Ocean of Words
The title of the Penumbra Theater's current production is so long that I have decided to rechristen it: I will call the show Speaking, Gasping, Falling Over (for the curious, the actual title of the play is The Trial of One Short-Sighted Black Woman vs. Mammy Louise and Safreeta Mae). Whatever title you choose, the point is the same: This is one long-winded play. In fact, nobody quite knows when they have said enough in Penumbra's production, a mock trial in which an elderly black mammy and her apple-sucking daughter are called to account by a modern black woman for perpetrating negative stereotypes. Whenever the moment comes for a character to vacate the witness stand, she instead stands, throws her hands angrily into the air, and lets loose with an exhausting jeremiad.
Much of this torrent of dialogue is enormously entertaining, as people are always fun when they have said too much. The production makes extensive use of Lester Purry, a forceful lead actor who has played noble, angry roles throughout this past Penumbra season (starring in both The Darker Face of the Earth and Jitney). But director Paul Carter Harrison has cast Purry in a variety of supporting roles here, and the actor turns out to have exceptional comic chops. In a succession of white- and blackface masks, Purry plays a young black film executive, a white screenwriter/producer, a plantation owner, and (in a moment of transcendent weirdness), the plantation owner's wife. Each of these characters has engaged in indefensible behavior: The black executive, for example, acted as a yes-man in the production of a notably wretched slave epic, lending the melodrama an authenticity it could not otherwise have claimed. But though his behavior has been indefensible, the executive insists on defending it, and he does so insistently. Like everyone else, he remains planted at the witness stand after he has been excused and howls his innocence, crying out, "My father told me that I don't owe anybody nothing!"
But Purry is also an actor who can generate a great deal of menace, which he uses to good effect playing the plantation owner, spewing racist bile and sadly recollecting a beating he administered to Mammy Louise, the "only mother I ever knew." At one point, Purry strikes the stage with a riding crop, sending splinters flying. Here, Purry bristles with hostility. It's this tone that suggests that playwright Marcia L. Leslie aspires to have her script stand as something deeper than light comedy. While the play wants very badly to show up the short-sighted, career-minded black woman of the title (Austene Van Williams-Clark, looking progressively gloomier as the case wears on), it cannot do so without addressing the legacy of slavery--and there is nothing funny about that.
When it comes time for Mammy Louise (Edna D. Duncan, clutching at a Bible and humming under her breath) and Safreeta Nae (Rachel Leslie, clutching at her loose-fitting dress) to tell their stories, the chilling words drop haltingly off their tongues. Critics have complained that this shift in tone is awkward, and it is--yet this does not necessarily make it untrue. My experience is that the atmosphere of a room can change in an instant, with a single misspoken word. In this play of misspoken words, the production turns serious with a few honest declarations. Mammy Louise rises from her seat at the beginning of the second act, chanting hymns and shuffling in place. Then she pauses and turns to the contemporary black woman. "You got to come through me," she declares, and we spend the rest of the play doing just that: confronting the awkward, awful specter of American slavery.
The Guthrie's production of To Fool the Eye is delightfully frothy, in the way light romantic comedies are supposed to be, but the script is marred by an awkward shift in tone of a different, and altogether more common, kind. Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of Jean Anouilh's Léocadia is wonderfully clever, but the plot hinges on two characters falling in love for no reason whatsoever. As unremarkable as this convention may be--Shakespeare loved it--such a twist can still seem bothersome.
The play tells of a prince (Scott Ferrara, who spends most of his performance cocking his head like some puzzled bird) mourning an opera star who died in a bizarre, Isadora Duncan-styled scarf accident. His family has reconstructed every element of Prince Albert's three-day affair, including the locations the lovers visited together; they even find the lad a young woman who looks identical to the deceased (Melinda Page Hamilton, playing the role as an intriguing blend of Alice in Wonderland and a Montana farm girl). As soon as the look-alike sees Prince Albert, she is smitten with him, and why? Certainly he is rich and handsome, but (at least in theater) can't women be deeper than that? Hatcher can write brilliant comic dialogue (demonstrated in such scripts as Three Viewings and A Piece of the Rope), and his tour de force here involves the prince's long description of his deceased lover.
By the time the prince has finished mooning, we cannot doubt that the opera singer was a boorish, self-indulgent, preposterously affected nincompoop. "You never loved him!" her look-alike cries out, but I beg to differ. With her long scarves, incomprehensible monologues, and a snake that follows her everywhere, the opera singer sounds exactly like the sort of woman any bored young man might fall for, foolish though that love may be. At least the dead woman seemed interesting, which is more than one can say about the prince--but our heroine falls madly in love with him.
Alas, if Hatcher had given the prince at least one charming affectation beyond his gloomy romantic notions (such as being a fan of the tango), he might have been worthy of a few sighs and swoons. But all he has to recommend him is a foolish heart, and though I say this with regret, no one swoons for that.
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