Riddle Me This

Many Colors
Make the Thunder-King

Guthrie Lab

AT ONE OF the most entertaining high points of Many Colors Make the Thunder-King, a small cavalcade of ants peeps out from the stage floor to quiz a chameleon who's trapped in a cave. "What can even the ostrich, with its long neck and big eyes, not see?" they ask, wiry antennae bobbing, looking like refugees from that old bee skit on Saturday Night Live. "Well, that's easy," replies the wise chameleon. "Even the ostrich cannot see what will happen tomorrow."

Pretty deep. But leaving the Guthrie Lab nearly three hours after walking in, a more perplexing question hung in the air: When a brand-new play sports a vibrant script, a well-proven cast, and groovy, innovative direction, how can it still fall flat as a pancake?

It's a troubling conundrum, particularly when the material at hand has been culled from an African folk culture that most Americans aren't familiar with. Playwright Femi Osofisan, commissioned by the Guthrie as part of an effort to expand its cultural scope, is undoubtedly one of Nigeria's most acclaimed playwrights. In fact, his body of work (which includes 21 published plays, many of them award-winners) is so impressive that one's not-so-special impression of Thunder-King might be tinged with guilty insecurity. "Maybe I don't get it," I thought as I drove home. "I'm unenlightened. I don't understand African drama. I missed the part that was supposed to intrigue me."

A few days later, though, the ignorant-American misgivings that seized my brain on opening night have subsided. Some things are universal: Thin acting and a general sense of unpreparedness can make any show seem taxing, no matter where it was born. In spite of a plot that should transport us all over the map, Thunder-King is one slow journey.

In simplest terms, what we have here is a fun-loving fairy tale. Shango, the Thunder King of the play's title, embarks on a good old-fashioned soul-search that leads him toward romance, intrigue, and adventure. He also must confront a wave of riddles about who we are and how we got here, and by play's end, the moral of the story--don't be overly ambitious, and don't abuse the generosity of Mother Earth--is clear. Three drummers sit stageside, thumping out waves of wonderfully contagious rhythms as the story unfolds. The show emits a traditional, communal ambience, with its action performed on a wide-open platform; one gets the feeling that the audience for such an event should not just attend, but really participate.

With the exception of Omari Shakir, who genuinely seems to enjoy himself in his role as the magically humanoid chameleon who grants Shango three wishes, the cast is depressingly--and surprisingly--wooden; for all the script's presumed excitement, they might well have been reciting a dirge. Employing a stunningly inconsistent array of accents, from pure Nigerian to straight Midwestern, they speak their lines with a hypnotically earnest rhythm. Vocally, this results in rather one-note performances across the board. Worse, T. Mychael Rambo, who has been consistently impressive on stages around the Twin Cities, had a wobbly opening night as Shango, flubbing enough lines to seem flat-out unprepared.

Director Bartlett Sher had some clearly cool ideas in staging a pared-down, no-frills version of an African community event. The floor of the playing space is tethered down to look like the head of a drum, and the absence of any masking allows us to see the actors as they wait for their entrances. The tricks onstage are meant to be simple and elegant: a long column of silk falls from the ceiling to act as a sacred tree, and a huge flock of birds is represented by a collection of nifty origami. But again, the low-tech proceedings became uncomfortably raw. A costume got caught on a prop, the silk wisps of the sacred tree didn't unwind correctly, and the players seemed generally unsure of what might happen next.

Perhaps, as a friend mentioned, the Guthrie just doesn't know how to do "small": If you need a stage engulfed in flames, no problem, but there's no guarantee for a column of silk to fall correctly from the ceiling. More likely, the Guthrie Lab found itself without enough time to polish the details and whip up some energy. Either way, this theater's small effort at treading new cultural ground comes off as disappointingly haphazard.

Many Colors Make the Thunder-King runs through March 30 at the Guthrie Lab; call 377-2224.

 
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