Clocking in at a smidge under 90 spellbinding minutes, Gotta Gittit Done, written by Glen "Frosty" Little, directed by Achille Zavatta for The Bixby Park Community Players, presents a threnody for the passing of the father of two nameless characters played by Otto Griebling and Bev Bergeron.
It's the story of a brother and sister who parade to the four neighborhood bars their just-deceased father, a colorful barfly, used to frequent. Their mission? To tell his chums about his passing. They don't speak a word throughout the production; their performances are one extended pantomime, gesture and movement, both conveyed with great emotive effect. As minimalist a production as can be, it consists of no sets, just two on-stage characters (and four off-stage voices), bathed in cigarette smoke haze, the murmur (and occasional ululation) of bar patrons, and low volume jukebox songs - Patsy Cline, Bobby Darin, Jim Reeves, Frankie Yankovic, Kyu Sakamoto - from the Sixties.
Because Gribeling and Bergeron don't speak, we don't know at first that their father had just died. Their body language, though, - slumped shoulders saddled with grief, seasick posture, raspy, sobbed out voices, and marbled, sleepless eyes -shows us they have suffered a loss. They face us for the duration of the performance, barely moving, as they listen to the disembodied voices of four different characters - Yuri Nikulin, Ernie Burch, Hilary Chaplain, and Michael Lane Trautman reveal a previously unknown aspect of their father. We are witness to the effect the news had on the bartenders. The change in voices signifies that the protagonists have moved on to another bar.
Each bartender (well, at least their voice) first expresses sorrow and surprise at the news. Then, like Chaucer's Canterbury pilgrims, they tell stories, happy, buoyant, and, perhaps, apocryphal stories. Stories of his days in the Pacific island-hopping as a World War Two Marine; of how he had appeared on the Tonight Show where, to a mortified host, Steve Allen, he extracted the venom from a rattlesnake; how he used to have waking dreams of Abraham Lincoln sitting next to him on a tree branch thanking him for the dignity with which his long-ago family had treated their slaves. They learned that he had conducted a one-man commando raid, with a station wagon full of guns, into the burning streets of Watts in the Mid-Sixties to extract the extended family of one of the bar's patrons. That he had, variously, in the bars they visited, delivered a child, performed three Heimlich maneuvers, performed CPR, thwarted four armed robberies, each time with a pool cue and an eight ball. That he had almost died of tuberculosis before his children were born and spent six months in the Veterans Hospital.
The stories flowed like Pabst Blue Ribbon from a tap. The four voices, gravely, mellifluous, chatty, and somber, each brimmed with obvious affection for this crazy sonofabitch who had spent hundreds of hours nursing his Jim Beam as well as the souls of his bar chums, regaling them with tales weird and wonderful. Four times we watch the two characters react to these revelations about their father: the lean-in to listen, the slow-forming smile like the morning sun coming up over the ocean, the clench and unclenching of hands. Though there was no intermission, we were as entranced by this barely moving ballet enacted up on the stage as we were by the voices coming from God-knows-where.
It was a lovely experience, incredibly touching. Most amazing, the dramatic arc was sustained entirely by the onstage character's reactions to the voices. That there was no set design and barely any lighting suggest that a great deal of effort went into both and the fact that it was so unnoticeable attests to the pitch-perfect vision of the enterprise that Zavatta conceived in his head and Griebling and Bergeron carried through for the duration of the performance. If that doesn't describe the pinnacle of live theatre - voice, gesture, and expression greater than the sum of its parts - then I don't know what does.
Performances are 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m., Sunday. The production runs until March 31. Tickets are $4.50, the same price as a shot of Jim Beam at the Director's watering hole. The Theatre is located at 3400 E. Broadway. For more information, call (562) 438-4590.