Review: The Mandrake (A Red Orchid Theatre)

  
  

Tepid fun with fertility

  
  

Lucinda Johnston, Cheyenne Pinson, David Chrzanowski - The Mandrake

  
A Red Orchid Theatre presents
  
The Mandrake
  
Written by Niccolo Machiavelli
Translated by Peter Constantine
Directed by Steve Scott
at A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Much in the spirit of Ben Jonson’s salacious Volpone, Boccaccio’s lascivious tales of irrepressible lust, or the author’s own political bombshell The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli’s only surviving farce is a devastating diatribe. Its almost too-easy target is the too-human hypocrisies that deny nature—of course, meaning sex—its due. A Red Orchid Theatre’s revival is up to the dirty doings of this sprightly satire, but it never quite achieves the liftoff that leads to serial laughs.

Lance Bake, Steve Haggard - A Red Orchid Theatre's 'The Mandrake'The plot, a series of successful deceptions, is as straightforward as the genre gets. Unlike later commedia. like “A Comedy of Errors” or “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum,” there are no twists along its turns. Intrigue triumphs too easily against fear and folly.

With a cunning deadpan , sardonic slyness, but too little pleasure in his manipulations, Lance Baker plays the rouge Ligurio, a trickster who’s hired by the doting young lover Callimacho (Steve Haggard, mugging up a storm). This amoral young cock wants to bed the beautiful but much repressed Lucretia (lovely and shy Cheyenne Pinson). Unfortunately, she is barrenly married to the fatuous Messer Nicia (a rubber-faced Doug Vickers), a born gull who desperately wants a child from his too-chaste Lucrezia.

Ligurio enlists Lucrezia’s venal mother Sostrata (Lucinda Johnston) and an easily bribed and elaborately corrupt friar (David Chrzanowski) to set Lucrezia up for sex with a sweet stranger. Callimacho convinces the easily beguiled Messer Nicia that he’s a doctor who can make Lucrezia fertile with a special potion made from the lust-stirring mandrake root. But such are its properties that the first person who sleeps with her after this treatment will die. Of course, Callimacho will make sure that he’s the supposed sacrifice. Here everyone gets their way, even if it’s at the cost of Messer Nicia assiduously engineering his own cuckolding.

It’s a strange staging to start with: Though set designer Grant Sabin frames the comedy with a Renaissance proscenium that reveals a panoramic backdrop of an early 16th century Florentine piazza, Jeremy W. Floyd’s costumes are modern dress. The jarring contrast creates a stylistic tension, with the prosaic garb (except for Messer Nicia’s clownish garb) flattening the action with too much familiarity.

Rich in psychological pungency, Machiavelli’s cynbical quips about human nature give the predictable plot some philosophical heft. But the staging itself seems too grounded in everyday absurdities, the timing a tad too careful, to achieve the escape velocity of self-propelled, raucously urgent screwball burlesque. When the funniest laugh comes from a lighting cue (“The sun is up!”), something bland happened to the script.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Lance Baker, Steve Haggard, Doug Vickers - Mandrake

Steve Haggard, Lance Baker - The Mandrake Doug Vickers, Brian Kavanaugh - The Mandrake
     
     

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Review: Ephemera (Polarity Ensemble Theatre)

  
  

The last lost in space cadets

  
  

Kaelan Strouse and Kim Boler - Ephemera

  
Polarity Ensemble Theatre presents
  
Ephemera
  
Written by Bryce Wissel
Directed by Laura Sturm
at Josephinum Academy, 1500 N. Bell (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $19  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

You have to hand it to Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s latest production, a daffy space opera called Ephemera. It wings its charming way through its almost stream-of-consciousness universe while, at the same time, interjecting notes of wisdom and flashes of sobering reality. Not so sobering that it subverts its comic balance—playwright Bryce Wissel challenges his characters but never allows them to sink into maudlin self-pity or self-absorption. Directed by Laura Sturm, Ephemera does that delicate dance of riffing on well-worn and outlandish tropes from sci-fi, creates a few new ones on its own, while nodding to the obvious drawbacks of a life suspended in space. The crew of orbital space station Ephemera shows all the wear and tear of living the most ungrounded of existences but that hardly keeps them from playing out all their individual idiosyncrasies, even to the living end.

