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More than a Mac: (l-r) Long and Odera in Samuel J. and K.

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

Sam I Am

By Ralph Hammann

Samuel J. and K.

By Mat Smart, directed by Justin Waldman

Williamstown Theatre Festival, Nikos Stage, through July 18th

 

Travel to foreign places often upsets one’s balance and complacent sense of identity; it can produce a surprising epiphany that occasions self-reflection if not reinvention. Anyone who has suddenly found himself having such an experience or, at the very least, a strong and unexpected bond to a new place, will find much to admire in Mat Smart’s knowing new play.

Samuel Jackson Sanders was born in Naperville, Illinois to white parents. When Sam was four, his father abandoned him and his mother, called Moms. Samuel Kennedy Sanders was born in Cameroon, a country on the western coast of Africa, and was left at age three in a bucket in front of a church. Sam J. and Sam K. became brothers when Moms adopted the latter and brought him up in Naperville.

Smart’s play opens with the two Sams playing one-on-one basketball on a somewhat bleak public court in Naperville. It’s a canny setting, deftly realized in Adam Stockhausen’s adaptable set, and from the start we get an immediate sense of the brothers’ mutual love, as well as an initially unspoken rivalry. As the two shoot hoops and check each other, the tensions of their backstory become more apparent.

Sam J. is a college dropout with an understated propensity for injuring Sam K. In the past, he has broken K’s nose, and during the present game he will cause K. a torn ligament in his leg. (I’d jettison the cane that K. is given in the second act. Given Odera’s movements it doesn’t seem that K. really needs it. It also seems an unnecessary and too-obvious symbol.) But these are nothing compared to what will happen in the future.

Sam K, the more conservative brother, has just graduated from college, is critical of J’s treatment of his girlfriend, and is apparently Moms’ favorite.

The play’s themes of family, identity and home begin to coalesce when J. presents K. with an unusual graduation present: airplane tickets to Cameroon for the two of them. J. is certain that K. will want to see where he was born, a supposition that is countered by K. (in an especially well-written passage) who asks J. if he has any desire to see the hospital room in Naperville where he was born.

The action shifts to Cameroon, which proves an intriguing catalyst for the plot and character developments that ensue. It is a tribute to the acting, writing and direction that we are kept interested during the entirety of this two-hander.

Smart has a fine ear for naturalistic dialogue, only faltering a bit in the revelation of some backstory following a drunken binge on the brothers’ final night in Cameroon. The fault here may actually lie in a not very believably sustained drunk scene wherein the two actors move too soon to complete sobriety. Otherwise, the rhythms in the speeches and in the dynamics of their complex and changing relationship are beautifully composed by Smart, sensitively orchestrated by Waldman and compellingly played by Justin Long (as J.) and Owiso Odera (as K.).

Long expertly conveys J’s emotional tie to K, an attachment that has left him vulnerable, sad, and dangerously crippling to his brother as well as himself. Odera similarly finds nuances in his excellent portrayal of K.’s denial, repression and love.

Long and Odera control the stage with the same dexterity that they handle the basketball in what seems like a spontaneously played game. A mark of their confidence lies in the casual ease in which the ball is recovered as it bounces downstage toward the audience. More importantly, they are supremely comfortable at accessing genuine emotions that result in real tears and charged silences.

 

Tower of Strength

The Life and Death of King Richard III

By William Shakespeare, Conceived and adapted by Tony Simotes, directed by Jonathan Croy

Shakespeare & Company, Founders Theatre, through September 5

“Now is the winter of our discontent/ Made glorious summer by this son of York” begins one of the most famous of Shakespeare’s soliloquies. Lawrence Olivier, Ian McKellen, Al Pacino have used this opening declaration by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, to physically demonstrate the hunchbacked, limping, crippled character’s homicidal ambition. The role of the Duke of Gloucester who becomes King Richard III in the fourth act attracts acting talent because the role, second only to Hamlet in lines, tasks the actor.

The bravura turn at Shakespeare & Company has this opening set piece done with the peerless John Douglas Thompson flat on his back, the top of his head facing the audience. We hear the words ring out in their honeyed menace, in their declaration of intent, in their shift from the initial repetition of the inclusive “our” to the repetition of the exclusive “I.” It’s as if Thompson’s Richard were resting or dreaming. One of the motifs this excellent production brings out clearly is how central the characters’ dreams are to the action and how deftly Richard manipulates them; the ensuing three hour storm of political intrigue, deceptions, betrayals, literal back-stabbing, and manipulations is the stuff theatrical dreams are made on. It’s a brave opening gambit in as original and engaging a production as you could only dream of for Shakespeare’s complex play on 15th century English history.

That Thompson would play Richard after playing Othello at Shake speare & Company the previous two seasons to such triumph (The New York Times has called him “one of the most compelling classical stage actors of his generation,”) is a masterstroke. In Richard, Thompson plays an earlier version of Iago, the master manipulator, though with more lines and more on the line: the crown.

