« June 2017 | Main | October 2017 »

August 2017 Archives

August 3, 2017

An Octoroon--[Box] Meets <Diamond>

Breaking the Fourth Wall, play within a play, actors playing dual roles, contemporary and antiquated timeframes as one reality, and a surreal character are all elements of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins remarkable An Octoroon, a play about race in America. Jacobs-Jenkins bases his contemporary speaking play on the 1859 melodrama entitled The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault.

octoroon1-greasepaint.jpg

The Dresser, who saw the July 30, 2017 performance of the Woolly Mammoth production, has seen plenty of theater where the actors infiltrate the audience, maybe embarrass one or two innocent, bone fide audience members and then go back to the traditional play plan where the players interact with one another. Octoroon's breach of the Fourth Wall is different. The character BJJ who talks to the audience first is the stand-in for contemporary playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. BJJ, played with exceptional plasticity by Jon Hudson Odom, appears on stage wearing nothing by his briefs.

He first interacts with an audience member whose cell phone rings (is this an audience plant? The Dresser doesn't think this matters) and then briefs his audience on the play via a session with his female shrink. Odom plays both roles--the nearly naked depressed BJJ and the sickeningly sunny analyst (the audience only hears her voice). BJJ makes it clear that he is a black playwright trying to talk about race in America but he can't get any white actors to take parts that implicate white Americans with slavery. The shrink helps him think through how to proceed, which results in the use of white, black. and red makeup to make a black actor a white man, a white actor a black man, and another white actor a red man (a Native American). So what Jacobs-Jenkins does is through BJJ's vulnerability (i.e. his nearly nakedness) is pull the audience through the Fourth Wall to make them intimates in the process of how this play is going to be enacted. As final touch to the opening scene, BJJ turns his back as he prepares to dress and play the white men roles (George, the good one, and M'Closkey, the bad one). With his back turned he pulls his briefs into his butt crack and essentially moons the audience. Whoa, does this playwright have attitude.

THEOCTOROON_trio.jpg

Just in case you are wondering, the melodrama involves trying to save a plantation in financial ruin and its inhabitants from the clutches of the evil M'Closkey. Among the people affected is a young woman named Zoe who is the daughter of the newly dead plantation master. Zoe's genetic makeup is 1/8 black. She is an octoroon whose status as a free person comes into question with the forced sale of the plantation.THEOCTOROON_AuctionBlock.jpg

What makes Jacobs-Jenkins' play compelling is the discussion throughout the acts about how this play is being made or how it was made. The playwright is thorough and never drops the thread about how An Octoroon is or has been constructed. Almost a legerdemain, Jacobs-Jenkins tacks on a coda after the true end of the play provides a sensational boat-on-fire scene. The coda features two black women who have been sold to the river boat captain Ratts (Jobari Parker-Namdar). The women (played by Erika Rose and Felicia Curry) are looking forward to a new life away from the plantation not knowing their new home has been incinerated. But then their conversation turns back on itself with what-if questions and this mostly comic team turns serious and philosophic as the two deconstruct the play. Interestingly they perform before a scenery flat positioned close to the front of the stage duplicating how the old melodrama might have presented this scene. Scenery flats were positioned close to the front of the stage because lighting was a problem. Before 1850, night time theater in American was lit mostly by candlelight; after 1850, theaters began modernizing with gas lamps. What the positioning of the scenery does, in the Dresser's mind, is create a sense of intimacy while also suggesting metaphorically that these characters are on stage to shine light on the situation.

There is a lot of meat on the bones of this play but the Dresser will add just these two additional things about a play with great acting, fluid directing (kudos to Director Nataki Garrett), and engaging sets and costumes--the fight scene between George and M'Closkey (remember: both roles are played by Jon Hudson Odom) revivals Cirque du Soleil contortionists. And what about the larger-than-life rabbit who walks through many of the scenes? The Dresser thinks the rabbit is Br'er Rabbit from the Uncle Remus tales--the trickster using his wit to thumb his nose at authority and to bend the rules as he sees fit. The rabbit is another stand-in for the playwright.

an-octoroon.jpg
















Henry Crawford's "When [Box] Met <Diamond>" is a poem within a poem and it touches on the issues of slavery and enlightenment allowing an opportunity for a dialectic with Jacobs-Jenkins' play An Octoroon. The Dresser presents Crawford's poem and then a playful interchange between Crawford's first poem of "When [Box] Met <Diamond>" and the Dresser's ascribed nervous thoughts about first entering into An Octoroon--would the Dresser as audience be manipulated by the playwright and forced to watch something that tries her patience?

