Arts & Leisure

“Nine” adds up to art and insight at Gem

“NINE” now at stage at the Gem Theater in Garden Grove ©2019 Ron Lyon Photo

By Thom deMartino

The tolling of the bell. An ebony-clad procession of beauteous women, of all ages and stations, taking their measured steps beneath the cool indigo lights. And the man himself, seated, his sly smirk as he revels in it – at the center of it all, a fixed star in this firmament, ’round which these myriad ladies gravitate: and yet, even the life and radiance of the brightest shining star… remains finite.

The curtain has risen upon the striking and provocative “Nine” at Garden Grove’s Gem Theater, directed by Damien Lorton: where the audience is introduced to famed Italian director (and Lothario) Guido Contini (Ian Michaels) – a suave, visionary director of the 1950’s and early 60’s, on the cusp of middle age – and the sprawling plethora of women who populate, drive, and inspire his world.

There’s his long-suffering wife Luisa (Nicole Cassesso), married for 20 years and still in love with the man and his genius, but growing tired of coming in second to his obsession with work – and to his amorous straying; Guido’s sultry, seductive mistress Carla (Brittany Gerardi), pursuing the couple to a spa in Venice, where the director tries to resist her persistent charms while struggling to repair both his marriage and his career; his mother (Nickie Gentry), alternating between doting and critical of her son’s chosen profession; and Claudia (Erika Baldwin), star of his previous hit films, who serves as the man’s inspiration – his unattainable muse.

Guido finds himself at a desperate crossroads: the well of his creativity having run dry, as he scrambles to evade his Parisian producer Liliane Le Fleur (Beth Hanson), who wants a return on her investment, and has ideas of her own about what kind of film he should make: even bringing in the hawkish film critic Stephanie Necrophorus (Megan Walker) – one of the few women not swayed by the director’s charm – to keep a close eye on the struggling artist.

The fictions and realities of Guido’s life are becoming indistinguishable from each other, as his art, passions and relationships threaten to engulf him… for without the women in his life, stoking his creative fires… what is there to define him?

One More Productions is celebrating its 15th year, and this showing features some of the finest actresses who have graced the Gem Theater stage in those years, coming together for a spectacle unlike any other: a story of ego and art; love and lust; of devotion, of obsession… of madness.

There’s so much to unpack in this story, so many themes to leave the viewer mulling over at its conclusion: what women represent to men — their flesh-and-blood reality and needs, as opposed to the idealized pillar upon which they are frequently shackled; the nature of art, and the price of its creation upon its creator – the sacrifice the artist must make of themselves for it; how childhood events often shape… even concrete… our worldview for years to come, if not the entirety of our lives; and how culture can influence our perspective of sexuality and identity.

The 22-piece orchestra, in tandem with the stunning vocal prowess of the nearly two dozen women of the cast, create a haunting, yet energetic and breathtaking atmosphere. The opening number itself (“Overture”) sets the mood, with the entirety of the ladies singing in sonorous unison, as they surround the director, reflecting degrees of the real women of his life and his conception of them:

“I am not a child!” he stubbornly asserts, “I am a mature –” His protests are drowned out by the raucous laughter of the ensemble.

The performances transcend entertainment: they are often thought-provoking, and deeply moving as well. The desperation of Gerardi’s Carla, the mistress who knows that his heart belongs to someone else, but still holding out hope for a future between them; Baldwin’s Claudia, his inspiration, holding her own distance, yet with her own unusual love for Guido — painfully aware that his idea of her is not remotely the same as who she truly is; and Cassesso is sublime as Luisa, devoted to her husband but no longer content to wait for his appreciation… or realization of what he’s beginning to lose.

And Adriana Sanchez – a popular staple of many previous Gem productions – is spellbinding in the brief but pivotal role of Sarraghina, helping the audience to better understand the influences that helped shape Guido into the man he is.

It should be noted, that surrounded by the many powerful and emotionally-charged performances of the ensemble, that portraying the character of such a manic, magnetic, charming, and yet tragically-flawed figure as Guido Contini would be an almost insurmountable challenge – and yet, it is one that Michaels transcends with deceptive ease. The audience can see how these women embolden and empower him, yet how there is still that child within him (with an excellent performance by Eliot DeLucia as Little Guido), searching for acceptance, understanding, and love.

“Nine” is strikingly powerful, provocative, and thought-provoking: and besides being another jewel in the award-winning crown of One More Productions at the Gem Theater, may be one of those special shows that demands a second viewing — just to more deeply appreciate the richness and complexity of Guido’s life: to be loved and adored, and yet never be content.

“Nine.” Nicole Cassesso, Brittany Gerardi, Erika Baldwin and Ian Michaels star in the story of a stymied director desperate to finish his film, the women who drive and inspire him, and when the line blurs between truth and art. Playing through Sunday, May 19 (with two added Saturday matinees on May 4 and May 11 at 2 p.m.) at The Gem Theater, 12852 Main St., Garden Grove, CA, 92840. Call (714) 741-9550 x221 or e-mail for ticketing information.


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