Monday, March 7, 2016

A Heavy Hearted Dutchman

Penumbra's latest offering shows it's not always fun and games. 

Photo courtesy of Allen Weeks.
They say art imitates life - or is it the other way around?

In any case, the Penumbra is offering two deep reflecting pools in the form of one act plays. There is a LOT to be unpacked in each show, so buyer beware: you will want to do your research before attending. Most theater I find to able to be accessible for anyone who hasn't read/seen/encountered it before, but that is not the case here. You will want to have some history and reference points to help guide you through the performances.

The first play, Dutchman, is a searing critique of white culture from James Baldwin heir Amiri Baraka. A white woman (Lula) becomes intimately involved with a black man (Clay) on a subway train car. Much of Dutchman's power lays in its surprise, so I won't give you more specific information on the plot than that - but trust me, the ending will shock you. In fact, several of the more elderly audience members moved back farther into the audience after intermission to distance themselves from the wrenching display onstage.
Photo courtesy of Allen Weeks. 
Nathan Barlow is excellent as Clay, showing a maturity far beyond his age. Barlow is nuanced, alternately lustful, vicious, guarded and thoughtful, and his subtle performance anchors the rest of the spirited action onstage. As his foil Lula, Kate Guentzel is intensely dynamic. She fully "commits to the crazy" and goes deep into Lula's troubled psyche. Guentzel is horrifying but simultaneously riveting, and her violent actions will leave lingering emotions for any audience member.

Costumes and the set are both simple (suits and a subway) and perfectly suited to the dynamic performances. They show, in fact, that great acting can enlighten without any trappings; a performance is what is made of it. Barlow and Guentzel are powerful in their portrayals here, and their chemistry shines through the simplicity of the subway set. Dutchman can feel like there is some wasted time, but it offers complete and total honesty. As hard as it is to hear, it is also refreshing, particularly in an environment where every element is intended to be artificial.

The second play, The Owl Answers, is a piece by the highly influential Adrienne Kennedy and features a more mythological feel. Though the plot is relatively simple (a woman is born the child of a wealthy white man and his black cooking servant; she is adopted by a local pastor and his wife, and forbidden from attending her blood father's funeral. She imagines herself visiting England, home of his ancestors, while she takes men to her home to sleep with; eventually, she tries to murder one and transforms into an owl), this is a complex show with vivid imagery and a hefty dose of magical realism.

The set is filled with medieval era projections, cage elements, and feathers. The claymaytion-esque masks and costumes are gorgeous, particularly those of the British characters (Chaucer, Shakespeare, William the Conqueror and Anne Boleyn).
Photo courtesy of Allen Weeks. 
As the lead character, Austene Van is able to pierce your emotions, even if you're not fully aware of the meaning of her actions. For the rest, I have to be honest: I found it incredibly obtuse. The Owl Answers is what it appears to be about on face value, but for me, something didn't click. I still enjoyed the performers, the costumes, the set, the whole shebang, but I couldn't tell you how these elements relate to each other. There were some themes I was able to cling to: the question of identity and history, especially of a black person relating to their European heritage; the places of escape that victims of rape or violence or social shunning create for themselves; the many ways a person can feel trapped in a cage, even if they physically aren't locked in anything. I found each of these themes interesting and important, and I think Kennedy had a lot more to say; for some reason however, I just couldn't access it (nor could my date for the night). Everyone needs to approach this show on their own terms, and I think there are many people who would find it very engaging and profound; unfortunately, I had a hard time accessing that deeper meaning.

If you want a night of intense thought, and one that directly relates to the cultural chaos surrounding us (pick one: election, Black Lives Matter, immigration reform, collective history - any of that ties in here), you should definitely attend this duo of plays. It will be hard to watch, it will make you struggle, it will make you uncomfortable whatever your color; but that is what makes theater so much more powerful than film. The tangible reality of live people in 3D living color presenting hard ideas cannot be replaced in any other way. Dutchman and The Owl Answers have had me pondering for days, and in an age of immediate gratification, it's nice to have some thoughts to chew on for a while. For more information about performances of either show, click on this link.