Sunday, July 28, 2013

Family Dysfunction Revisited

S. Ann Johnson's play Sick Stories, Gentle Granddaddy packs an emotional wallop.  Produced by the Theatrical Mining Company at Notre Dame's Copeland theater, the drama depicts the plight of a dysfunctional East Baltimore family through the eyes of Mabelle, a member of the family's middle generation.  Asked to deliver the eulogy for the grandfather she adored, Mabelle slowly learns the reality of her grandfather's violent, alcoholic past and the damage he inflcited on the family before she was born.  As she recognzies the shadow side of her venerated grandfather, she comes to terms with her own bourgeoning enslavement to a charming but irresponsible boyfriend who is following the same path of substance abuse, anger, and the neglect of basic duties toward family and work.  The play delicately raises the issue of a dangerous pattern in the African-American community, whereby woman and children find themselves abandoned by their husbands and fathers.  It focuses on the particular types of damage inflicted by alcoholism in these scenarios of neglect and abandonment.

The play's most powerful scenes arise when the characters storm into confontations over blame and recrimination for the plight of the family.  Moments of humor enliven the predominantly grim tale of discovering abuse through probing other's narratives, once dismissed as exaggeration. 

Not everything works in the structure of the play.  The lead character's frequent addresses to the audience are too often a statementof the obvious; a more poetic subtext remains to be unearthed.  Like many plays which highlight narratives of the past, the play stumbles at times on the "Do you remember when?" moment.  But these are minor flaws in a play which is often gripping in its emotional intensity and admirable in its effort to balance outrage and fear with acceptance of human weakness.

The directors Shelby and Tyrone Chapman provide vivid direction to the play, which could easily have become a static memory play.  Especially convincing are the scenes of verbal and physical confontation, not so easily staged in the tiny confines of the Copley stage.  Standout performances are given byKhris Burrell as  the mercurial Granddaddy and April Johnson as his ebullient wife, Queen.  They and the rest of the cast effectively communicate the pathos of the piece, while still communicating the joy of certain family celebrations. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Love's Rainbow

A new entry in this summer's Baltimore Playwrights Festival at the Fells Point Corner Theater, Rich Espey's The Rainbow Plays uses seven different short plays to explore variations on LGBT love.  Each of the first six plays is supposed to reflect one of the colors of the LGBT flag (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, purple) with their corresponding values (life, healing, sunshine, nature, harmony, and spirit).  The seventh and final play ties together the themes of the rainbow and delivers a final exhortation to the audience.

In effect, the entire piece still feels like seven discrete plays.  In some of them the LGBT theme seems tacked on as an afterthought.  As in most anthologies, the plays vary in quality.  By far the most moving was Messages Deleted, a clever study of a hidden lover and distraught father who happen to meet each other as they attempt to clear out the possessions of the son/lover who just died in an automobile accident.  For different motives, they are trying to remove traces of the deceased's homosexuality but after initial conflcit they meet in mutual grief.  Steve Ferguson (Mark, the lover), Rodney Bonds (Gene, the father), and Jared Jiacinto (as the hovering spirit of the dead Sam) deliver convincing performances in this elegaic piece.

The weakest plays are predictable pick-up sketches.  The male version occurs between two football players (Steve Ferguson, Rasheed Green) in Hoya Saxa.  The female version happens in a restaurant between a diner, a waitress, and a narrator (Jennifer Hasselbusch, Kelly Cavanaugh, Amy Miller).

The evening struggles to deliver something more than political agitprop, but it does not always succeed.  In Bang Day the creationist student who opposes evolution comes off as a terrorist ready to destroy the school via a knife.  It is not the only anti-religious stereotype in a production purporting to promote tolerance.  The closing play Zoo Story 2 opens promisingly enough in the comic world of gay penguins but the angry didactic ending would make Rachel Maddow blush.

Lisa Davidson's direction is efficient and effective.  Played against a simple black backdrop, the play smoothly shifts from one setting and mood to another.  The appropriate costumes, colorful props, and excellent lighting give fluidity and intensity to the evening.  The performances are clear and crisp.  The direction and performances deliver the humor in these various pieces, but the emotional depths within the stronger scripts seem relatively unexplored.

Within the limits of an ideological genre, The Rainbow Plays  delivers a series of entertaining innovations on sexual difference.  The professional polish of the production makes it a strong BPF achievement.