Onstage / Shaw wraps up with its most contemporary offerings
Ryan Cunningham as Pete, André Sills as George, and Starr Domingue as Grace in An Octoroon
An Octoroon photo by by David Cooper; Dracula and Middletown photos by Emily Cooper
By Branden Jacobs-Jenkins
Director: Peter Hinton
Cast: Andre Sills, Patrick McManus, Ryan Cunningham, Lisa Berry, Kiera Sangster, Starr Domingue, Diana Donnelly, Vanessa Sears, Samantha Walkes
Before attending the opening of An Octoroon, I read the source material, The Octoroon, an 1859 melodrama about plantation politics and a mixed-race romance between a would-be owner and his cousin, the eponymous octoroon—someone who is one-eighth black. It was written by white Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, while this modern-day riff, what is being called the definitive race play of the decade, was penned by thirty-two-old African-American Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, winner of the 2016 MacArthur “genius” grant. As one expects, Jacobs-Jenkins has a different perspective on the material—both thematically and tonally. Make no mistake: this is comedy, serious comedy.
From the start, it’s easy to see why this play appeals to Shaw’s new artistic director, Tim Carroll (in our April interview, he called the show the best he’s seen “in the past five or ten years”), whose vision of the season’s other offerings all enhance both theatricality and interaction—something Jacobs-Jenkins has taken care of for him. The play opens with the self-described “black playwright” BJJ (wink), in his underwear, expounding to his therapist the difficulties of being an African-American playwright, including his inability to write about even farm animals without it being assumed he’s deconstructing African folk tales. The sly appearance of a rabbit—Brer?—throughout the play lets us know that he knows he can never escape what people will say about his writing.
He could be said to embrace it, as he unabashedly deconstructs Boucicault’s work. I’d heard so much buzz about the Obie-winning play that I wasn’t sure what to expect and was delighted when the play opened with BJJ’s monologue, followed by another from Boucicault—also in underwear—that painted a different picture about perceptions of race. After such fun, clever, and incisive “front matter,” I wasn’t expecting an adaptation, but that’s what follows. As such, I was glad I read the source material before seeing the play; it made for a richer experience and greater ability to discern what Jacobs-Jenkins had kept, and what he had taken away—and why.
Much of Boucicault’s original language has been maintained in the retelling, but the addition of Brechtian elements reminds us that this is theater (the program even contains a slave auction listing); we’ve moved beyond what was considered “realism” in 1859, and entered a conversation about blackness then and now, as well as the place history has in our current discussion. One of the most profound moments comes when Jacobs-Jenkins juxtaposes Boucicault’s entreaty against lynching with a photograph of two hanged slaves, surrounded by a casual crowd. Not only does the choice arrestingly expose the harsh hypocrisy of the original speech, but also solves one of the thornier issues of the adaptation.
Most of the bridging between past and present comes in the form of Dido and Minnie, two house slaves whose roles were minor in the original, but become the anachronistic spine in this production. They offer up the most real—read: uncomfortable—moments in the script, and their authenticity underscores the melodramatic stereotypes flouncing about them in white-, black-, and redface. Though the play’s heavy lifting belongs to Andre Sills (what he does is amazingly great theater) in the literally black-and-white roles of good and evil, Dido and Minnie’s central roles are cemented at the end of the play, where Jacobs-Jenkins veers most from his source material.
An Octoroon runs through October 14 at the Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario.
Allan Louis as Dracula in Dracula
By Bram Stoker, adapted for the stage by Liz Lochhead
Director: Eda Holmes
Cast: Allan Louis, Marla McLean, Cherissa Richards, Natasha Mumba, Ben Sanders, Martin Happer, Wade Bogert-O’Brien, Rebecca Gibian, Cameron Grant, Marci T. House, Moya O’Connell, Chick Reid, Graeme Somerville, Steven Sutcliffe
Dracula and his descendants—i.e., all vampire stories since—have become so evolved and commonplace that it’s hard to imagine the surprise Bram Stoker’s novel must have elicited when it came out in 1897. Or that there’s much newness to be derived from it. Scottish poet/playwright Liz Lochheads’s 1985 feminist adaptation manages by shining a lantern on female sexuality—the power, oppression, repression, and politics of it.