Kim Boler and Jonas Gray - EphemeraPresented in “installments” by greeter Androids 1 and 2 (Hilary Holbrook and Sarah Grant), the story begins with Ephemera’s crew discovering a talking monkey trapped in its airlock. The monkey, Davy (played with superb body language by Charley Jordan) was the original test monkey sent into space during NASA’s early exploration days. Perhaps–and only perhaps–decades of exposure to interstellar radiation have speeded his evolution to the point where he can hold affable conversation, jovially drink down the station’s alcohol and hit on Colonel Kate McBride (Kim Boler). True to sci-fi/action thriller formula, Kate’s the only female on board–so, of course, Davy’s not Kate’s only suitor. Manuel (Kaelan Strouse), an android who was probably weaned on Telemundo programming, exerts all his exuberant Latin charm to woo her–not to mention showboat the audience.

As hotly pursued as Kate is, it’s through her we discover the darker aspects of Ephemera’s nut-house environment—they have been on board, orbiting Earth, for who knows how long or for what purpose. There’s been no communication from Earth and they all have no memory of any time before they were there. “I don’t even know if we came here willingly,” she plaintively tells Davy. It quickly becomes clear that the crew’s behavior reflects the time-wasting, random goofiness of people without direction or relief from meaningless routine. “Everyone I know has heard all of my jokes,” complains Colonel James Bowie (Jonas Grey). The only one having fun with his role seems to be Commander William B. Travis (played with absurdist brilliance by Bob Wilson) and mostly because his role on the station seems to have been fabricated out of thin air.

      
     Kim Boler, Jonas Grey, Charley Jordan, Kaelan Strouse, Bob Wilson, Sarah Grant and Hilary Holbrook - Ephemera Charles Jordan and Kim Boler - Ephemera
Jonas Grey, Kaelan Strouse, Kim Boler, Charles Jordan - Ephemera Kaelan Strouse in 'Ephemera'

Even the comedy’s non-linear story structure, replete with dropped-in asides from the characters, instills repetitive and nonsensical time loops in the action. Wissel’s comedy matches the flukiness of Douglas Adams’ or even Tom Robbins’ novels. At the heart of its highly randomized exposition is a workplace comedy, where work is very definitely not the issue but getting along with the quirks of one’s co-workers is. For the most part, the non-linear storytelling is very successful—only in the second act does it begin to wear itself out as a MacGuffin. However, Sturm’s cast is spot-on in pace, timing and delivery—a factor made all the more exacting by the production’s technical elements. Plus, artist lewis lains’ set design and further art installations create a great space for the cast’s gentle and gracious finale that brings the show home clean, clear and truthful. If a little more editing could be employed, Ephemera just might takes its place in the stars among its illustrious space comedy forebears.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Jonas Gray, Charles Jordan, Kim Bolder

Ephemera continues through May 1st at Josephinum Academy, 1500 N. Bell (map), with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $19, and can be purchased online. More info at www.pettheatre.com.

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Review: Sinbad, The Untold Story (Adventure Stage Chicago)

  
  

Update on a classic adventure fantasy takes off, but not high

  
  

(l to r) Edgar Sanchez, Mildred Langford, Dana Dajani. Photo by Johnny Knight.

  
Adventure Stage presents
   
Sinbad: The Untold Story
   
Written by Charles Way
Directed by Amanda Delheimer
at Vittum Theater , 1012 N. Noble (map)
through April 16  |  tickets: $12-$17  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

How relieving, I thought while sitting amongst the kids and pre-teens at Adventure Stage’s Saturday matinee, to hear the words “Baghdad” and “Koran” outside of a contentious context. The children who will see Sinbad: The Untold Tale are part of a generation who’ve never experienced America before its frighteningly mainstream Islamophobic discourse, before every televised use of the phrase “Muslim” was intrinsically linked to controversy and heated debate. Charles Way’s 2006 play, on the other hand, is about as amenable as it gets: a quest story promoting courage and nobility–values that are universal with characters that are relatable.

The intent, as well as the production’s partnership with the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, is commendable; the execution is so-so.

Edgar Miguel Sanchez and Mike Ooi (koken) - photo Johnny KnightWay’s tale takes place in the years after Sinbad the Sailor’s epic journeys in “1001 Arabian Nights,” after the adventurer has wrapped up his seventh voyage at sea and called it quits. Retirement doesn’t end the world’s conquests, though, so when a witch plagues his city with a haze that in short-time will kill all adults (“Gas-s-s-s!,” anyone?), the tired and afflicted sailor transfers the hero role to his eager orphan porter (Edgar Miguel Sanchez, physically-grounded and affable as the young lead, alongside Dana Dajani as his travel partner Ittifaq).