WHEN [BOX] MET <DIAMOND>

[I hope this is not another free verse poem.]
Before there were war planes [Oh no!] there was
going down in flames [it is.] Before there was
[What, repetition?] Greek tragedy
[And another lame enjambment.] there was
Greek slavery [I'm a person too, you know.]
Before there were <hey you> courts
[I think I deserve a better poem than this.] there were
courtiers <you, in the box> Before there were cities
<i see you> there were rivers [You don't know how long]
Before there were rights [I've been trapped here.]
there were privileges <i know what it's like to feel trapped>
[Tell me before he starts again.] Before there were pistols
[Oh crap!] there were shots [He got it off.]
<i used to be a prisoner in a narrative poem>
Before there were lawyers there were [You?] laws
Before there was the big
[How did you leave?] there was the big bang
[I don't think this will work.]
Before there were knives <now, just take my hand>
[Oh, this won't work.] there was <just hold on>
[Yes, I can feel it.] cutting loose. Before
there was the Renaissance [Say it diamond!] there was
the Age of Enlightenment <we're outta here>
Before there were prisons, there were sentences.


by Henry Crawford
from American Software

"When [Box] Met <Diamond>" copyright © 2017 by Henry Crawford
WHEN [BOX] MET <DIAMOND> {First Poem}

[I hope this is not another free verse poem.]
[Oh no!]
[it is.]
[What, repetition?]
[And another lame enjambment.]
[I'm a person too, you know.]
<hey you>
[I think I deserve a better poem than this.]
<you, in the box>
<i see you> [You don't know how long]
[I've been trapped here.]
<i know what it's like to feel trapped>
[Tell me before he starts again.]
[Oh crap!] [He got it off.]
<i used to be a prisoner in a narrative poem>
[You?]
<god yes, but I found a way out>
[How did you leave?]
<take my hand> [I don't think this will work.]
<now, just take my hand>
[Oh, this won't work.] <just hold on>
[Yes, I can feel it.]. <me too>
[Say it diamond!]
<we're outta here>


WHEN [BOX] MET <DIAMOND> {First Poem with comments from the Dresser}

[I hope this is not another free verse poem.]

The Dresser: I hope An Octoroon is not another self-conscious play that messes with the audience.

[Oh no!]
[it is.]
[What, repetition?]
[And another lame enjambment.]
[I'm a person too, you know.]
<hey you>
[I think I deserve a better poem than this.]

The Dresser: The audience deserves a better play than one messing with the audience.

<you, in the box>
<i see you> [You don't know how long]
[I've been trapped here.]
<i know what it's like to feel trapped>
[Tell me before he starts again.]
[Oh crap!] [He got it off.]

The Dresser: I have seen naked actors on stage but somehow a male character wearing briefs seemed more unsettling than a completely naked body. What was the meaning of this state of undress?

<i used to be a prisoner in a narrative poem>
[You?]
<god yes, but I found a way out>
[How did you leave?]
<take my hand> [I don't think this will work.]
<now, just take my hand>
[Oh, this won't work.] <just hold on>
[Yes, I can feel it.]. <me too>
[Say it diamond!]
<we're outta here>

The Dresser: Quite frankly when BJJ began the exchange with his shrink, I thought I and the audience were in for a long and tedious night of theater. I was completely surprised that the shrink could lead the despairing black playwright out of his funk with grease paint.

Now, Dear Reader, the Dresser will step back and allow you to see the parallels of the second poem in "When [Box] Met <Diamond>."

