Frankie and Johnny and Black Snake Moan
Within a period of several days, the Dresser saw two works dealing with the hurt and balm of love relationships: the Arena Stage production of the two-character play Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune by Terrence McNally and the newly released Craig Brewer film Black Snake Moan.
HOOKING UP IN THE LIGHT OF THE MOON
In Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune, two ordinary people, a short-order cook and a waitress, hook up on a night with a full moon. They have exuberant sex, made all that much more intense by their advancing ages. After they are spent, Frankie wants Johnny to go home, but Johnny, who keeps Shakespeare and a dictionary in his work locker, is deeply smitten with Frankie and rolls out the words and quotations he has learned to persuade her that they are meant for each other. In a conversation about their respective, no-good mothers and the men they ran around with, Johnny says, "What people see in one another! It's a total mystery. Shakespeare said it best: 'There are more things in heaven and on earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy, Horatio.'"
Vito D'Ambrosio (Johnny) and Kate Buddeke (Frankie)
Photo Credit: Scott Suchman
What kicks this love story over the top is that Frankie’s radio accidentally gets tuned into a classical music station that plays music that touches Frankie so much that Johnny calls the station to find out what the composition was and then goes on to tell his story to the radio host. Johnny says, "My name is Johnny. My friend and I were making love and in the afterglow, which I sometimes think is the most beatiful part of making love, she noticed that you were playing some really beautiful music, piano. She was right. I don't know much about quality music, which I could gather that was, so I would like to know the name of that particular piece and the artist performing it so I can buy the record and present it to my lady love, whose name is Frankie and is that a beautiful coincidence or is it not?" Then Johnny asks for a selection of beautiful music dedicated to them. Although the radioman doesn’t believe they are really named Frankie and Johnny and that Johnny was probably pulling his leg, he breaks his rules about requests and dedicates Claude Debussy’s “Claire de Lune” to them.
Arena Stage under the direction of David Muse has mounted a thoroughly engaging production of one of McNally’s earliest works that garnered public attention as an off-Broadway play in 1987 originally starring film actors Kathy Bates and Kenneth Welsh. The original play went on to Broadway and then to Hollywood in an adapted film called Frankie and Johnny starring Al Pacino and Michelle Pfeiffer. In the Arena Stage production, Muse has cast well in choosing Kate Buddeke and Vito D’Ambrosio. These actors, who first met in college, create credible flesh-and-blood interactions that include naked body contact and raw emotional reactions. Neil Patel’s revolving set works well to make a suspenseful opening scene of naked lovemaking. If there is anything wrong with the play, it might be that by the end of act I, the Dresser was left wondering what could be said in act II that wasn’t already delivered so satisfyingly in the first act? However, act II deepens the relationship between the lovers so we know more certainly this is not a one-night stand and that the playwright is a master of dialogue and of dramatic and comic action.
CHAINED TO HIS HEATER
In Black Snake Moan, an ageing bluesman turned farmer whose much younger wife leaves him for his brother finds a battered party girl left for dead in the roadway near his farm. He is black; she is white. In body language alone the viewer knows Lazarus (played by Samuel L. Jackson) is putting himself at risk by attending to this barely clad girl. When he rolls the girl over to see if she is alive, the cough from her bloody mouth seems like a scene from William Friedkin’s film The Exorcist. After he picks her up and puts on her on his couch, he goes to town to get her medicine for the cough (and, interestingly, not medicine for her facial wounds) and to find out who she is. From the local pimp and drug runner, he learns Rae is possessed by demons that make her hornier than any Jezebel a bluesman could have ever known.
Because Rae runs a high fever, Lazarus puts her in his tub filled with ice. Later when he finds her freaking out in his corn field, he chains her to his radiator, the very heater that serves as a symbol of what has gone wrong with his marriage to his wife Rose. When Rae wakes up from her fever and the recreational drugs that partially got her into the situation that landed her on Lazarus’s road, she is horrified and angry to find herself chained by a man intent on fixing her. For a person as tiny in stature and body mass as Rae (played by Christina Ricci) is, the fury and venom are astounding. Filmmaker Craig Brewster, in tandem with these two fine actors, has made a preposterous situation that borders on reverse racism and misogyny credible both through his story (he wrote the script) and the way he has filmed the characters interacting.