From thereon, there aren’t many divergences from the tried-and-true action-for-kids plot. The porter is handed a box containing three items to use in times of peril, a girl sets out to prove herself by tagging along, saving him and becoming a love interest along the way, clever quips abound, etc. etc. It’s all very familiar and sustainable. But assuming the young audiences are not familiar with the original Sinbad stories, they’ll likely trip over a few recurring points. They may ask themselves, “who is that old man that keeps talking about adventures that sound more interesting? Who is Ittifaq’s mom, and why should I care?”

The action works from time to time. David Chrzanowski’s fight choreography infuses some video-game-type elements that, at the performance I attended, garnered lots of positive verbal reaction from the kids and least one audible “that’s cooool!” from a little girl behind me. Others fall comically short, like an attempt at a flying carpet that left two actors’ feet visible under their stuffed faux-legs. Not yet versed in polite restraint, many of the children outwardly giggled during a moment clearly aiming for a different response.

Sinbad: The Untold Tale could easily shave off 15 minutes, and its desired audience is a little ambiguous. As a journey tale, it meets the bar–but it isn’t magic.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Sinbad the Untold Story. Photo by Johnny Knight

Sinbad: The Untold Story continues through April 16th, with 10:30am performances March 22, 24 and 31; April 5, 7, 8, 12, 14 and 15.  Family matinee 2pm performances continue April 2, 9 and 16, with a special evening performance April 8th at 7pm. Tickets are not available online.  Instead, call 773.342.4141.

  
  

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Review: Samuel J. and K. (Steppenwolf Theatre)

  
  

Steppenwolf Young Adults feature plays it loose with plausibility, plot

  
  

Cliff Chamberlain and Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.

  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
Samuel J. and K.
   
Written by Mat Smart
Directed by
Ron OJ Parson
at
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through March 13  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

There’s no shortage of local shout-outs in director Ron OJ Parson’s Naperville-based family drama. Its dialogue makes generous references to landmark spots and (much to the amusement of the opening morning’s audience) a neighboring rivalry. In promotional materials, playwright and suburban native Mat Smart suggests elements of the play are semi-biographical. The Young Adults presentation will play to many teens who directly relate to its characters and their circumstances. This play wants to be relevant, and wants to be real.

Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. and Cliff Chamberlain in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.Its themes—identity, fate, racial definition, nature vs. nurture, brotherly love—are. So why do the stakes in Samuel J. and K. feel so low? And its story, lacking in authenticity?

Before adopted, black Samuel K. (Samuel G. Roberson, Jr.) walks to receive his college diploma, he and his older white brother Samuel J. (Cliff Chamberlain) indulge in a family tradition down at the basketball court. Too eager to wait, reaction-snap-cam in-hand, J. halts the game and begs K. to open his gift envelope; it contains two expensive, non-refundable, unsolicited and unwanted tickets to J.’s birth city in Cameroon.

Before the first pick-up game is over, the inciting argument comes to a head.

It’s also the audience’s first cue for a small suspension of disbelief: these Sams love each other and are close enough to talk smack and hip-check each other into chain link fences, but they’ve never had the adoptive ‘where is home really’ talk before? At that age? Having not yet built an understanding of the brothers’ dynamic, we’re launched into an issues talk before the relationship study has gotten a chance to get off the ground.

No sooner than we can ponder the implications of the gift or the risk of the trip are we whisked away to a mosquito net-lined bed in Africa—on the last day of the vacation.

Points where one would expect build—the inevitable second discussion (there had to have been more than one), the anxieties leading up to the trip, the arrival—are skipped over, making room for barely conceivable twists, including a borderline absurd subplot involving a mutual romantic interest. It’s a limp, manipulative device seemingly employed for no other purpose than to conjure a requisite “you’re not my real brother!”

Chamberlain makes do with his character’s under-supported choices, lending credibility to some of the play’s more outlandish ideas. As K., Roberson, Jr. has the tendency to over act, the perception of which is compounded by the valleys and holes in Smart’s script.

Lacking enough logic to create dramatic build, Samuel J. and K. is a two-man show in which the eponymous characters remain elusive. What are audiences—young or old—supposed to glean from that?

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Samuel G. Roberson, Jr. and Cliff Chamberlain in a scene from Mat Smart's 'Samuel J. and K." at Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago.  Photo by Peter Coombs.

