In the first scene of British playwright Abi Morgan’s mysteriously titled “Splendour,” in its Bay Area premiere at Aurora Theatre Company, four women come into focus, chattering politely.
There’s poised and gracious Micheleine upstage center (the inimitable Lorri Holt, glittering with diamonds, in a cream-colored suit and leopard-print heels, her blond hair in a chignon). Micheleine is the wife of the General (or, more likely, dictator) of an unnamed, presumably East European, country that’s in the midst of an uprising.
There’s sharp-eyed Kathryn (Denmo Ibrahim; like all four in this ethnically diverse ensemble, she’s perfectly cast, and brilliant), a tough-minded photojournalist from Britain who’s just arrived, loaded down with cameras, at the General’s request, to photograph him.
But he’s not here. According to Micheleine, he’s in his office, delayed by signing documents.
There’s sly Gilma (Sam Jackson), the translator — Kathryn doesn’t speak the others’ language — who comes from the presumably poverty-stricken North and whose big, loose coat has ample pockets for helping herself to items from the presidential palace.
And there’s anxiously friendly Genevieve (Mia Tagano), whom Micheleine has considered her best friend for the past 35 years.
But as it turns out, you can’t necessarily trust what the characters say, at least not at first, in this cleverly structured, almost-two-hour-long play (with no intermission).
The women converse, struggling through the untrustworthy translator to communicate, as they wait for the General to arrive for the shoot (a word that takes on multiple meanings here), watching each other guardedly and sometimes confiding in the audience. Rain and snow fall outside the window and gunfire resounds in the South. Tension rises.
In Morgan’s complex structure, the entire scenario comprises new, and amplified, versions of the same scene playing and replaying throughout, each reiteration signaled by the shock of a shattered antique vase.
And each replay is deeper, endlessly layered, as we learn more and more: of the circumstances, and of the characters’ relationships to each other and to others.
This is a play in which every word, every gesture, every prop, every costume element (design by Fumiko Bielefeldt), every sound and light cue (by Matt Stines and Kurt Landisman, respectively) and the deceptively pristine elegance of the room itself (set by Michael Locher), counts.
Under direction by Barbara Damashek, the interwoven text and carefully crafted performances become richer and more chilling, more compelling, moment by moment.
Where: Aurora Theatre Company, 2081 Addison St., Berkeley
When: 7 p.m. Tuesdays, 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays, closes July 23
Tickets: $32 to $56
Contact: (510) 843-4822, www.auroratheatre.org