I've seen Elijah's Wake twice now, and it is good. Opening night found me in a bad state--cranky, tired, vulnerable to mental tangents only vaguely related to the performance at hand. The show started, and an hour later I was driving home with an already hazy recollection of what I'd seen. I remembered a few things: a chattering puppet, a pair of pulley-controlled chairs, a man acting like a monkey, a woman acting like a bird, a biblical subtext that I didn't really get. But the next day I could only come up with the following reaction: "I've seen Elijah's Wake, and it might be good"--a capsule review that, as the opening sentence above attests, has been refined considerably since.
Conceived, directed, and designed by Michael Sommers, Open Eye Figure Theatre's Elijah's Wake is a tender, witty, and wonderfully strange piece of work. It draws on the Bible and mythology, but only allusively, and it keeps its meaning elliptic. Sommers operates and gives voice to a skeleton-like puppet, and plays a versifying sailor who introduces scenes set around the table of a sort of prehistoric couple (Julian McFaul and Nancy Seward). These sketches, wordless on the whole, aren't easy to parse, but their emotional sinews are clear. The couple lives in a harsh world, one that seems ruled by a deity with a taste for slapstick, or Uri Geller with a feel for poetry: Chairs, plates, and glasses move of their own accord. The man finally corrals a much-coveted meal, only to find it unpalatable. The woman prepares to savor a drink of water, hears the distraction of a ringing bell, and knocks over the glass.
The world envisioned by Elijah's Wake isn't totally without joy. McFaul and Seward have given the nameless man and woman an amiability that's both tender and mature, and for every sleight of hand that confounds them, there's another that delights. At the end of the play, they're under the table and locked in an embrace, maybe a bit fearful but hopeful, too. A moment of mysterious eloquence in a short play full of 'em. There's still time to see it twice.
Fairly early in Act 1 of Suzan-Lori Parks's Topdog/Underdog, a reformed hustler named Lincoln (Thomas W. Jones II) brings his week's pay home to share with his brother and roommate Booth (Jahi Kearse). The rooming-house digs are less than posh: no running water, no table, and very few diversions save for Lincoln's guitar and Booth's extensive collection of porno mags. In celebration of Lincoln's meager earnings--he works as a Lincoln impersonator in an arcade where people pay to mock-assassinate him--the brothers do a bit of dance and patter that can only be described as minstrelsy. On opening night of Mixed Blood Theatre's area premiere of the Pulitzer-winning play, this routine was received with much laughter and even applause.
Now, I don't know what the applause was supposed to mean. It may have been for the ironic use of offensive minstrel-show stereotypes (see Spike Lee's Bamboozled), or for the ridiculous dancing and jiving, or maybe for some combination of both. Either way, I found both the scene and the audience's reaction to be discomfiting--fascinatingly so.
That's what this play is like. It isn't as masterfully written as Parks's In the Blood, but it has a similar way of turning the struggles of the modern poor into the stuff of classical tragedy. Lincoln and Booth are somewhere between a married couple and archrivals, and the even-keeled Jones and the damn-the-iceberg, engines-full-throttle! Kearse offer a healthy trade of loving and hateful gestures. The born-loser Booth affectionately lays out clothes for his smooth brother, waiting to surprise him with a suit boosted from a department store. Later, Lincoln gets up in the middle of the night to pee and, lacking a towel, wipes his hands on his brother's sheets, relishing the secret offense.
As the fraternal enmity digs a deeper pit, it carries with it the burden of history--Cain and Abel, slavery, minstrelsy, the works--until Kearse and Jones conclude with what's essentially a 10-minute scream of desperation.