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"You go to stage with the company you have."

African-American identity crisis in PlayMakers' Blue Door; a revival of Brecht's antiwar Mother Courage 

Haunted history

click to enlarge Lelund Durond Thompson and Sam Wellington in Blue Door - PHOTO BY JON GARDINER

Blue Door

@ PlayMakers Rep
Through Nov. 9

It's understandable enough if something seems more than vaguely familiar in the structure of Tanya Barfield's play Blue Door: Three spirits, all vying to change the soul of a hard-hearted man for the better in the course of one night? Charles Dickens, call your office.

Actually, the similarities between these works' two central characters go a bit further than that. A certain famous Victorian skinflint once used the numbers in financial account books to keep the emotional losses of childhood, adolescence and young adulthood at bay. In Blue Door, Barfield's central character, an African-American college mathematician named Lewis, is so intent on permanently divorcing himself from his own history and the history of his ancestors that he uses theoretical mathematics in the attempt to take time apart itself. If Lewis can only determine the equations by which the present instant could be disconnected from all previous ones and the lockstep chain of moments unwritten after the fact, he might achieve what he calls "the repudiation of time." Then he might actually be able to believe the words he desperately bellows at the specter of Rex, his dead, militant brother at mid-show: "Causality is a crutch."

It's hard to say which is the greater challenge in this two-person show: Sam Wellington's finely detailed portrait of a man who has all but totally boxed himself in in his own mind, or Lelund Durond Thompson's vivid range of characters that stretch from a great-grandfather who lived during slavery to Lewis' own father as a boy.

Director Trezana Beverley has gained a significant regional following on the basis of her previous PlayMakers triumphs, including 2005's Yellowman and The Bluest Eye last year. Her staging here adds further honor to that list. The emotional integrity of her characters effectively grounds them on a psychologized landscape whose abstraction could so easily have been distracting. By now we know the fully embodied acting we see in depictions of violence and passion to be as much the director's trademark as the careful visual poetry present in the judicious use of symbolic props and stylized movements—lyrical moves that accompany an affecting original a cappella score. These all serve to further fix the men on what could have been the far too shifting planes of time.

If Lewis' ancestors pluck him from the ever-shrinking ledge of the present tense, they do so by regrounding him in the stories of his past. That causality from which he flees at the start ironically provides the greatest solace—by providing an understanding at the last of "who, what and why I am."


Mother Courage and Her Children

Justice Theater Project
@ Swain Hall, UNC campus, through Nov. 8
and @ Cardinal Gibbons Performing Arts Center, Nov. 13-16

Perhaps it wouldn't have been such a stretch to imagine one of the more jaded professors from my grad school days advocating for a flawed production of Mother Courage and Her Children. After all, it was he who tenderly warned us against the perfectionism that led to pristine, thousand-page bibliographies—and academic collapse—with the counter-intuitive rubric "What's worth doing is worth doing poorly."

But what twisted sort of conjuring could have evoked Donald Rumsfeld, even in paraphrase, on the way back to my car, to pardon the shortcomings in this reading of Bertolt Brecht's famously antiwar polemic? No matter: There he was, in my ear, wheedling this nugget of suspect wisdom about the show I'd just seen: "You go to stage with the company you have."

We'll set that point aside for the moment. What exactly does a critic say when nearly everything in a musical is working—except, that is, the music? For that's too much the case in this Justice Theater Project production.

Of course we can strenuously argue that Brecht leaves a lot more on the table for theatergoers to chew on than, say, Mssrs. Rodgers and Hammerstein (or—shudder—Mr. Lloyd Webber) if the songs ground out. But Mother Courage is one of the clear masterworks of 20th-century political theater. It's also staged so infrequently that it's hard not to be disappointed when a production doesn't get it right.

Too many of the vocals that weren't conspicuously thin on the Swain Hall stage struggled mightily to mount the heights of the score Jonathan Dove composed for David Hare's adaptation. Notable exceptions found Derrick Ivey's Cook memorably warbling Brecht's "Song of Solomon" like an old-time radio idol, and Mary Floyd Page's Yvette reminiscing warmly about old sins (in Rob Hamilton's droll military show-girl costume) in "The Song of Fraternization."

Elizabeth Lewis Corley was authoritative in the title role as the merchant whose cutthroat pragmatism when it comes to making a profit from war ultimately costs her the lives of all her children. Authoritative, that is, except in the higher registers when she sang. She was hardly alone in these troubles; other vocalists on stage were more besieged by difficulties with rhythm or pitch.

When we heard that renowned director Joseph Megel would direct this collaboration with UNC's Communication Studies department, hopes were raised that the Project's professional standards, which have been checkered in recent years, would see an upgrade in this season opener. The characters were stark; the staging was crisp. The music? Not so much.

  • "You go to stage with the company you have."

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