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It’s a mental state: (l-r) McLain and Asprey in Blue/Orange.

Who’s Crazy Now?

By James Yeara

Blue/Orange

By Joe Penhall, directed by Timothy Douglas

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, Mass., through Sept. 2

The most intriguing twist of the theatrical summer season occurs when the trio of actors who create screwball merriment in Shakespeare & Company’s production of Rough Crossing create laughs that cut in Blue/Orange. Such twists highlight the troupe’s uniqueness; audiences can see actors stretch themselves creating and developing different characters in different productions in a season, not just create a character for a dozen performances. The trio of Malcolm Ingram, LeRoy McLain, and Jason Asprey move from the rolling farce of Rough Crossing to the exploration of race, class, and mental illness in Blue/Orange, sometimes within the same day. It’s that eclectic mix of plays that mark Shakespeare & Company’s excellence both in education and entertainment.

And Blue/Orange does both: educate and entertain. A hit from the 2000 London season with the phenomenal cast of Bill Nighy, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Andrew Lincoln, Blue/Orange focuses on the shifting relationships between mental patient Chris (McLain, the steward from Rough Crossing), his attending psychiatrist-in-training Bruce (Asprey, the veggie-chomping playwright from Rough Crossing), and attending guru-in-charge Dr. Robert Smith (Ingram, the ember of a Lothario from Rough Crossing). Chris is excited as he prepares for his exit interview with Bruce on the last day of a “Sectioned with a 136” sentence, a term the program helpfully explains is a means for the police to have someone who is visibly mentally disturbed in a public space locked up for 28 days of psychiatric evaluation. That Chris is a 20- something black man living in an impoverished area of London, ironically named White City Estate (it’s an actual place), lies at the heart of being “Sectioned with a 136.”

Bruce evaluates the energetic, almost manic, Chris as if he were training a 6-year-old, or a chimpanzee. His condescending attitude, his attempts at connecting with Chris—their chat about drugs is funny and damning—and his inept fawning over Dr. Smith mark him as a man doomed to a fall.

Dr. Smith wears his authority well. That his diagnosis immediately differs from Bruce’s—Smith wants to release Chris as scheduled to free up a bed, Bruce wants to keep him confined indefinitely as Bruce finds Chris dangerous—begins the shifting of status. Smith is a man accustomed to wearing his power in an avuncular manner; his chummy authority masks the readiness to sacrifice anyone to maintain the positions he desires.

Chris bobs and weaves, struts and sulks, but he’s always aware of the dynamics between head doctor and trainee, and observes their behavior with trenchant insights worthy of a psychiatrist or chief detective. Observation is at the heart of all manipulation. That Chris believes his father is former Ugandan dictator Idi Amin (playwright Joe Penhall also wrote the screenplay for The Last King of Scotland, the Oscar- winning film about a doctor’s relationship with Amin), and that the oranges in a bowl on the table in the consulting room are blue, alarms Bruce; Bruce is even more disturbed by Smith’s readily explaining away Chris’ beliefs with jargon. “My semantics are better than yours, so I win,” Smith states calmly. “You can’t afford to not follow my advice,” the doctor states, summing up the authority behind every institution since the beginning of man.

Director Timothy Douglas engenders engaging performances here, and has staged Blue/Orange with crisp zestiness. Tony Cisek’s set design is institutionally bright, clean, and inhuman; the all important oranges seem to pop with color under the overhanging office lighting. Douglas has his trio of actors inhabiting the same space but reacting believably according to their shifting status; while occasionally the Pinter-esque pauses or Mamet-like interruptions in Penhall’s play lapse into a performance of memorized dialogue and rehearsed stage directions, McLain’s Chris is always connected to the moment and responsive to the second; his Chris is a man trapped, gnawing his way to freedom. Whom he has to gnaw through is the fault of various institutions, but the gnawing is an act of sanity; he’s not just another angry black man. Blue/Orange reminded of Shakespeare & Company’s excellent The Fly-Bottle from 2003: an intelligent, challenging play that creates as much laughter as thought.

Bad Sexy Time

Party Come Here

Book by Daniel Goldfarb, music and lyrics by David Kirshenbaum, directed by Christopher Ashley

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown, Mass., through Aug. 5

Jack (a Jew) and Kate (a gentIle) interrupt their wedding when Kate suddenly feels that they should fly from New York City to Rio de Janeiro so that she can meet his father, Wood, who left Jack’s mother, Liberty, and fled to Brazil where he married a young beauty named Volere. In Rio, Volere sings “The Party Come Here,” which I couldn’t hear above the din of the three-piece orchestra even though the singers were miked. It could be that I missed the linchpin of the play, but somehow I doubt it

Matters get increasingly bizarre when Jack meets Orlando, a 499-year-old Marrano Jew hiding in a cave from the prejudice that must exist in Brazil, a largely Catholic country. Orlando serenades Jack with the memorable “You’re a Jew.” Kate gets randy with Wood, prompting Volere to phone Liberty, who is always being snowed upon, even in Rio.

Jack and Orlando bond because they are both hiding from the world, and they sing a duet about anti- Semitism, “Everybody Hates” (a Jew), a humorous historical ditty about various genocides of Jews beginning with Egypt. When they get to the Holocaust, they guess maybe it isn’t such a good idea to continue. Without the conviction of black humor to sustain it, the jokey song dies, and points to the soullessness that pervades this musical.

The characters are unbelievable despite the best efforts of a talented cast headed by Hunter Foster, who brings a strong voice and spontaneity to Jack. Kate Reinders wisely plays it straight as Kate; her physical presence is stressed in David C. Woolard’s scant costumes (she is forced to spend most of the play in various stages of undress), and it must be noted that she has a powerful sexual presence.

So too does Chaunteé Schuler, as Volere, who probably could land a job at Rio’s Plataforma 1, a famous tourist attraction that features some of the most beautiful women in Rio dancing the Samba in various states of undress.

Should either of these women fail to distract one from the musical’s deficiencies, there are also the curves of Sarah Turner and the sensuality of the statuesque Kate Roberts. Both showed their acting chops in the WTF’s Free Theatre, Wing It. Here they show considerably more as exotic dancers dressed in colorful plumage.

If you enjoy beautiful women displaying their natural gifts, these four women are the best parts of the show. Courtesy of them, there is always a sense of sexuality on stage, and this is one thing that the production gets right about Rio—the constant parade of feminine beauty and sexual allure that pervades the entire city from Copacabana to the famous clubs that never seem to close. And it is this atmosphere of sex and sensuality that the show depends on to justify the sudden urges of Kate and, to a lesser degree, the loosening of Jack. It’s the old Blame it on Rio excuse.

Malcolm Gets is saddled with the co- starring role of Orlando, a character who needs definition and better motivation.

David Kirshenbaum has written some decent music and supplies enough clever lyrics to lend the show its few laughs. However, tunes get repetitive and acquire a dull sameness. Sensing the failures of Daniel Goldfarb’s book and the limitations of the music, savvy Christopher Ashley directs at a brisk pace.

The party ends with an example of deus ex machina that would offend Aristotle, Jesus and any self-respecting Carioca. It’s as if Goldfarb and Kirshenbaum imbibed too many Caipirinhas while writing this arbitrary, inconsistent and incoherent musical. A few glasses of Brazil’s most famous cocktail can make you dizzy to the point of hallucinating. The program to the play thoughtfully includes the recipe. Theatergoers would be advised, however, to down a few before going to the show.

—Ralph Hammann

 


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