Vive La Révolution

From apartheid Africa to Oak Park Heights: James Austin Williams and James Young in 'The Island'
Paula Keller

In his sleeper bestseller From Dawn to Decadence, scholar Jacques Barzun wrote that Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais "appears to have been the first to use the word 'drama' to designate a play that is neither a tragedy nor a comedy in the traditional sense." The late 18th-century playwright, according to Barzun, was also responsible for the first derogatory use of the word "classicist." Perhaps, then, Beaumarchais would have fancied Theatre de la Jeune Lune's Figaro, a decidedly un-classicized interpretation of his Figaro trilogy mixed with highlights from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, some new text by Steven Epp, video projections, and sparing use of oddball non sequitur.

Figaro, the scheming barber of the licentious Count Almaviva, first appeared in Beaumarchais's play The Barber of Seville, the source for Rossini's eponymous opera. The story continued with The Marriage of Figaro, which begat the opera by Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, and finished with the obscure Guilty Mother (adapted by Charles Ives and his grandson Burl Ives--or so I wish). The middle work especially--with its crafty servants and decadent, gullible master--has been seen as a theatrical harbinger of the French Revolution.

In this production, Beaumarchais's characters are introduced as haggard souls in recently revolutionized Paris. Their earlier escapades of sexual intemperance and mistaken identity are played out by younger, opera-warbling doubles. Much of the action is shot live by a pair of video cameramen and projected on a large screen, sometimes resulting in three or four versions of the same characters appearing in some version onstage.

Epp plays Fig, an older Figaro who has kept the bitterness of his younger self but has little employ for his famous cunning. With his stammering fecklessness and his hair pulled back in a kind of topknot, the guillotine-era Fig somehow reminded me of Martin Short's Ed Grimley character (intended as a compliment, though Epp in this role is neither as funny nor as powerful as he can be). Barbara Berlovitz plays Fig's faithful wife Suzanne, while Dominique Serrand is a tattered and untitled, but still smug, Almaviva. The younger Figaro (Charles Schwandt) is flat--not vocally, but emotionally--and he bears only superficial resemblance to his older self. In contrast, Bradley Greenwald's vibrant Count is continuous with Serrand's; his scuzziness clearly leads to the gray-haired version's ghostly smugness.

Those who've read my one-and-a-half-page (double-spaced) monograph, "Everything I Know About Opera," can attest to my tenuous credentials as a connoisseur of the form. So with respect to this production's operatic component I'm guided by Duke Ellington's aphorism, "If it sounds good, it is good." To my ears, it's good. I could use a bit more power from the men, but this Figaro is overall a lovely sort of chamber opera (the accompaniment is provided by a string quartet, with a piano occasionally added). It's especially impressive when led by the vibrato-laced lyricism of Jennifer Baldwin Peden (as Countess Almaviva), and soprano Momoko Tanno as young Suzanne. Their Act 2 duet is a lithe feat of ingenuity that just might be the calm before the storming of the Bastille.

¬ Ten Thousand Things only does three plays a year. It's odd, then, that the company's production of South African playwright Athol Fugard's The Island comes just weeks after its generally successful recast of Carousel. According to artistic director Michelle Hensley, The Island was originally scheduled for February, but was postponed for lack of available African American male actors. Considering that this is a two-man play, the casting crisis implies a pretty severe scarcity of black men in the Twin Cities thespian pool.

I can't speak to the reality of this shortage (perhaps a few actors out there would gainsay it, especially those who had a slow February). But I do know that these particular guys--James Austin Williams and James Young--were engaged in February (at Penumbra and the Jungle, respectively), and that it's hard to imagine how their performances could be bested. Williams is a veteran of Fugard plays, and guest director Carol MacVey was once directed by the author himself, so perhaps it makes sense that this stripped-down staging evinces special sensitivity to Fugard's slice-of-life dialogue and subtle moralizing.

Ten Thousand Things does most of its performances for the poor and incarcerated, and selects material that it hopes will have special relevance to this audience. The Island, however, is the troupe's first production set entirely in a prison. Fugard developed the play in 1973 with help from actors John Kani and Winston Ntshona. It's a compact one-act that tells the story of two political prisoners on Robben Island, focusing on their contentious endeavor to present Sophocles' Antigone at the prison's annual talent show. John (Williams), whose term is nearly up, is the impresario. His theatrical project sustains him through long days of sun-baked labor. Winston (Young), a lifer, is no great fan of the theater and is unenthusiastic about playing Antigone in a makeshift wig and coconut-shell breasts. As in his recent role in the Jungle's Lobby Hero, Young has an endearing frown that expresses stores of skepticism and exhaustion.

In the play within the play, Winston slowly warms to the role, and is transformed by its message. Young begins by reciting Antigone's lines with the caricaturized falsetto and awkward staccato of an amateur actor indolently pretending to be a girl. It's funny and an almost bold directorial choice--the silliness could easily wrest power away from the climax. As Antigone's speech proceeds, though, Winston sheds his costume and embraces the fearless defiance of the text in his normal speaking voice. In the denouement he pumps his fist as he and John run their required laps. His strength is restored, a kind of testament to the power of theater. It's an ephemeral transformation, we fear, but real all the same.

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