it never feels like he is ripping off those who have influenced him. Theatregoers at the Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre easily become invested in the family and may be moved to tears by the story and acting in act three. Production staff members are key to setting up his dark and sometimes fantastical world.

Co-directors Francis Gercke and Andrew Oswald are able to help change the atmosphere between the different parts of the narrative in a very believable way. They stage the first act in a methodical and meticulous manner. There's a sense of intentional distance early on, mainly because the family members are barely able to express any kind of inner emotion to each other. The other two sections are very much different in tone, because the characters are able to be more open, and the play is staged with plenty of energy, especially when fantasy elements are incorporated.

While the work by the crew, especially Justin Humphres' rich set, blends well in the introduction and conclusion, it's their work on act two that stands out the most. Jeanne Reith's vaudeville-style costumes for the fetuses set up the comic tone, while Curtis Mueller's lighting and Melanie Chen Cole's audio use the kind of imagery and sound effects that would certainly alarm someone as sensitive as Francis Gercke's Fetus One. There's even a little bit of lighthearted choreography by Katie Banville, set to the fetuses' rendition of "Send in the Clowns." Through all these situations, the ensemble brings a great deal of depth to each sequence.

Most of the performers play more than one character, with Mackey being the closest thing to a lead. He brings plenty of sophistication to Footnote's narration, portrays Fetus Two with confidence, and gets to depict Samuel, perhaps the most normal person in the evening. Francis Gercke plays Daniel in a calm and sad fashion, and acts terrified, often in a hilarious fashion, as Fetus One. Equally effective is Johnson, who can be both painfully tragic and witty as the Colonel, and reflective and regretful when he depicts the character Johnny in act three. In addition, Jessica John Gercke and Olivares have some touching moments when they are featured onstage.

Backyard Renaissance's interpretation strongly mixes family tension, comedy, and surreal fantasy, and isn't short on genuine surprises. Hopefully, the artistic team will continue to produce high quality work similar to this in La Jolla.

Backyard Renaissance Theatre Company presents Smokefall , through September 16, 2018, at Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla CA. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $18.00 and can be purchased online at or by phone at 1-619-977-0999.