Life Upon the Wicked Stage:
Extensions and Openings
An Octoroon (Soho Rep; at Theatre for a New Audience, Brooklyn). Extended twice, An Octoroon (Best New American Play Obie, 2014) must close on March 29. So you must–repeat must –see it this week!
To say that An Octoroon is based on Dion Boucicault’s 1859 play The Octoroon, or Life in Louisiana isn’t fair (neither was life in Louisiana in 1859). Boucicault was a wildly successful actor-playwright-manager called “…the most conspicuous English dramatist of the 19th century” by the NY Times when he died in 1890. Although buried in Westchester, he actually lived here only for six years. Whatever he knew, or imagined, about the antebellum South has been gleefully (and brilliantly) turned inside out, upside down, and into a funhouse mirror that reflects Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ very contemporary take on the same material. Multiple identities are switched, costumes and wigs are changed, songs are sung, and let’s just say that a lot of makeup is applied as required.
What makes this production a standout (apart from a sensational cast and direction) is Jacob-Jenkins’ mastery of the art of entertainment, using it to cushion the impact of the ideas and the facts that underlie the fun. The games begin as Austin Smith (standing in for the author) appears in his underwear, faces the audience, and says “I’m a black playwright, and I’m here to tell you a story…” His improbable story, wacky and wonderful, unspools. Yet, as it’s coming to a close and fire has destroyed a slave cabin, the lyrics of a song suddenly pose a question “When you burn it down it leaves no trace. What do you put there in its place?” The answer may be elusive, but Jacobs-Jenkins is definitely working on it. Go online for the revelations tickets. And find out more about them in the NPR interview: listen up
Five Times in One Night
(Ensemble Studio Theatre, extended to April 19)
There’s no question that EST has ways to make you laugh. Of course there’s always gravitas behind the laughter, but recalling some highlights (Hand to God; Isaac’s Eye) will prepare you for a new foray into a wicked exploration of relationships: now (this week and last week); then (celebrity couples Adam and Eve; Heloise and Abelard); and in the future (if there is one) in 2119.
Playwright Chiara Atik, a member of EST’s Youngblood Program for under-30 emerging professionals, definitely has smarts up her sleeve and—a huge bonus—a passion for both history and the eternal fallibility of lovers. You will somehow not be surprised that she has authored Modern Dating: A Field Guide for Harlequin, but you will be deeply delighted by the way she tweaks one of the Middle Ages’ great legends, as Heloise and Abelard conduct their epistolary romance in breezy Twitter-ese. And there’s a bonus to the evening: Five Times is not on EST’s Main Stage, but accessible by an historic freight elevator the size of a dining room, replete with white wine and snacks. It takes you to an intimate performance space full of couches and rugs; you’ll get the idea and the jokes. Director RJ Tolan knows just what to do with Dylan Dawson and Darcy Fowler, the couple for every age. They seem to enjoy their work. To take the elevator and enjoy the extension: up you go
Irreversible (Red Fern Theatre Company)
Everyone seems to love anniversaries, but there’s one coming up that’s a painful exception: it’s been almost 70 years since the atomic bomb was set off in the New Mexico desert, and (a month later) dropped on the unsuspecting people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. While many scientists and technicians were involved in developing and deploying the weapons, the focal point of most narratives is physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Irreversible focuses on the brief period in which Oppenheimer, along with his brother Frank and a growing army of colleagues developed the bomb at Los Alamos. It succeeds in revealing the genius and the complexities that characterized Oppenheimer’s life: his sometimes erratic behavior, the conflict between his drive to control the titanic forces he would unleash and his own emotional needs, and his seesaw relationships with his gifted younger brother Frank, his wife Kitty, and his one-time lover Jean Tatlock.
It’s a virtuoso balancing act which playwright Jack Karp, director Melanie Moyer Williams, and a small, tightly meshed and very talented cast pull off with conviction. The left-wing politics that shaped the drama’s key players are also given their due, along with the repercussions they would cause after the war had been won.
Karp has assigned double duty to lines of dialogue so they work both to carry the story forward, and as transitions between parallel scenes. It’s an imaginative trope, and tightens the play’s shifts from one location and one time to another. The play’s conclusion, a glimpse of the siren song of ambition that Oppenheimer, despite his struggles with the morality of his work cannot resist, chills to the bone. And its coda, a mimed reflection of its consequences, is shattering.
See Irreversible and learn about what Red Fern has coming up: tickets and events