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Gonna let it shine: Richard Johnson in BTF’s Insurrection.

Time Keeps on Slippin’
By Ralph Hammann

Insurrection: Holding History
By Robert O’Hara, directed by Timothy Douglas

Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge, Mass., through Aug. 17

In a Berkshire Theatre Festival-issued interview, playwright Robert O’Hara says, “I will not be limited by others’ imaginations.” Neither is he limited by matters of conciseness, clarity and empathy. I don’t begrudge him his imagination; however, I wish he’d do a bit more self-policing or editing of it. In this tale of Ron (Wayne Scott), a gay African-American who is trying to come to terms with his ancestors’ background of slavery, O’Hara throws a few too many leg irons in the fire, and hobbles the flow of his complex material.

Insurrection begins with much noise that obfuscates comprehension, a problem compounded by Jake Goodman’s inarticulate bluster as a white reporter trying to get a story about Ron’s great-great grandfather, T.J. (Richard Johnson). When matters settle, we learn that T.J. is, improbably, 189 years old and has spent the last century confined to a wheelchair. Unable to move any part of his body save, for some vexing reason, a toe and an eye, T.J. communicates with Ron by shining (a form of telepathy).

T.J.’s age is an awkward contrivance to place him as an eyewitness to Nat Turner’s 1831 insurrection in which some 58 white men, women and children were slaughtered by rebelling slaves. Parallels to current religious prophets whose visions lead to massacres of the innocent (along with the guilty) are not examined but, doubtless, bolster the intrinsic interest of Turner’s insurrection.

To get to the truth about Turner, O’Hara throws in some distracting time travel, which sets minds to wondering what set of rules of time travel are being employed: Past and present merge, and members of Ron’s family find themselves in costumes and action from the past.

Timothy Douglas’ direction elicits committed performances from his largely talented cast, the exception being Goodman, who functions as a sort of token white. The notion has merit, and it is not the color of Goodman’s skin that makes him stand out as a negative distraction; rather it is his constant one-note, broad indicating, as opposed to inhabiting, of character. Then again, there is not much to inhabit.

Far better is Johnson, who emerges from the near-comatose state of T.J. in the present, to create a solid character whose words have resonance and dignity. In the more substantial and pivotal role of Ron, Scott offers a sympathetic enough portrayal, but not one that is powerful enough to emerge from the rush of events surrounding him.

We are similarly distanced from Shane Taylor’s Nat Turner, but it is less problematic here, and Taylor displays the requisite religious fervor to make one wonder if the play might veer into territory similar to Marat/Sade. Unfortunately, the climactic scenes, meant to jar us, remain canned.

The best performances are from Nedra Banks, Dana L. Wilson and, especially, Cherise Boothe. All throw themselves into their multiple roles with energy, spontaneity and craft that forcefully draw us into their scenes. As for Boothe, she has enough passion and pluck to constitute an entire insurrection on her own.

National Tragedy

The Complete History of America (abridged)
By Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor, directed by Eric Peterson

Oldcastle Theatre Company, Bennington Center for the Arts, Bennington, Vt., through Aug. 10

It is often unwise to make preshow promises to an audience. First, we were promised abundant laughs by Oldcastle Theatre Company’s Daryl Kenny, who said she laughed herself sick. Then, the cast says that they will perform their history in 90 minutes. The sickness that I felt leaving the theater 128 minutes later was not from laughter.

The Complete History is a sort of revue, intended (per the 90-minute promise) by its authors to be played at breakneck pace by the cast of three. The speed of farce is likely the only way that most of the show’s lame, sophomoric and recycled jokes could possibly be passed off as funny. But as directed in mostly aw-shucks, phlegmatic manner by Eric Peterson, it barely works up a trot when it should gallop. This is not to say that the actors don’t work up a laborious sweat; indeed, if they tried to play it at full speed, serious mishaps might occur.

Matthew Lopez, Tim Foley and Willy Jones play a wide range of characters, from Amerigo Vespucci to the Andrews sisters, in a series of skits meant to poke fun at American history. A conceit of the show is that they are not supposed to be terribly polished actors, and we are meant to laugh at the plight of these men of limited talents trying to accomplish the impossible history lesson in the brief time provided. However, it takes a great deal of talent to play at being a bad actor. The result here is amateurishly and embarrassingly forced.

Foley has a likable, easygoing presence, but he lacks the necessary range and energy. Lopez has lots of energy but little else that justifies his being an Equity actor or asked to assay a role of this size.

As for Willy Jones, it is sad to see an actor of some promise atrophy in an environment where he is allowed to pull from the same bag of tired tricks. While he may have reached the Great One’s girth, it’s not as if he has the mega-status and talent of a Jackie Gleason who could ride on the repetition of certain comic bits of business. How often do Jones or his directors at Oldcastle think one will find his pelvic thrusts funny just because of his size? And how often in one show? How many lines can be punctuated with the same “heh, heh” before discriminating audience members sigh their frustration? The effect is that of a big child showing off for audience approval—or pandering to the lowest common denominator in the audience. Only once is Jones truly funny, and that is when he tries the least in his portrayal of Conspirator Man.

A meager amount of the scattershot humor works, but persons entertained by dumb TV sitcoms or adolescent penetration jokes might enjoy more. There is a substantial attempt at black humor, which would normally be refreshing in this era of ultra-nationalism and bandwagon patriotic flag-waving, but it is so poorly carried off that the crude jokes just seem vaguely insulting to certain figures and moments of American history.

A question-and-answer period with the audience was a dud, as was much of the audience-participation game of Queen for a Day. A World War I scene, in which the actors repeatedly and annoyingly squirted the audience with water, backfired. Repeatedly. An attempt to finish the show with a parody of film noir could not have been salvaged had Bogart been in the wings, and had he been there, he’d have shot them.

If you absolutely must go to this blather, bring a squirt gun and fire before you see the whites of their eyes.

—R.H.


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