Sunday, October 6, 2013

Oregon Shakespeare Festival: Liquid Plain

We saw three world premiers in Ashland this year, new work commissioned by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. All three plays pretty much picked us up and body slammed us into our comfy theater seats. First up is The Liquid Plain by Naomi Wallace, directed by Kwame Kwei-Armah. 

The Liquid Plain is a well-researched play about the slave trade of the late 1700s run through Bristol, Rhode Island by James De Wolf. The play is about the relationships between a common law couple each escaped from slavery, Dembi and Adjua, who found each other and are forging a life together working in entrepreneurial fashion on the docks, scraping together passage to Africa; the sailor Cranston they drag from the water to salvage his stuff but who isn't quite drowned after all; and their child, Bristol. 

Kimberly Scott as Dembi, Danforth Comins as a just-washed-
ashore Cranston, and June Carryl as Adjua in The Liquid
. OSF photo by Jenny Graham.
Never appearing in the play but critical to the characters and action is Adjua's unnamed sister, who did not survive the trip over on the slave ship. We are reminded of her presence at various points before and during the action by an empty chair with buckles on the arms suspended by ropes on a pulley, like the one in which she would have been lowered overboard by Captain and later United States Senator De Wolf. 

Making appearances are De Wolf, played by an apparently indefatigable Michael Winters; a rake and reckless captain, Liverpool Joe, who takes risky voyages picking up people from the underground railroad and returning them to Africa; he is played by one of our favorites, Kevin Kenerly. Balthazar is a sailor throwing in with Liverpool Joe in a quixotic effort to make his fortune, or just get by. And the ghost of William Blake visits Bristol (the place and the character) by borrowing a disemboweled and gibbeted cadaver (must have been great fun for the costume shop); both Balthazar and Blake are played with the perfect balance of gravitas and comedic relief by Armando DurĂ¡n.

After setting up the characters, their relationships, their hopes and dreams, and their losses, things get complicated just before intermission, as the ragtag crew is about to embark on their long-dreamt-of journey to Africa. Adjua announces her pregnancy, and Dembi takes actions that will separate him from his beloved forever. 

When we return from intermission, it is about 40 years later. Adjua died at childbirth, and the now-grown Bristol has come to Rhode Island from England to take revenge on De Wolf and find her father. The men she finds—Cranston, De Wolf, and Dembi—all hold surprises for her in her journey back to her roots. 

In an epic that crosses generations, it can be a bit too easy as an audience member to stay detached. Only Dembi and Cranston span intermission on stage (not counting a ghostly Adjua, which I didn't think added anything). Just as we have come to care about one set of characters, we come back from intermission, get a little exposition about what happened to them, and are introduced to a new character. We don't have a lot of time to get to know and care about Bristol. We care about her largely because we cared about her mother and aunt; because she is seeking their story, seeking answers to their questions, and seeking justice for them. In general, the play is stronger when it is showing rather than telling (and aren't most plays?). Kwei-Armah and the design teams did a great job of finding ways to strengthen the script by emphasizing the showing.

For instance, I appreciate the playwright and director's willingness to make us squirm in Wallace's story about disgusting events in our history using very specific, grotesque details. One example is the good work the set, lighting, and costume folks did to make Cranston's affliction with guinea worm uncomfortable for us (google it; don't say I didn't warn you). 

Bakesta King was fantastic as Risa in Two Trains Running earlier this year, and even with my playbill right in front of me I did not make the connection; she so completely embodied such different women that I did not recognize her. Well done. I don't know how Danforth Comins does it, playing some really vile characters all year this year including Cranston. And he does it so well! I think if I'd met him in a dark street in Ashland I might have jumped in fright. But then I hope I would remember how cute and goofy he was as Orlando in As You Like It a few years back and have the presence of mind to tell him how much I enjoy his work. Especially when he's playing creeps. Newcomer to OSF June Carryl was mesmerizing as Adjua. I think Kimberly Scott can pretty much do anything on stage; Scott turned in a bravura performance as Dembi. 

On the day we saw The Liquid Plain, there was a power outage in the Thomas Theater. This gave us the opportunity to get yet another glimpse into the magic of theater making. We realized how startling such an event must be for the actors. For us in the audience, we don't know what's going to happen from moment to moment, and it's plausible that the line Scott had just delivered was so momentous that it caused lightning and thunder and darkness. That is, until the exit signs clicked over to backup power and it stayed otherwise dark a little too long. But for the actors, who must come to absolutely trust that all the lights and props and sounds are always going to be exactly where they should be, at exactly the same time each time, it must have been a jolt. When the backup generator kicked in and the lights came up, Kenerly was laughing and I suspect Scott may have ad libbed a choice word or two. The actors filed off the stage, and the operating crew thoroughly checked everything over during an unscheduled intermission, running every mechanical part of the show through its paces. Then, they got us back in our seats, the actors filed back in, picked up just a few lines ahead of where the lights had gone out, and didn't miss another beat. Given how emotional the play is and the way the story was building, I was a bit surprised how little the event marred our experience. We all fell right back into our roles. 

Naomi Wallace is a distinguished American playwright, with a resume full of accomplishments and awards and grants. She wrote a fine play in The Liquid Plain. And what's really cool is that the other two world premiers commissioned by OSF from less well-known (so far) artists absolutely held their own with Wallace, Tennessee Williams, Lerner and Loewe, and William Shakespeare. More on these new plays soon.

The Liquid Plain is part of the American Revolutions cycle, OSF's 10-year program to commission 37 new plays (the number of plays in the Shakespearean canon) about moments in United States history. I wish more people knew about this cycle, and I hope OSF becomes as well-known for commissioning exciting new work as it is for Shakespeare. We've seen five of the six American Revolutions plays that have been produced so far, and we missed one only because it was produced in Chicago at Steppenwolf. We are pretty close to completing the Shakespearean canon. Based on what we've seen so far, we would love to complete this canon as well. 

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