  
  
 

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REVIEW: Carmilla (WildClaw Theatre)

  
  

WildClaw starts the year with fang-tastic Gothic treat

  
  

WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre

  
WildClaw Theatre presents
  
Carmilla
  
Written by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu
Adapted by
Alyrenee Amidei
Directed by
Scott Cummins
at
DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Purist fans of J. Sheridan LeFanu might curl their toes in horror over the liberties taken with his novella “Carmilla in WildClaw Theatre’s latest action-packed production, now onstage at the DCA Storefront Theater. But then, not knowing any LeFanu purists, just revel in this adaptation’s delightful mix of classic gothic style, self-conscious and knowing humor, insightful take on relationships, energetically executed fight scenes (Scott Cummins and David Chrzanowski) and–oh yes–lesbian vampires.

In our Buffy-Twilight-True-Blood saturated culture, you’ve seen vampires, you’ve seen lesbians, you’ve seen lesbian vampires–that’s entertainment. But WildClaw’s production, under Scott Cummins’ direction, cunningly returns audiences to the original dangers of women loving women, plus the wild danger inherent in giving oneself over to love, period.

WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront TheatreYoung Laura (Brittany Burch) is on the cusp of womanhood, passing her days at her father’s (Charley Sherman) rural schloss with only her governesses Madame Perrodon (Mandy Walsh) and Mademoiselle LaFontaine (Moira Begale-Smith) for feminine company. Amusing as the older women are, Laura craves a companion for which to socialize. The visiting and slightly amorous General Spielsdorf (Brian Amidei) has a ward, Bertha (Sara Gorsky), who just might fill the bill. However, word of her sinking into a mysterious illness cancels any chance of Laura making her acquaintance and draws the General away to see to his ward’s care. Laura faces her disappointment stoically, as well as the teasing Perrodon and LaFontaine give her on being a prospective match for the General. Living where they are, few options exist from which to choose a mate who could appeal to Laura romantically. She accepts that any marriage might have to be sensibly arranged for her future security more than anything.

During a family outing in the moonlight, a carriage careens by and almost crashes—three strangers emerge from the accident, a veiled woman, a younger woman who has collapsed and a servant in an eye patch. The veiled woman (Erin Myers) seems mysteriously familiar to Laura’s father but she refuses to reveal her identity. She only discloses that she must hurry on to take care of business critical to their family’s welfare, but doesn’t dare to take her weak daughter any further on the journey. Laura’s father offers to take the girl in for the three months the woman requires to secure their future. So it is that Laura becomes friends with the strange and fascinating Carmilla (Michaela Petro), who has seen Laura’s face in a dream, just as Laura has seen hers in a similar dream.

Cummins’ direction strikes a steady and creative balance between building eerie tension and swinging into bursts of action that enliven the storyline and push the plot forward. Beyond the excitement of fight scenes, the play’s interjection of gypsies, either at play or at mourning, work to disrupt the close, fever/dream relationship between Carmilla and Laura, as well as suffuse the play’s atmosphere with foreboding, unrelenting superstition. Superstition is gospel among this play’s lower orders, but its upper class characters are never far from its infecting influence. Dr. Hesselius (Steve Herson) seems at times as helpless as any medieval physician—resorting to bloodletting as part of Laura’s “cure” when she falls under the same wasting illness that takes Bertha’s life.

But more to the point, Burch and Petro successfully capture the delicate sensuality that was an intricate part of 19th century genteel women’s relationships. Even before Carmilla begins to put the moves on Laura, their relationship wobbles along a fine line between friends and lovers. Carmilla may have seduced others, but she invests earnest passion more in the chase than in the conquest. As for Burch, she skillfully renders Laura with all the befuddlement of a young woman who, besides not knowing about the birds and the bees, simply cannot know or imagine the emotional impact overwhelming love can have. Carmilla dominates Laura from the possession of greater knowledge and experience and maintaining the mystery about her.

     
WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre
WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre

Aly Amidei’s script has taken the best of LeFanu’s poetic text and interwoven it with a clearer feminist impulse. Carmilla comes across as more of an intellectual in this play than she does in LeFanu’s novella. Carmilla’s story also benefits from Amidei integrating 19th century beliefs about suicide leading to vampirism and the dead needing to be staked down so that they do not rise and prey upon the living. The men who come after Carmilla, the General and the Ranger (Josh Zagoren), strike the exact note of righteous masculinity prevailing against the disorder of a feminine fiend. Going after vampires is not without its humorous moments, though, and these are well played by Herson and Sherman.

