Tuesday, May 8, 2012
Theater review: Raft of the Medusa at Fihankra Dance & Fitness Studio in Dallas
A passionate message from Level Ground Arts.
Level Ground Arts prides itself on its originating motto, "Theater out of Balance." When they take on a project like this, it goes into their "edge" shows. You can't get any edgier than Raft of the Medusa (playing at Fihankra Dance & Fitness Studio through May 13). The audience is pushed out of balance in the opening minute.
The play is written by Joe Pintauro, a former priest. It takes its title from a famous painting named Raft of the Medusa about the wreck of a French Navy frigate called Medusa. The painting by Jean-Louis André Théodore Géricault now hangs in the Louvre.
In the historical shipwreck, many survivors leave the ship in lifeboats, but 150 sailors must build a raft to survive in the ocean off the coast of Senegal. By the time they find rescue 13 days later, only 10 survive, the result of fighting and cannibalism. Their struggle against futility inspires Géricault to paint this watershed event in French history. As a leader in the Romantic art movement, Gericault's painting becomes a watershed statement in French art.
The play and the painting are two aspects of a message about humanity. Pintauro finds a parallel between his story about a group of people struggling to survive with AIDS in New York City and the painting. The themes are the same.
The intense dialog in this play requires actors to express raw pathos and emotion as each character deals with their impending death. Each reveals their most intimate secrets to their lonely group mates. Each comes from a different socio-economic background and a diversity of sexual and religious beliefs, yet all are tied to a common relationship with the disease. When the play debuted AIDS was still considered the "gay disease" to most of America.
The characters in this play make up a therapy group which provides voice to the diseased while helping them deal with their life and death struggle. Like most T-Groups, they deal with their struggles through violent confrontation, laying their souls bare for the group. We see a panoply of stereotypes about homosexuality and religion that uninfected people develop to deal with their own fear of AIDS, yet we see their personal stories and they look like people we know. Actors must find a level of horror within themselves that allows them to play these scared, angry, grieving characters, and they all do this exceptionally well.
This play is directed by Alex Wade, who also plays Doug, one of the patients. His challenge as director is to get a 90-minute play to flow with a strong enough atmosphere to keep the actors intense while keeping the audience out of balance yet comfortable enough to hear the story. He does well with this. The lightening-fast dialog is layered so we feel the desperation and understand the exploration of the different thematic arguments. He works with different designers to support the themes. Katherine Anthony's costume designs suggest basic street clothes to make each character believable and lend credence to their back story. Not much makeup is needed in this small space, but some is required to support the devastating effects of the disease on character's bodies. Director Wade and Becki McDonald accomplish this with minimal but effective methods.
The space for Raft of the Medusa is a dance studio with folding chairs on a wooden floor. At first it feels terribly un-theatrical. There's no lighting designer because there are no theater lights. The florescent and incandescent bulbs of the studio turn off when the play begins and on when it ends. There's a platform stage on which an opening scene occurs, but the therapy group sits in chairs on the floor before the audience, a la T-Group seating. It seems contrived. After a few minutes, however, an ambulance goes by outside the studio, along with car traffic and Deep Ellum revelers, and the place takes on an air of a back street in Manhattan.
Not all the direction choices work. Putting actors on the floor at the same level of the audience is intended to bring the audience into the group meeting room, but it also means we lose quieter moments with important details of the story, especially when an A/C fan is louder than actors. From six rows back, I missed quieter monologues and only saw actors by peering between people in front of me.
This audience showed signs of being stunned, amused, and uncomfortable as we listened to people reveal intimate details of the effects of their disease while dealing with their own mortality. We know people who have a close relationship with AIDS today, and though medical science has breakthroughs in therapies and more AIDS patients survive longer, as Director Wade says in his Director's Comments, "the truth is, more people are living with AIDS or different types of HIV infections today than ever before." Proceeds from this production go to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and the message this director wants us to remember is clear. AIDS - it's still here!
This play has clear themes, though no answers. Pintauro compares his "raft" of souls going through their daily struggles with those souls on the raft in Gericault's painting. There's an air of inevitable doom for both groups as the people scratch and claw their way through daily life, hoping against hope for survival.
Just as the romantic view of the painting is hopefulness in the face of horror, Pintauro leaves the outcome unclear about any of these characters. There's no conclusion. In the end, the characters slowly disappear from the space without fanfare as they go their own way. We are left with nothing but questions. But we see that AIDS affects all types equally and we feel vulnerable, though we know from history that there is some level of hope now.
Both the painting and play have a final positive hint that's hard to discover. Gericault unveiled his painting in 1819, a time in history when Africans were made European slaves and when Europe colonized African countries. Yet Gericault's painting shows a single black man as the only sailor on the raft searching for hope. This was the first depiction of a black man in art as a hope for humanity, an idea suggesting humanity might survive and hinting towards a growing backlash against slavery in France.
Pintauro uses a single black female as a force for hope for this group. Rebecca McDonald plays Nairobi as a deaf-mute homeless woman, signing all her dialog. In the midst of chaotic screaming within the group, Nairobi delivers what I think is the main message of Pintauro. "Learn to appreciate the minutes." It's a powerful reminder for all of us.
The minutes of Raft of the Medusa create a passionate message by this director, his actors, and the Level Ground Arts production team. You will learn to appreciate them.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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