Saturday, May 24, 2014

An Octoroon ****

After showing great promise with his recent play "Appropriate" at the Signature Theatre, Brendan Jacobs-Jenkins has fulfilled that promise -- and then some -- with this new work at Soho Rep. Jacobs-Jenkins is a master at appropriating theatrical tropes and reworking them into something new and more interesting. In the earlier play, he took the Southern dysfunctional family play and turned it inside out. In the current play the object of his deconstruction is "The Octoroon," an antebellum melodrama by Irish playwright Dion Boucicault, that opened at the Winter Garden in 1859 and ran for several years in road companies. The result is a meta-melodrama unlike anything I have seen before. The play opens with a depressed black actor, BJJ (Chris Myers) claiming to be the playwright, in his underwear, discussing a recent session with his therapist, during which he reveals his admiration for Boucicault. Suddenly Boucicault (Danny Wolohan) appears onstage and a shouting match ensues. They are joined by an assistant (Ben Horner) who helps them prepare for the play. BJJ applies whiteface makeup, the white assistant puts on blackface, and Boucicault adds redface, dresses in an Indian (no political correctness here!) costume with an elaborate feather headdress and performs a vigorous dance. Suddenly the rear wall of the stage collapses forward to reveal a bright all-white set with the floor covered with cotton balls, representing the Louisiana plantation Terrebonne where the action takes place. A trio of slaves -- Minnie (Jocelyn Bloh), Dido (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and Grace (Shyko Amos) -- take the place of a Greek chorus, but one that talks trash and contemporary psychobabble. The characters include George (Myers again), the young master who loves his 1/8th black cousin Zoe (Amber Gray), the evil overseer McClosky (Myers yet again) who also desires Zoe, the wealthy heiress Dora (Zoe Winters) who wants to wed George, the old house slave Peter (Horner again), the innocent young slave Paul (Horner once more) and his devoted Indian friend Wahnotee (Wolohan again), the auctioneer LaFouche (Wolohan) and a ship captain (uncredited). They are joined onstage by cellist Lester St. Louis whose music subtly underlines the action. The dialogue blends excerpts from Boucicault's play with Jacobs-Jenkins's inventions. The cast doubling opens clever opportunities such as a one-actor fight scene between George and McClosky. Meandering through the play at several points is an enigmatic Br'er Rabbit figure, a sharply dressed rabbit/man with a cottontail and a very expressive face. (It turns out that he is none other than the playwright himself.) Director Sarah Benson works wonders with the complex material, Mimi Lien's set is amazing, Wade Laboissonniere's costumes are wonderful, as are all other aspects of the production design. My compliments to Soho Rep for mounting such an ambtious play and congratulations to the playwright for his well-deserved Obie. Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes including intermission.

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