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A work in progrss: Griffin Matthews in The Blackamoor Angel.

 PHOTO: Stephanie Berger Photography

Slaves of Germany

By Meisha Rosenberg

The Blackamoor Angel: Part I

By Carl Hancock Rux

Bard Summerscape, Spiegeltent, Bard College, through Aug. 18

A boy from what is now North Cameroon was abducted by slave traders in the early 1700s, and in Prussia reinvented himself as Angelo Soliman, becoming a master chess player, mathematician, Freemason, tutor of Emperors Franz Joseph II and Leopold II and advisor to Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Upon Soliman’s death, the Emperor stuffed and mounted his body, which remained on display until 1848. Given this brilliant man whose body was such a weighted symbol of race, one can see why multidisciplinary artist Carl Hancock Rux was motivated to tell his story. Unfortunately, The Blackamoor Angel is not that story—instead, it is a story-within-a-story told by the world-weary performers of a Weimar Berlin multicultural troupe.

It’s unfortunate, because Rux, like Soliman (played by J.D. Webster), is himself quite a multitalented artist who could have pulled this off with more verve. A brainy rapper with a deep, soulful voice, Rux mixes funk and gospel in his tunes (albums include Apothecary Rx and Rux Revue); he’s also an OBIE award-winning playwright (for the 2002 play Talk, voted by Time Out as one of the year’s ten best); and winner of numerous prizes (New York Foundation for the Arts Prize, Bessie Schomburg award). So why is this performance of The Blackamoor Angel such a blah, conventionally staged cabaret act?

The first scene has the mixed-race troupe wondering, on the eve of the Reichstag elections, “who will come?” to their performances. With what might be called a “cabaret unhinged” style, the music is discordant and arch, and the singers are all adequately talented. But the agitprop troupe—a Jewish ringmaster (Larry Long), an African dancer and snake charmer (Christina Gill), a German “antipodist” (Griffin Matthews) among others—seem preternaturally aware of the coming Nazi catastrophe, and their self-conscious focus never gives way to any catching drama. They sing “The SS ban is lifted/To the Reichstag we are bound” and “Soon we’ll have no theater.” The Baroness Ala von Berchtesgadener (Cherry Duke) explains why her brooch bears the image of a Moor, but her appearance is abrupt, and her character is as one-dimensional as the brooch and what it symbolizes.

It almost felt like Rux, rather than trying to engage his audience’s heart and soul, was trying to pass a dissertation committee’s requirements with all the right academic multiculti references.

It’s a problem of writing, and also one of audience. The singers wryly comment on the Nazis’ fear of gypsies and Africans, pointing out, “We bring you no harm/You bring it on yourselves.” But blaming the audience to provide cabaret frisson is not a good idea, unless you really are in Weimar Germany.

Rasha, the Black Dove (Gill) and Agosta, the Winged Man (Fred Arsenault) sing of a white snake mating with a black cat. Although the white-snake prop is wonderfully designed (as are the headdresses worn in Scene 3, Exhibition of Ancient African Artifacts: “Deutschland Erwache!”), it’s not enough to revive a tired metaphor. One of the most disappointing aspects of the performance is the music, which is much like the writing: sophisticated but lacking in heart, despite the talented six-piece ensemble and the composer, Diedre Murray, an acclaimed avant-garde jazz musician. There are a couple of scenes when the music does take off, such as Scene 4, Jazz and the African, in which the music begins to slide into the rhythms of jazz, but these don’t last for long.

An ambitious failure by Carl Hancock Rux is still worthwhile. Rux spoke to the audience about his fascination with Soliman, explaining that the play is still being workshopped. I hope this is only the beginning of his exploration of this topic, since it is obvious that there’s a lot of passion in there—he just hasn’t tapped it fully yet.

A Couple of Mormon Chicks Sitting Around Suffering

Two-Headed

By Julie Jensen, directed by Marc Gellar

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Pittsfield, Mass., through Aug. 18

The dead tree dominates the stage. It’s on a low, brown hill with dry tuffs of tawny grass. The dead tree has huge branches, including one sticking out horizontally to stage left that’s perfect for swinging. Incongruously, there’s a six-foot wooden cellar door down center on the hill, a heavy black chain and lock prominent; what’s inside, hidden behind the door in the hill underneath the dead tree, isn’t to be seen. An elderly woman behind me exclaims, “That tree looks like it’s going to get up and walk away.” Except for the wooden door, Didi and Gogo could wait for Godot here and not be out of place.

Instead, the lights go black, and out of the darkness a gunshot is heard, the wooden door then glows white from underneath, and Two-Headed offers up Hettie (Diane Presha) and Lavinia (Corinna May), two 10-year-old Mormon “Merry Misses” playing on the tree. This is southern Utah in 1857, and a wagon- train full of non-Mormons has just been righteously slaughtered by the native Americans in a nearby meadow on Sept. 11. One hundred twenty-seven men, women, and older children are dead; 17 younger children are spared and “adopted” by nearby Mormon families. The two 10-year-old Mormon girls laugh and tease and romp and entertain themselves. Lavinia tells Hettie that there’s a two-headed calf hidden behind the cellar door. Hettie is fascinated by two-headed things: “So far I’ve seen three two-headed things: a two-headed sheep, a two-headed dog, a two-headed snake. I just love two-headed things.”

