Hong Kong Arts Festival

Review: The Gabriels, Hong Kong Arts Festival – a bird’s-eye view of family life during US election year

The Gabriels is a wonderful ensemble piece marked by outstanding acting and beautiful, poetic and funny writing

PUBLISHED : Monday, 27 February, 2017, 2:15pm
UPDATED : Friday, 29 December, 2017, 4:51pm

When The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family was staged by The Public Theatre last year, the trilogy played to audiences in New York over the course of nine months in March, September and November, charting the lives of the fictitious family living in a small village outside of Manhattan in real time.

Local theatre-goers could catch all three plays in one go either over three nights last week or back-to-back over the weekend, as part of this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival. There are several advantages to that, the most obvious being that the work can be appreciated and enjoyed as a complete whole with no long gaps in between.

Written and directed by Richard Nelson, The Gabriels is not a political play per se, though its title might suggest otherwise. Zooming in on a white middle-class liberal American household, the drama is more about loss, grief, history, identity and even female intuition, and happens to be set during the months running up to the US presidential election last year.

The Gabriels, or how US election played out for one family, and the team behind observational drama set for Hong Kong Arts Festival

Thomas, playwright and the eldest son of the Gabriel clan, recently died of Parkinson’s disease and Hungry, first instalment of the trilogy, opens when his third wife Mary (Maryann Plunkett) returns to their family house from a memorial at which his ashes were scattered over the Hudson River.

Gathering at the kitchen to prepare their dinner are Thomas’ brother George (Jay Sanders), sister Joyce (Amy Warren), George’s wife Hannah (Lynn Hawley), Thomas’ first wife Karin (Meg Gibson) and mother Patricia (Roberta Maxwell). This kitchen is where generations of the Gabriels have spent their time together – talking, teasing, quarrelling – and here is where the action takes place throughout the three plays. The egg timer goes off at regular intervals to mark the passage of time.

It takes a little while to figure out who’s who at the beginning, and what they are talking about, but soon the audience is drawn into their world. The acting is engrossing. The delivery of lines is so spontaneous – onstage manners so casual (there are moments when several characters speak at the same time) – that the play appears, at times, almost as if it was unscripted.

Just like in real life, their conversation jumps from one subject to another; while talk about Mary’s bereavement, the unthinkable prospect of losing their family home and the even more unthinkable prospect of Donald Trump winning the presidential election move the story forward, characters reading outextracts from books, magazines, newspapers, old letters and recipes (for their own amusement) serve only as fillers and probably have less relevance to a Hong Kong audience (and there is plenty of that US-centric content in What Did You Expect?, the middle chapter of the trilogy).

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The pace picks up again in the concluding part of The Gabriels, when it’s November 8, Election Day, and a year has passed since Thomas’ death. Mary appears to have, finally, exorcised the ghost of the past and stops hearing the piano music (supposed to be Thomas’ playing) coming from the living room. This allegory of coming to terms of one’s loss is particularly effective and touching.

The Gabriels is a wonderful ensemble piece. The acting from the entire cast is simply outstanding and Nelson’s writing is beautiful, poetic and funny. And it’s quite uncanny that Hannah, quite earlier in Hungry, expresses her anxiety about the upcoming election, saying that she feels “something bad is about to happen”.

The Gabriels: Election Year in the Life of One Family, The Public Theatre, Studio Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre. Reviewed: Feb 22, 23 and 24