Having so much going for it, it’s disappointing when instances of amateurism plague the show. There were times I simply loved Bertha (Sara Gorsky), Carmilla’s earlier prey-turned-vampire, prowling the countryside like a feral beast, only to watch her animality go over the top in other scenes. Carmilla’s occult powers over Henri (Scott T. Barsotti), her competition for Laura’s affections, also strained credibility and made his departure to go hang himself more laughable than convincing.

All in all, though, Wildclaw shows real dedication to intelligent horror entertainment. Audiences won’t be fed the same old vamps but something that evokes the rich subtly of women in close personal relationships. They will also find Charlie Athanas’ special effects and the sound design of Mikhail Fiksel and Scott Tallarida well paired with LeFanu’s language, rounding out Carmilla as a good, solid gothic treat.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

WildClaw Theatre presents 'Carmilla' at DCA Storefront Theatre

 

     
     

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REVIEW: And a Child Shall Lead (Adventure Stage)

   
  

Against Genocide, Art Endures

 

And a Child Shall Lead - Adventure Stage Chicago 013

   
Adventure Stage presents
   
And a Child Shall Lead
   
Written by Michael Slade
Directed by
Tom Arvetis
at Vittum Theater, 1012 N. Noble (map)
through December 9  |  tickets: $12-$17  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Feeling a little depressed, now that “hope and change” from the 2008 election has thoroughly lost its gloss? Head on over to Adventure Stage Theatre’s production, And a Child Shall Lead. Take a good look at young people fighting insurmountable odds to sustain creativity and to speak truth to power.

And a Child Shall Lead - Adventure Stage Chicago 011Under the Nazis, from 1941 to 1945, the 18th-century fortress of Terezin, located in present day Czech Republic, was a nightmare place where youthful promise was meant to die. It was a transit camp where deported Jews either succumbed to starvation and disease or were shipped out to Auschwtiz, Majdanek and Treblinka. But Terezin was also a place where the Gestapo deported Jewish artists. Such a strong repository of cultured European Jewry yielded over 6000 hidden works of art created by Terezin’s children—hidden because any evidence of cultural creation or education at Terezin was punishable by death.

Michael Slade’s drama focuses solely on the child artists of Terezin. They draw, write poetry, stage puppet shows, play music and run their own newspaper. While mostly young adults take on child roles for the production, no adult character disturbs the world of this play. And a Child Shall Lead is meant for younger audiences but adults can also benefit from getting back to basics. Just an hour into the play makes one realize the perennial nature of their struggle–simply to be heard, to have the truth told, no matter how terrible, and to create a vision of a better future worth surviving for. Unlike us, the child artists of Terezin carry out their mission under far deadlier and more dehumanizing circumstances.

Heavy stuff for children’s theater; yet Director Tom Arvetis preserves the youthful drive and perspective of his cast through an energetic and rigorous pace of playing games: hide and seek, hiding from Nazi guards, hiding their artwork and newspaper articles in their own secret places, stealing paper from trash bins (because paper has been forbidden them) and carrying on lessons while a child stands lookout. Even while portraying hunger, illness, and an ever-present terror of arbitrary execution, Arvetis’ cast brings excitement, suspense, and playfulness to their characters’ fight for survival, beauty and meaning. Play and preserving play in the midst of horror is this production’s most successful feature. Well-balanced scenic (Jessica Kuehnau), sound (Miles Polaski) and lighting design (Brandon Wardell) perfectly supplement and supports the action.

 

And a Child Shall Lead - Adventure Stage Chicago 001 And a Child Shall Lead - Adventure Stage Chicago 012
And a Child Shall Lead - Adventure Stage Chicago 025 And a Child Shall Lead - Adventure Stage Chicago 019 And a Child Shall Lead - Adventure Stage Chicago 008

Getting the truth out to others about the atrocities they endure proves far more overwhelming for Terezin’s children. The Third Reich showcases the city as the “Fuhrer’s gift to the Jews,” a place where they can be safe from the war. But, in reality, Terezin functions as a distraction from The Final Solution. The Gestapo produces a propaganda film about the city, complete with staged scenes of healthy and contented Jewish residents engaged in crafts. As the Red Cross visits Terezin, the children attempt to get their newspaper Vedem to the inspectors, but fail. All the Red Cross perceives is whitewashed Nazi reality.