Two-Headed presents five scenes, each 10 years apart, in the lives of Lavinia and Hettie. But to describe Two-Headed thus is akin to describing Hamlet as a domestic drama about an only child’s family troubles. First performed in 2000, the play springs from Julie Jensen’s (currently resident playwright of the Salt Lake Acting Company) experiences as a Mormon and the history of the church in Utah. Two-Headed is an engrossing and complex play exploring the power of politics, religion, patriarchy, identity, polygamy, violence, truth and denial, springing from the church’s role in the massacre and its history of denying that role.

Both Hettie and Lavinia are “two-headed.” Hettie is devout and, in modern parlance, has swallowed the Kool-Aid by the gallons, denying not just the massacre of the “dirty immigrants,” but, in subsequent decades, discoveries about the Mormon Church’s role in it—and the church’s cover up of its involvement—as well as the continued practice of polygamy. Decade by decade we see Hettie deny, apologize, rationalize, and plead. Her betrayals of Lavinia—Hettie becomes Lavinia’s father’s second wife, and Hettie’s daughter becomes Lavinia’s husband’s second wife—provoke stinging rebukes from Lavinia, but the underlining friendship remains.

Two-Headed’s Lavinia is as complex as the one in Titus Andronicus; while the Mormon Lavinia isn’t literally raped and mutilated, her sufferings are just as deep and shocking. Her scene-by-scene revelations add power cumulatively.

The play is well-served by scenic designer Aaron P. Mastin’s Beckett perfect set, Frank DenDanto III’s dusty lighting design, and sound designer Craig Kaufman’s two-headed music (fiddles and hymns, reels and laments). Director Marc Geller keeps Two-Headed tightly paced, running 79 minutes, and has his superb actresses move from lithe 10-year-olds to sexually awake 20-year-olds to liberated 50-year-olds. Geller couldn’t ask for finer actresses than longtime Shakespeare & Company stalwarts Prusha and May, who inhabit Hettie and Lavinia fully. They are marvels to watch, and May, in particular, is a revelation. Long noted for her physical beauty—“the lovely Corinna May” seemed to be a standing staple for reviewers—May here doesn’t rely upon being the most attractive woman in the theater, but twists and bends with Lavinia as she ages. Two-Headed is a play for those who revel in drama that forces you to think as it entertains, a type of two-headedness that great theater possesses.

—James Yeara

Sisters Three

Crimes of the Heart

By Beth Henley, directed by Kathleen Turner

The Williamstown Theatre Festival, The Nikos Stage, through Aug. 18

It is the week for black comedy at the WTF. Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s absurdist variant, “The Physicists,” opened on the Center Stage, and now Beth Henley’s more realistic comedy with streaks of darkness has arrived on the Nikos Stage.

The play, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the New York Drama Critics Circle Award in 1981, went on to be filmed with Diane Keaton, Jessica Lange and Sissy Spacek cast in the roles of the McGrath sisters, whose humdrum existences in Hazlehurst, Miss., get a jolt on the day chronicled by the play. This is the day that they have gathered to await the death of their grandfather, who is in the local hospital. Meg, the middle sister, has returned from out of town where she has been pretending to have a lucrative career as a singer. Lennie, the eldest, is about to observe her 30th birthday, which is not cause for joy since she sees herself on the brink of spinsterhood.

Strangest of the three is the youngest, Babe, who shot her husband, a state senator, in the stomach because she apparently couldn’t stand his voice. Following the incident she made fresh lemonade with ten lemons, drank three glasses and offered her bleeding mate a fourth.

Anxious to defend Babe in court is Barnette Lloyd, an inexperienced attorney who has secretly been infatuated with her for years. Meg’s former lover, Doc Porter, is also on hand to renew their relationship that ended five years earlier during Hurricane Camille when Meg abandoned him in the ruins of a house that trapped him. Poor Lennie gets no visitors save for her cousin, Chick Boyle, whose two visits are as welcome as a sinus infection and an earache.

How these sisters became the way they are and how they move on from the influences of their dysfunctional family, is the stuff of the play. No great revelations about life are made, but by the end of the play there has been sufficient sisterly bonding to suggest they will support each other through whatever indignities and hardships the next day is certain to bring.

Too bad Kathleen Turner didn’t also direct The Front Page on the main stage. In her directorial debut, Turner knows how to drive a play forward and is attentive to its changing rhythms. There is music in her direction and the performers respond enthusiastically. Thus, scenes around the kitchen table feel ultra realistic with overlapping dialogue and acute cue pick-up that pique interest.

Jennifer Dundas easily depicts the toll that Lennie’s vanishing youth and lost years have taken on her. Those prime years spent in servitude to others, have left her in wallflower clothing with a slightly pinched face and the general demeanor of servitude. This nicely contrasts with her resonant voice, and when she sings happy birthday to herself, the loveliness and richness of her voice hint at the a far more vital presence.