That the production, based on artistic director Tony Simotes’ adaptation and production concept and directed by Jonathan Croy, makes this The Life and Death of King Richard III accessible and easy to follow, despite the play’s convoluted politics is another masterstroke. In the War of the Roses, everyone is related to everyone, characters switch allegiances, and there are more second marriages than in a town full of drunk Mormons. This is, purposefully, the funniest R3 you’re likely to see, but the laughter springs, not from comedic joy but from nasty sarcasm, political spite, and schadenfreude that make the New York legislature seem like a group of Boy Scouts preening over merit badges.

One of Croy’s many excellent directorial moments is the telling scene where Thompson’s Richard enters London to win the populace to his cause. The Lord Mayor of London, (played to full unctuosity by the preening Johnny Lee Davenport, to single out just one of the many excellent supporting performances in this production), whips the citizens—the audience—into a chant of “Long Live Richard, England’s Royal King.” The audience does clap and chant with enthusiasm as the soon-to-be-crowned Richard enters behind henchmen bearing a wooden cross (the symbolism of a black man following a cross into a roomful of chanting white people is so incredibly ballsy that it alone deserves a dissertation). He stops to shake hands with his adoring public and exchange greetings, whipping them into such frenzy that the moment laid bare similar contemporary manipulations, such as Glenn Beck and the Tea Party; all Thompson needed was a chalkboard.

Set designer Patrick Brennan’s movable gothic arches are another performer in this tableau, as are Arthur Oliver’s opulent early Renaissance costumes. As the arches are whole or fragmented, so goes England, and the more bejeweled and gold chained the costume the more inwardly fettered and doomed the character. The production is filled with more excellent performances and scenes that could fit into a single review: Tod Randolph’s Queen Elizabeth going tête-à- tête with Thompson’s Richards, Ryan Winkles’ fight choreography in a masterful final melee at Bosworth Field to give nod to just two. Director Croy, actor Thompson, and the cast and crew have taken a 420 year old play and made it seem as fresh and bracing as if it were our history happening yesterday, making Shakespeare & Company’s The Life and Death of King Richard III a must see.

—James Yeara

 

Brush Right By

Brush the Summer By

By Hal Corley, directed by Mark Fleischer

Adirondack Theatre Festival, Through July 17

Brush the Summer By, the current offering at Adirondack Theater Festival, sounds like it should make for a pleasant theatrical soak in the Adirondack Sun. Set in Lake Placid, the script (workshopped by ATF last season) draws its title from an Emily Dickinson poem, is penned by five-time Emmy Award- winning writer Hal Corley, and follows an encounter between a conservative divorcee on a leaf peeping drip from Maryland and a free-spirited bartender. Breezy summer fare. But from the moment the lights come up on said bartender sunbathing nude in the woods, the play stomps without subtlety towards its contrived end. The experience feels more like staring directly into the sun than basking in its glow.

Nearly all of the fault lies in Corley’s hackneyed script, which is devoid, even in its most tender moments, of the nuance, subtext and complexity of the intimate dialogue necessary to drive a two-hander. He panders to a regional audience, awkwardly inserting a string of jarring local references, but fails to create genuine human detail in his characters or story. Corley’s experience and awards come from daytime serial writing, and while the caricatures and gasp-weep-repeat formula of soap operas may be a welcome lunch-break respite for many, it doesn’t translate to stage.

As Ellen, Suzanna Hay eeks every ounce of heart possible out of the vacant script. She manages to spin some lovely moments from thin air, and flashes deftly between schoolgirl, siren and grandmother. Her performance is doubly impressive considering how little she gets in return from Kevin Kelly, who fumbled lines during his self-aware performance and brought little internal fire to help illuminate the vaguely written character.

David Esler’s multi-tiered set is packed with birches, torn strips of canvas evoking reeds and rushes, and a large A-frame and birch-bordered scrim at center, which served, except in a brief wordless moment, as a screen for scene-setting projections by Richard DiBella. The set manages to look busy, without ever creating a real sense of place or atmosphere, and the projections—scenic photos of the Adirondacks and hotel interiors, interspersed with stock animations—are a gratingly literal backdrop for the inelegant scenes.

A quick skim through the provided script, however, reveals that Corley’s heavy-handed stage directions (respected for the premiere production) left little to the imagination, even for the designers. He includes a parenthetical slide show of between-scene images, and burdens Esler and director Mark Fleischer with a nearly impossible number of locations for the quick-scened, intermissionless play.

Fleischer has done his best to create Corley’s world on stage, but the action is often stagnant or unnatural, the characters are broad and ill-defined and the plot, even after a dramatic twist in the latter half, predictable and preachy. The production comes as a particular disappointment after Fleischer’s evocative, understated and poetic work on last year’s Ordinary Days. His largest mistake, as ATF’s Producing Artistic Director, was in selecting Brush the Summer By for the festival’s stage.

—By Kathryn Geurin

 

 


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