What endures from Terezin is the artwork and the bits of their newspaper. Death comes for nearly every character in the play–certainly, 15,000 children died in the actual ghetto. The production displays artwork copied from the artwork produced by the children of Terezin. Every poem recited is poetry that survived this awful place. While Slade’s play could benefit from a small amount of editing, no one can deny the emotional impact of his clear, simple and forthright work. It touches the primal core in us all and Michael Slade places our need for human dignity at the very center of childlike self-expression.

  
   
Rating: ★★★½
      
   

Recommended for ages 11 and up (6th thru 8th grades).

And a Child Shall Lead - Adventure Stage Chicago 009

         
        

 

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Review: “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” at Court Theatre

Brilliant and Balanced, Ma Rainey Raises the Roof

 Olglesby, Roston, Johnson, Smith, Alfred, Young, Cox and Spencer - H

Court Theatre presents:

Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom

by August Wilson
directed by OJ Parson
runs thru October 18th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

 

Alfred and Johnson - V In the Court Theatre program introduction to their production of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, director Ron OJ Parson contrasts his previous experience at Court with August Wilson’s The Piano Lesson. “Working on Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom has been a different kind of experience . . . it feels to me like the work of a younger playwright . . . Ma Rainey’s is fast and brash like Levee, its central character.”

Not a bad analogy, between protagonist and play. But it’s not as if Wilson’s first major drama shortchanges the audience in layers of dilemma and meaning. Parson, for his part, deliberately and meticulously draws out every nuance and tier possible between those characters with power and those with less, and less.

John Culbert’s weathered, stressed and architectural set design surely assists Parson in establishing the play’s hierarchies of privilege and power. At its very bottom, the musicians wait and wait for Ma Rainey (Greta Oglesby), the Mother of the Blues, to arrive and hold court—at least for as long as the recording session goes on.

Time and generational differences, as much as races or genders, hold the crucial center to this play. The older musicians of Ma’s band, Toledo (Alfred H. Wilson), Cutler (Cedric Young), and Slow Drag (A.C. Smith) have long since learned how to bide their time by swapping stories and friendly BS; choosing the path of least resistance seems to be their life-long technique for deliberately surviving arduous, uncertain times and territory. But their low-key endurance may be too much for Levee (James T. Alfred), who aspires to make his mark with his own jazz compositions and band. To him, such coping strategies smack of compromise with the thousand indignities being black was (is) heir to.

Oglesby and cast - H Levee has far more going on with him than simple impatience or cocksure youthful arrogance. Parson’s direction starts Levee off at a low boil; but it is Alfred’s control, intensity, and fire which succeeds in pulling off Levee’s assault on Cutler, and his rant against God, with crucifying realism.

The play inexorably builds to this, through all the excruciating little deferrals and detours of Ma Rainey’s recording session. Humorous as it is, given Ma’s demand that her stuttering, country nephew Sylvester (Kelvin Roston, Jr.) intro her lead song, running underneath it all is the realization that Ma’s moment of glory is fleeting.

The recording company’s neurotic owner, Sturdyvant (Thomas J. Cox), insistently presses for fresher, faster music, whether he will pay decently for it or not. The money and privilege that Ma is flush with cannot last forever. There is something quite Biblical about this aspect of Wilson’s play, just as there is something downright Greek tragedy about Levee railing against God. It’s here we truly see the marks of a younger playwright.

cast of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom - V Oglesby II - V

Oglesby, for her part, plays Rainey with willful blindness to the impending demise of her career, which doesn’t endear her to the audience, however deeply we identify with her pent up rage when she signs the release forms. She may lord herself over Levee and thwart his ambitions; she may boss her band, her entourage, and her manager; but the limits she bumps into truly close around her. Play the queen as much as she may, true power, which can only come from control over her own work, is not hers to have in this world. The same power denied her, is also denied Levee; what should make them natural allies ends up setting them against each other. The generational divide between Levee and the band also holds devastating consequences.

Overall, this production is too fine for a little critical kibitzing about pacing in some scenes. Court Theatre has a near perfect production on its hands. The entire cast is evenly and indisputably excellent. Even small roles leave lasting impressions, like David Chrzanowski’s smug Policeman, Stephen Spencer’s stressed out but enabling manager, Irvin, and Kristy Johnson, who seems born to play Ma’s woman, Dussie Mae. Now the audience just has to get there before time runs out.

Rating: ««««

 

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