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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.'"

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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.

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Oddly, what pushes this blues culture story toward the realm of art (yes, the Dresser thinks this down-and-dirty film is art) is the thread of religion that starts with the name of the protagonist. Just as Jesus raises the New Testament Lazarus from the dead, Rae resurrects Lazarus, transforming him from a depressed, hardly-alive farmer to his former live-wire bluesman self. Lazarus’s best friend is the town preacher (played by John Cothran) and when things get beyond Lazarus’s ability to cope with the girl, Laz demands preacher R.L. talk some sense into this sex-addicted, still-chained vixen who has pulled down the pants of one his neighbor’s virgin teenage son.

More odd is that what R.L. says to Rae and to her gun toting, anxiety-ridden husband-to-be (Rae is betrothed to Ronnie with matching watches synchronized to beep at the same time) seems believable and not preachy within the context of inconceivable situations. Although things resolve in what seems to be happily-ever-after arrangements—Lazarus organizes Rae’s wedding to Ronnie and Lazarus wins the adoration of the local pharmacist (played by Law and Order’s Epatha Merkerson)—the last shots show Rae and Ronnie on the road to Nashville, making their escape from their dreadful home town but dealing with their ever-present traumas. No one ever finishes with the blues.

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Samuel L. Jackson (Lazarus) and Christina Ricci (Rae)


THE LUNATIC LIGHT OF LOVE

Both Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune and Black Snake Moan are about losers who find a way to step out of their gutters into the lunatic light of love. In both stories, music provides the beacon. McNally plays it up in his title in the Claire de Lune, which means “in the light of the moon” and also refers to Debussy’s piano composition. However, the names of McNally’s characters carry legendary freight as a bluegrass song about a man named Johnny who cheats on his lover Frankie. In the song, Frankie shoots and kills Johnny. The song dating from around 1925 was a favorite of Elvis Presley who also made a movie called Frankie and Johnny that was released in 1966.

Black Snake Moan is the title of a 1927 blues song by blind Lemon Jefferson about a man whose wife has betrayed and left him. Several times in Black Snake Moan, Brewster uses documentary film footage of a Delta Blues singer named Son House. For this film, Samuel Jackson learned how to play the steel-stringed guitar and it is with music and gravelly singing that sways Rae to love Lazarus as if he is her father.

Poet-librettist Nathalie Anderson often writes about problematic male-female relations. In her five-part poem “Black Hole” that is set in the South, we meet a character that reminds the Dresser of Rae in Black Snake Moan but Frankie in Frankie and Johnny in the Claire de Lune knows that briar patch that Nat Anderson talks about in this poem.

2. Zippi-dee-doo-dah

Does misery love company? Ask her
and maybe she’ll say, maybe she’ll know what
she’d love. All afternoon slumped on the couch
boneless and moping, hair in her eyes and
her mouth sullen, never a word to say
for herself, never lifting a finger—
enough to try a saint’s patience. Don’t you
want to tidy her, rake back those bangs, mop
that sweaty skin, sit her up straight? All day
the little kids carom about while she
sits oblivious: draggle-tail, ham-fist,
twiddle-thumbs. Send her to the kitchen, she

stares into space, slack-jawed, water splashing
into diamonds in her hands, a fortune
down the drain. Set her to sew, she slouches
squint-eyed over piddling stitches, crumples
the cloth, leaves a snail’s slick trail on the skirt
she’s hemming. Set her to sweep, she circles,
dawdles, dilly-dallies, tracks her own dirt
back in. Does misery love company?
Sent to her room, she sags, droops, lazes, sighs,
sticks her shiftless nose in a book. Don’t
you want to shake some gumption into her,
scrub her mouth out, slap that smirk off her face?

A creature bred to the briars learns fast
to hop to, or else low-crawls through life, fur torn
and skin scabby, sneaky and cringing. That’s
what she’s made of herself. Grease! Her hair’s flat
with it, her face oily, smeared thick with paint—
whited sepulcher, grubby Jezebel,
melancholy seeping into evening
darkening the very air she breathes. Miss
Misery: that peevish pride that flees
her own light. Lazy Bones. Idgit. Good for
you know what. Strident in the dark the
escalating spite: a saint’s patience.

Don’t you want to scratch her eyes out, snatch her
bald-headed, fry her gizzard? Oh, fling your
sharpest words at her, hurl your hardest hearts—
they’ll stick to that impassivity, they’ll
tar the mind that sped them. Does misery
love company? Didn’t anybody
teach you any better? All night in the briars
the moon stays to herself, the stars sharpen
their claws, the darkness keeps whatever you
throw out there: cotton boll, cotton tail, mean
cotton mouth. So, Daddy Fox and Mama Bear,
what do you say to the baby now?

Nathalie Anderson
Excerpt from “Black Hole”
Published in Crawlers

Comments (2)

These are brilliant monologues about theater art. The use of a poem to cement the tumult is quintessential Karren Alenier. Thank you publisher, for making this available. Grace Cavalieri

Gerald Gleason:

Liked the review of Frankie and Johnny
Liked what I saw skimming the other postings
Appreciated all the great photos

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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 4, 2007 9:02 PM.

The previous post in this blog was Marin Alsop Conducts Glass at the BSO.

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