Monday, October 21, 2013
Theater review: Neat is an outstanding (and exhausting) solo performance
Ebony Marshall-Oliver plays several characters for more than two hours.
FORT WORTH Everyone throughout life has someone that becomes instrumental, in some way, shape, or form, of making you the person you became. It’s not often that a play becomes the medium for the world to learn about them. Neat is one of those plays.
Neat is the second installment of the Pretty Fire trilogy which is an autobiography of writer Charlayane Woodard’s life. Neat was developed in 1997 at Seattle Repertory Theatre and proceeded to be produced at multiple other venues almost immediately. The performance at the Manhattan Theatre Club pushed it into national spotlight with an Outer Critics Theatre Award nomination. Within its first year the show created a buzz not only in New York but in Los Angeles at the Mark Taper Forum in 1998. The show was an instant hit.
Portraying all characters with a one woman cast, Ms. Woodard takes you through her life growing up with her Aunt Neat. The journey starts in Savannah, Georgia when Aunt Neat is just a baby. Neat is left in the care of her illiterate great Grandma. While in her care Neat receives a lethal dose of camphor oil which caused seizures and some brain damage. For two hours the audience lives the life of Aunt Neat, her physical, emotional and spiritual life for the whole world to see.
As I walked into the theatre space at Jubilee, I wondered what this show was going to do for me. Already I was a bit skeptical looking at a very stark stage. Michael Pettigrew’s set was a simple clapboard wall with a doorway in the center, while the upstage wall was painted with what looked like curved palm frawns. A single chair sat in the doorway. That was it.
Boy was I surprised as the house and stage lights lowered. Ebony Marshall-Oliver sits in a pool of light singing to the audience. I was caught off guard by the beautiful acapella piece, I wasn’t expecting it. My amazement didn’t stop there though. Mrs. Oliver carried me through this experience masterfully. Her movements, mannerisms and facial expressions were so detailed I felt like I was experiencing the same things she was. During the first scene Mrs. Oliver explains the problems that occurred when Neat's Great Grandmother accidentally poisons Neat with camphor oil. In this scene alone I think I counted six characters she portrayed. Bouncing between the floor, a chair and the floor again playing each of them, I got tired just watching but incredibly she kept going on, not even getting winded. As far as stamina goes, let’s just say outstanding. The show is in two acts and runs a little over two hours. Mrs. Oliver was just as fresh at the end as she was in the beginning. Every line was delivered with precision and care, never once stumbling over or missing a line. You could tell by Mrs. Oliver’s acting that this story was something special to her and she truly gave it the performance it deserves.
Ebony Marshall-Oliver doesn’t do it alone though. Lighting and sound were intricate pieces to the puzzle that made this production. David Lanza’s sound design helped Mrs. Oliver make this tale come to life. The ambient sound effects were incredibly helpful in creating believable ambience for each scene. But his brilliance shone through in the little details of a clink after a rock was thrown or when something got hit. It was absolutely brilliant how he interacted sound with all of Mrs. Oliver’s movements and blocking.
In the beginning of Act One I watched the lighting closely. There were templates that came up on curtains, and then disappeared. I couldn’t figure it out at first but then it set in. Lighting Designer Nikki Deshae Smith was differentiating time and place with very subtle light changes that not many would ever notice. Mrs. Smith’s use of isolation was effective in making you concentrate when it was important. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen templates and textures used this well but Mrs. Smith did one heck of a job with them. The lighting really made this show visually stunning.
Costume Designer Barbara O’Donoghue had only one piece to contend with and made a smart choice in its design. As it was worn through the entire show, it had to be durable. Using simple, earth-tone colors, it had a tighter profile on the actress which helped in seeing all of the actor’s varied movements onstage.
Tre Garrett’s vision for this production was carried out to the tee by a group of talented and amazing people. Neat is one of the most complex shows as far as blocking goes that I’ve seen in a long time. It can be very easy with a one person show to only use one or two staged movements over and over again, making it mundane - but not this show. The vibrancy that Mr. Garrett built into the blocking makes every scene look different. As well, his choice to cast Ebony Marshall-Oliver in this role was spot on. I had to sit in the theater after it was over for about five minutes just to process everything that happened over the past two hours. The only thing that kept coming out of my mouth was “WOW.”
Mr. Garrett has brought together not just a top caliber design team but a top caliber performer for this wonderful show. I know everyone’s thinking that it’s the second of three shows, but this production stands on its own merits. Jubilee Theatre has put together a fantastic show with some of the highest production values I’ve seen yet this year. It shouldn’t be missed.
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