Innately endearing, Lily Rabe endows daft Babe with sensuality and innocence. That later quality works wonderfully when she explains with utter simplicity the previously mentioned aggressive act. Here, her gentle voice, childlike eyes and sweet smile combine with the grim story to chilling and humorous effect.

Rabe and Chandler Williams, as Barnette, are both excellent during Barnette’s interrogation of Babe. Here they subtly reveal the subtext so that the scene becomes an unexpected and charming love scene without ever using the typical words of love. This is the kind of writing that truly distinguishes Henley’s talent, and here it sings in a duet between two naïfs.

Although Meg is immediately off-putting in her self-absorption, Sarah Paulson manages to surmount that with her sarcasm that we sense is a front for her vulnerability. Her ability to mix the mundane with the eventful is especially funny, but the bottom line is that somehow in the midst of her selfishness, Paulson makes us believe that she cares about her sisters’ plights. It feels a very honest portrayal and one that hides its technique.

As the truly snooty cousin, Kali Rocha comfortably wears Chick’s pretentiousness with a mix of grandiosity and ingenuousness that constantly undercuts her exalted self-image. She is hilarious in a bit of physical comedy that quite literally strips her of dignity as she struggles, quite unglamorously, to put on a pair of too-tight panty hose in full view of the audience.

What doesn’t work is Kris Stone’s set, which puts one in mind of unprofessionals having to make do in tight quarters on a low budget.

Despite the excellent performances and direction, I can’t say this play holds much interest on its third viewing. If you’ve never seen it or its issues are closer to your heart, then the present production should more than satisfy, and the play’s revelations will prove entertaining if not surprising. And while audience-friendly, this at least is not pabulum like The Corn Is Green, which just closed on the main stage.

—Ralph Hammann

Lab Rats

The Physicists

By Friedrich Durrenmatt, translated by James Kirkup, directed by Kevin O’Rourke

Williamstown Theatre Festival/Williams College Summer Theatre Lab, Williamstown, Mass., through Aug. 18

The opening image of Williamstown Theatre Festival’s The Physicists centers on the dead body of a nurse wrapped in a white sheet center stage, a lamp overturned downstage of the corpse, the bulb of the electric lamp unbroken, the black electrical cord sprawled across the shroud. A table up left is overturned. A red upholstered settee and matching bergere armchair is undisturbed stage right of the body, the light from the double set of French doors giving a genteel aura to the elegant furniture, which contrasts sharply with the dead body in white and the three gray metal doors across upstage.

The last image of WTF’s The Physicists centers on one of the murderers sitting forlornly in the upholstered bergere armchair, lighted solely by the bare, unbroken bulb directly to the right of his face, the two other murderers standing before the metal doors of their cells, before opening them and disappearing into the shadows of their solitude, leaving the lone killer to stare into the light.

What fits in between these two images is a madcap satirical comedy of ideas. Like the physics equations and mathematical formulas covering the walls and doors of the Cherry Trees Sanatorium, The Physicists is a complicated, nonlinear series of actions and poses resulting in considerable laughter at the speed of farce times the relative weight of science subservient to government exigencies. Though it was written in 1961 at the height of the exploitation over Cold War nuclear paranoia, the contemporary exploitation of fears over global warming, stem-cell research, avian flu, the war on terror and the Constitution make The Physicists as timely as it ever was, and just as funny.

The play focuses on the comings, goings, and murderings of the three most celebrated mental patients at the Cherry Trees Sanatorium: Herbert George Butler (the remarkable Roger Rees), who wears a long gray wig when he announces that he is celebrated physicist Sir Issac Newton, but really believes that he’s celebrated physicist Albert Einstein; Ernest Henry Erniesti (Mark Blum) who plays the violin and announces absent-mindedly that he is celebrated physicist Albert Einstein; and Jonathan William Mobius (a robust and convincing Rob Campbell), the most brilliant physicist of the three who is inspired by his conversations with King Solomon. Each has loved and lost, and waits and wants to love again, much to the amused angst of police inspector Richard Fox (a frantic John Feltch) who wouldn’t be out of the mise en scene in the next Pink Panther remake. Fox cannot melt the icy resolve of head doctor Mathilda von Zahnd (a wantonly willful Brenda Wehle), a hunchback who wouldn’t be out of place as both Igor and Frau Blucher in the Broadway musical version of Young Frankenstein. That the physicists are lethal lovers is a measure of their sanity.

The veteran cast gets the laughs and plumps the play for the poetic warnings on the misuse of science, and there are plenty of laughs and poetry to plump. Half the fun is watching the three lunatic scientists reveal their ever evolving (or creative designing) level of sanity as each reveals who he really is, what he really wants, and what he’s got hidden in the settee. A sure hand by director Kevin O’Rourke keeps The Physicists from collapsing under the weight of all the farcical door slamming, disguising, murdering, and plumping, and the book-ending images are as understandable and memorable as E=MC2.

—James Yeara

 


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