Saturday, November 29, 2014

ArtsWest: The Mountaintop

We have had a long and bumpy relationship with ArtsWest. In the beginning, we did everything we could to support the theater, giving 'til it hurt, subscribing, inviting our friends and hosting after-show parties. However, ArtsWest has had a lot of ups and downs in its artistic choices and direction, and we have not subscribed for many years, choosing instead to attend individual shows that looked like they might be substantive. 

The Mountaintop by Katori Hall and directed by Valerie Curtis-Newton is indeed substantive, nourishing theater. This entirely absorbing, two-character, 90-minute play speculates on the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s life, and poses the question: what if god sent a messenger to help Dr. King as he is called home? What if he knew his life on earth was about to end? What would he say?

Camae (brianne a hill) and Dr. King (Reginald André Jackson)
in ArtsWest's production of The Mountaintop by Katori Hall.
ArtsWest photo by Michael Brunk.
That sounds a bit lofty, but in fact this play is down to earth. brianne a. hill plays the potty-mouthed, sassy, street-tough angel whose first assignment (she was murdered just the night before) is to escort Dr. King to the other side. The writing and the pitch-perfect performance by Reginald AndrĂ© Jackson cut through the hagiography around Dr. King so that he could be portrayed as a real man—a brilliant, extraordinary man, but in the end, a man. 

The play is set on the night of April 3, 1968 in room 306 of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis where Dr. King spent the last night of his life and where, the next day, he would be shot on the balcony. The set, designed by Burton Yuen, made us voyeurs into this room, with the door and window to the balcony as backdrop. We understand it was a faithful recreation of the Lorraine, and the many small details helped ground the play, making the setting vivid and helping to make the characters human by contrasting the ordinary and mundane with the weighty themes of the play. 

As the play opens, Ralph Abernathy has just stepped out for cigarettes, and Dr. King calls room service for coffee. Camae is the lovely maid who brings the coffee and handles Dr. King's flirtations, rants, arrogance, anxiety, and grief with aplomb. 

This is a very funny play, and the timing and energy from hill and Jackson bring out that humor. It is also a painfully serious play, as Dr. King wrestles with his failings, his mortality, and his god. I found the scene where the angel Camae shows Dr. King the future in fierce and flawlessly delivered poetry to be especially moving. 

I'm going to have to stop saying I categorically dislike video in plays. The use of a video montage to show Dr. King the future was appropriate and effective. We were talking about video in plays recently with a friend of ours who works in theatre, and he said people are learning how to incorporate video into plays well. The design team for this production certainly did it well.

Sadly, our experience was not quite as entirely absorbing as it should have been based on the artists' efforts. A man in front of us, in the front row, chose to converse with his seat partner through the show in a perfectly audible stage whisper. So disrespectful to the actors, and so distracting for people around him. What would you do—complain to an usher? Well, here's the thing: he was an usher. Doh. Dear ArtsWest: please ask your ushers not to converse during the show. Thank you.  

ArtsWest has a new artistic director, and their tagline is "fiercely compelling theatre." Sounds audacious, but hey, audacious is good. The Mountaintop is certainly that kind of theater, and we hope to be back many more times.

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