August 19, 2017

Disturbing the Gates Of Reason--A New Look at Othello

Othello-Desd.jpg















Static opening scenes give way to overzealous action in Shakespeare Theatre Company's Free For All Othello directed by Ron Daniels, known best for his direction of contemporary operas. Daniels has cast Faran Tahir, a Pakistani-American actor from television and film, as the Moor Othello. The Dresser finds this casting reasonable except when Tahir is pushed to emotional excess and then what he says does not pass for understandable English. When he speaks normally, one hears that he does not enunciate and therefore final consonants float way from his delivery. In another play where words do not hold the weight of Shakespeare's carefully conceived text where so many lines resonant with stunning wisdom, the sound that Tahir produces in high-speed word spills would add to who the character is--a foreigner.

Jay Whittaker plays a commanding Iago, the ensign to Othello who brings down the successful general by whittling away Othello's belief in and love for his new bride Desdemona. Whittaker has the capacity to incite an audience member to leap out of his seat and onto to the stage to strangle Iago. How could this character be so evil? How could Whittaker be so tuned in to Iago's dark spirit? He's an excellent actor.
Iago-Othello.jpg
Somewhat disturbing is how brashly Madeleine Rogers plays Desdemona. Given that Director Daniels has constructed a modern-day timeframe where the costumes of the men look like World War II military uniforms--maybe Nazi uniforms, Desdemona's behavior seems aggressive and more the way a woman of the 21st century would behave. However, her white costumes that cover more than reveal suggest the purity expected of this well-known Shakespearean character. Her costumes in Cypress also hint at Muslim dress as if she were trying to fit in there and with her formerly Muslim husband.

Cassio (played by Patrick Vaill), whom Iago turns into his pawn, seems like a crybaby. So that when he anguishes, "Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial." (Act Ii, Scene 3) The Dresser merely perked up her ears at these famous lines and felt nothing but disgust for Cassio who brought on Othello's wrath by drinking and brawling. Never mind that Iago lured Cassio into the situation that Cassio knew initially to refuse.

Shakespeare uses the word honest 52 times in this play and many times Iago is referred to as an honest man. In Act III, Scene 3, Iago and Othello have an extended conversation about whether Cassio is an honest man. The Dresser was taken aback at how much the audience laughed at this conversation which was condemning not only Cassio but Othello's wife. Under the 45th president of the United States, truth and authenticity have been shredded into unrecognizable pieces by the constant use of lies and innuendo. The Dresser supposes that the laughter, which seemed to increase as the word honest was overused and emphasized, acquired a life of its own and perhaps that is the mark of a director tuned into his time.

The favorite scenes of Daniels' production of Othello were those of soldiers singing, dancing, and fighting. Kudos to choreographer Robb Hunter, Cliff Williams III, and fight captain Robbie Gay. The least favorite element was lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Often the lights were in the audience eyes.
Soldiers.jpg
Fred Marchant's "Call to Prayer" addresses loss of faith and that strikes at the heart of what happens to Othello. By taking on the faith of the people he lives among and worse by believing a man like Iago, Othello allows himself to lose faith in his wife who loves and trusts him. By giving his production of Othello a hint of Muslim trappings (how his wife and her attendant dressed and Othello using a special cloth to pray on), Ron Daniels has managed to shift a very complex psychological tragedy to a current day enigma. The Dresser suggests that Shakespeare's brainwashed protagonist in Daniels' production makes one think of the murderous terrorists brainwashed by Al-Qaeda and ISIS.


CALL TO PRAYER

It begins in what one imagines as desert but is nothing empty.
For a second or two the air hints at the night it has risen from.

Then the call passes from voice to voice, saying this is yours,
take it on the next, as if these words were waves in a storm,

each gaining on the other, growing stronger when the touch,
the song overtaking dawn at the rim of the valley just before

the words enter the old city by the gates of reason, finding
the byways piled high with what no one believes anymore.

Stray cats, arching their backs when they hear it, cry out in pain.
We throw open the green metal shutters, and try to listen again.

by Fred Marchant
from Said Not Said

"Call to Prayer" copyright © 2017 by Fred Marchant

Photo Credits: Jennifer Reiley

About August 2017

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in August 2017. They are listed from oldest to newest.

June 2017 is the previous archive.

October 2017 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.