Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Diego

Brilliant Mistake
New Village Arts Theatre

NVA Ensemble Members
There were times while I was watching Brilliant Mistake, the New Village Arts Theatre's commissioned play, that I wondered if the title was a sly commentary on the company's most recent season. Turns out it wasn't, and I'm glad.

For this particular year, NVA tried an experiment. It hired a company of actors and production staff for the entire season and then planned the productions it presented around the company it hired. To do so, a number of experiments had to be tried. Actors who had never directed did so. Backstage staff appeared on stage (some of them must have liked it, as they appeared more than once). A 12-year-old boy played an adult role. The executive artistic director designed costumes. Occasionally, someone outside of the company was hired for a small role, but mostly the group put on the productions themselves.

Not surprisingly, the season's productions emphasized some aspect of ensemble. Even the postmodern Thom Paine (based on nothing) incorporated the idea that the audience was a part of the ensemble, whether willing or no.

For the season finale, the company commissioned playwright Suzanne Bachner to write a piece for the entire ensemble. Ms. Bachner interviewed the company members individually, then led them through a series of acting exercises that eventually developed characters and led to improvised scenes and a story line. Ms. Bachner returned to New York to write and then continued to develop the production as the company went into full-time rehearsal.

The result is wacky and farcical and probably most enjoyable if you've been watching things develop all along. The actors seemed to come up with playing hyper-versions of themselves or playing against type altogether. Daren Scott, who in real life also photographs theatre for a living, plays a well-known graphic novelist who decides to search for his birth mother. He hires Kristianne Kurner, the aforementioned executive artistic director, to do the searching, and he ends up writing his latest graphic novel about the experience.

Ms. Bachner's play proceeds in the style of a graphic novel come to life. Ms. Kurner's "finder of lost loves" is a sleazily dressed New Jerseyite whose "office" is in a dive bar. As she searches for clues to her client's parentage, a series of characters turn up. There's the leading man type who's suddenly playing a delusional risk-taker, the character actor who suddenly becomes a male ingénue, the woman who all season specialized in spinsters but is now an over-the-top version of one, and lo and behold, the bratty boy suddenly grew a bunch and blossomed into a teenager, attitude and all.

It would spoil the fun to give away too much of the plot, but need I say that the idea of "family"—who is family and why family is special—emerges as the overarching subject of investigation? And, while there's no group hug at the end, it is pretty clear how this ensemble feels about each other as its year-long experiment comes to an end. If you've been along for the ride this season, this show will seem a fitting close to it, a little like the last episode of a TV series, where they bring the characters back one by one for a curtain call. If not, you can still enjoy it, though puzzling through it might prove challenging.

Since pretty much everyone was in the show, Ms. Bachner directed. She kept things moving, but probably another director would have been better able to sharpen the characterizations and help the humor to land less like in-jokes. Tim Wallace (one of the few backstage people who didn't appear on stage this season) designed simple sets amenable to the cinematic style of Ms. Bachner's play, and the rest of the technical elements kept it simple but effective.

Does Brilliant Mistake have a life in front of it after its world premiere engagement? I'd be surprised if it did, but who knows? The company goes back to hiring show-by-show for the season upcoming, but I'm sure that they'll look back on this season with a good deal of fondness.

Through June 24, 2012, at the company's home: 2787 State Street, Carlsbad, California. Tickets ($26 - $29) available by calling (760) 433-3245, or by visiting

New Village Arts Theatre presents that world premiere of Brilliant Mistake, written and directed by Suzanne Bachner. The cast includes Adam Brick, Dana Case, John DeCarlo, Manny Fernandes, Jonah Gercke, Kelly Iversen, Kristianne Kurner, Justin Lang, Kyle Lucy, Jack Missett, Frances Regal, Chris Renda, Daren Scott, and Samuel Sherman. The creative team includes Consulting Artistic Director: Claudio Raygoza, Set & Sound: Tim Wallace, Lights: Chris Renda, Props: Bonnie Durben, and Costumes: Nadia Volvic.

Photo: Courtesy New Village Arts Theatre

See the current season schedule for the San Diego area.

- Bill Eadie