A Wake

A Wake featured image

Penelope Buitenhuis, director & co-script w/Krista Sutton

Starring: Nicholas Campbell (Gabor Zazlov), Graham Abbey (Tyler), Krista Sutton (Maya), Raoul Bhaneja (Raj), Sarain Boylan (Danielle), Martha Burns (Sabina), Kristopher Turner (Chad, Gabor’s son), Tara Nicodemo (Gabor’s widow)

When legendary theatre director Gabor Zazlov suddenly dies of a heart attack, his grieving widow invites a motley crew of thespians, patrons, ex-lovers and family members to participate in the wake that the flamboyant dramatic honcho had envisioned. Set in an old country home in the middle of winter, A Wake has an instantly fascinating premise and features a well-rounded cast including such notable actors as Nick Campbell, Martha Burns and Raoul Bhaneja. Writer-director Penelope Buitenhuis offers these inherently dramatic performers the opportunity to seize the stage–oops, screen–with moments of high drama, low comedy, hysteria and key emotional scenes of self-revelation.

While drinking wine and having dinner, the troupe reminisces about Gabor and picks at old wounds. They had all participated in Gabor’s shocking inappropriate last production, a staging of Hamlet that ended up with accusations of sexual impropriety. Off stage, of course!

The members of this funereal black comedy are: Tyler, now a Hollywood actor-then Hamlet; Raj, now a real estate agent, who lost the role of Hamlet to Tyler: sexy Danielle, the “whore” who caused the production’s demise, still bitterly resented by Gabor’s widow and his major patron. Adding to the drama is the sudden arrival of Gabor’s adult son, who is closer to his stepmother’s age than was his father.

This set-up—clichéd but dramatic–feels less like Pinter or Mamet and more like an improv staging. And you’d be right: Buitenhuis and co-storyteller Krista Sutton (the Ophelia in the production that didn’t happen) have let their actors loose to make connections and drive the drama forward with unscripted scenes.

Buitenhuis, who directed many episodes of the improv TV series drama Train 48 along with Bhaneja knows how to make that kind of format sing. With a talented set of actors and a co-conspirator in Sutton, who also worked on Train 48, she has made A Wake into a funny, dark film.

Obviously, there are limitations to this kind of drama unless you’re working like Mike Leigh with months and months to prepare a scenario that is more realistic and less theatrical. Buitenhuis’ film may have a rough time connecting to a film audience used to more conventional fare. But the film deservedly won prizes at the Female Eye festival and Carmel Arts Festival last year.

It will have its advocates–especially among those of us who enjoy watching actors having fun with their roles. A Wake isn’t a film for everybody–it has its inherent weaknesses based on stereotypical situations–but it’s a worthy feature from the talented Ms. Buitenhuis.

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