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There’s a crackling tension to Fresno City College’s smart new production of “Tape.” As staged by director Janine Christl in the college’s intimate studio theater space, we’re thrust in Stephen Belber’s piercing drama into a small but potent story about three old high school friends who reopen a wound from the past.

For Jon (played by Jon Hollis in the Sunday matinee I attended; he alternates the role with Will Jorge), an up-and-coming 20-something filmmaker, there’s no premonition of danger when he knocks at the door of a nondescript Motel 6 room in Lansing, Mich., to meet up with his oldest friend, Vince (played by Kerry Cavin; he alternates the role with Javier Padilla). In fact, this is a great weekend for Jon: He’s in town for the premiere of his new film at a local film festival, and Vince has traveled from California for the event.

But from the opening scene, it’s clear that Vince — whose life as a small-time drug dealer and volunteer fire fighter isn’t exactly leading to great things — has another motive than supporting an old friend. The two buddies dated the same girl in high school, Amy. Vince intends to bring up a long-festering incident in which he feels that Jon raped Amy.

Set in real time with no intermission, Belber’s script — which was first performed at Actors Theatre of Louisville in the 2000 Humana Festival of New American Plays — is a tightly conceived, briskly unfolding swirl of jealousy, sexual misconduct, rage, denial and nostalgia. Christl creates a pressure-cooker atmosphere, particularly when Amy herself (strongly played by Bridget Manders-Martin, who alternates the role with Rebecca Hustedde), shows up.

The questions posed by the play are provocative: Do our intentions override our actions? Do those who consider their lives a work in progress — those who strive to learn from their mistakes and try to become better people in the process — deserve to be judged for past actions by a more lenient standard than those who refuse to acknowledge their transgressions?

The issues are tantalizing, and the acting challenges are high. The early scenes between Hollis and Cavin  took a while to find that smooth, comfortable chemistry that makes it feel as if we’re watching a real slice of life on stage, not a recitation of lines.  The play really clicks when all three characters are on stage together, and I was especially taken with Hollis and Manders-Martin’s interactions together.

Cavin is a talented actor for whom I’ve offered well-deserved praise in past FCC productions, and he works hard as the volatile Vince, but I don’t think he, under Christl’s direction and working from Belber’s script, always portrays the inconsistencies and motivations of the character in a convincing way. Cavin’s cocky swagger overwhelms the more nuanced (and potentially darker — or perhaps just dimmer) shadings of Vince.

Christopher R. Boltz’s meticulous set captures all the blandness of an inexpensive motel room, right down to the round wood veneer table with cheap TV remote, though I think it would have been more effective if the space could have somehow seemed more confining.

One other thing bothers me a little about this otherwise satisfying production. A filmed prologue, said to be videotaped 10 years ago during the trio’s senior year, kicks off the show, which is fine. But a filmed addendum to the live action seems superfluous and actually takes away from some of the play’s enticing ambiguities. The last blackout on the actors would have been a better place to stop.

Aside from the quibbles, however, “Tape” adds an intriguing, non-sentimental addition to the holiday theater season.


Photo: Jon Hollis, Bridget Manders-Martin and Kerry Cavin in “Tape.”


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