While, at more than thirty years old, this script could use an update that reflects modern sexuality and conflicts, it’s still up to the task, at least in Act I, where contemporary but not anachronistic dialogue introduces us to the players—and their desires. Full focus is on the women—sisters Mina and Lucy—as Vlad becomes mere device and temptation within their stories (which is too bad, because Allan Louis’s Drac is a delight, entertaining without crossing into cartoon). This is the place to indulge in scenes of ideas, pose questions, and start the engines on new trains of thought. A new character—Mina’s servant, Florie—helps provide a practical feminist view, to contrast the dominant male perspectives of Dr. Van Helsing and Mina’s fiancé, Seward. It’s Shavian in the best ways, but also the worst, in that it sets up very little suspense, fear, or horror at what’s to come. Even the revelation that Lucy has been piercing the necks of the town’s children feels like a throwaway.
And then comes the second act, suddenly hewing closely to the original tale, in a heavily plot-laden effort to finish the story as those who know it expect. That leads to unfortunate limitations—and at least two enormous plotholes—that diminish the overall product, despite gorgeous production values and the usual top-notch acting (I’d be so wary of staging this without an A-list company). There is some redemption to be found in Dracula’s beautifully staged final moments, which end with laser focus on everything this show intended to say in one visceral image.
Dracula runs through October 14 at the Festival Theatre, 10 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
Gray Powell as John Dodge in Middletown
By Will Eno
Director: Meg Roe
Cast: Moya O’Connell, Gray Powell, Karl Ang, Kristopher Bowman, Fiona Byrne, Benedict Campbell, Claire Jullien, Jeff Meadows, Peter Millard, Natasha Mumba, Tara Rosling, Sara Topham
Leading up to this production of Middletown, there was much talk about the inability to discuss what the show is about. Even in the program, director Meg Roe says, “I’ve never been more reticent to put my words in front of a play, to pin it down for you…” This made me both curious—and concerned.
And yet, after watching the exquisite production of Middletown at an in-the-round (who knew it could do that?), recently renamed Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, I didn’t understand the conundrum. At all. The play is about life, death, the cosmos, and all the complicated questions therein. It’s Our Town for today’s psychologically astute and questioning generation, one that’s guilty not of failing to take the time to contemplate life, but of the opposite: doing it too much.
Act I, perhaps the most gorgeous act one I’ve witnessed in some time, features a series of quirky, poignant, and funny vignettes that leave no question of the thematic territory Eno is navigating as he introduces the residents of Middletown. Special mention goes to Gray Powell as John Dodge—his very name evokes a man trying to escape the ordinary—who hits all the right notes in pitch-perfect scene work with Moya O’Connell, playing Middletown newcomer Mary. The quiet loneliness, the gentle ennui, the yearning and questioning are all palpable in these scenes, skimming the top of subtextual surface without spilling over. And, as with most Shaw shows this Tim Carroll-inspired season, there is spectator interaction as the actors emerge from the seats to participate in scenes, draw a map of the town, and, at one point, play audience members themselves.
The first act’s penultimate scene is a beautiful piece of theater magic (no spoilers) that sews it all up with a stunning button. The show could end there. It doesn’t, and, unfortunately, the second act doesn’t measure up to the first, which is still worth the trip. Not that Act II doesn’t continue along the same path; it just does so without the deliciousness and surprise of what preceded it. Instead, it plods toward a predictable end, and the ideas that were previously so entertainingly and obliquely conveyed are suddenly delivered with a heavy hand and familiar tropes, just in case the audience was missing the point.
Nonetheless, the point is a good one, the acting and production a highlight of the season, and the introduction of this kind of fare at Shaw most welcome.
Middletown runs through September 10 at the Jackie Maxwell Studio Theatre, 10 Queen’s Parade, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario
Playwright Donna Hoke writes about theater for Spree and Forever Young. Middletown was her favorite show of the Shaw season.