Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Theater review: Experience the life of a slave and his helpless master in The Whipping Man
It's a play that will make you laugh uproariously and hold your breath in fear.
DALLAS The year is 1865. Caleb, a young Jewish man returns to his ransacked home wounded. His two former slaves, Simon and John, are attempting to maintain the property as best they can. But because Caleb is wounded, he now depends on the two men for his survival. It’s also Passover, which commemorates the liberation of the Jewish slaves from Egypt. This very unique set up creates a play that is intimate in scale, as this unique family dynamic of the master depending on his former slaves for survival, and at the same time universal in its appeal because it explores the human conflict of religion, war, and the nature of ever evolving politics.
The Whipping Man by Matthew Lopez is a brilliant play. The subject matter is grim, but he pens such wonderful dialogue that even in the harrowing situation all three characters find themselves, Lopez is able to inject a good dose of humor. The end result is a play that is tragic and comedic, inspiring and saddening, eloquent and plain spoken. This play has layers upon layers of subtext that are revealed to a devastating effect. It is truly a great piece of theater. African American Repertory Theatre’s presentation of this complex play is astounding.
Willie Minor directs the piece with such beauty and subtlety that one is entranced by some of the simple blocking choices he gives actors. Because the character of Caleb is chair bound throughout most of the play, the other two characters move around the stage to create visual pictures sometimes fraught with tension, and at other times camaraderie. Some of the stage business he gives them serves as a counterpoint to the words being expressed. One example is the moment that slave John and Caleb share a drink from a bottle. They each make sure the neck is wiped down properly before they take the sip. The dialogue is friendly but this simple action lets the audience know there is distrust underneath the joviality. A variation of this action is repeated in the play later on, and it has a devastating effect, making every hair on my arms stand up.
Christian Taylor plays Caleb. Caleb is wounded not only physically but emotionally. He is a shattered idealist. Because his leg is amputated in the first scene he remains in excruciating pain throughout the play. At times he is delirious with a fever. Taylor portrays his physical pain in a realistic way; at no point did his physical reactions come across as false. He also finds himself abandoned by his family, and his growing sense of despair is palpable. It’s a brave performance that that captures all the character’s qualities and is fascinating.
John is played by Christopher Dontrell Piper. He frequently serves as the comic relief in which the macabre situation the three characters find themselves. John is brash, immature, impetuous, yet devastatingly charming. His way of trying to take control of the degenerating situation is to continuously lie. The thing is, he believes his own lies till he is confronted by them. When cornered he becomes dangerous. John is Machiavellian and Piper’s performance is breath taking for he captures every nuance of the role.
Hassan El-Amin plays Simon as the archetype of the Noble Savage and succeeds. Simon is the make shift patriarch of the household and the one everyone turns to for help. He is illiterate, has grace, and is the most eloquent, even though he is plain spoken. If he were to live in a different era and have an education one could see him being a Prime Minister, or King, but because of his circumstance and the historical period in which he is trapped, he is limited. In the play he describes how he briefly met Lincoln, and how he bowed to the President, and the President bowed in return. El-Amin’s performance infuses the role with dignity so that every word he speaks has meaning and commands the audience’s attention. It is a bravura performance, one that will haunt for a long time.
The costuming design is by Regina Washington. It is very well done because not only does she dress the actors in era appropriate clothing, but the costumes give insight as to the characters’ states of mind. In one scene, John steals spats and finery, but the clothes he’s chosen are inappropriate for his age and situation, thus reflecting the immaturity of the character. Washington also procures the props for the play and they all have an authentic feel.
Set design by Kenneth Verdugo is relatively simple and serviceable. Not a play dependent on the setting, it simply sets the mood and the location. My only quibble is with the wall paint by Kaori Imai. The distressed finish is too evenly applied, looking more like a faux finish than a house that has been ransacked and through a war.
The lighting by Jonathan Felt is appropriately realistic. The sense of night is effective while still being just light enough to see the action. A strobe effect adds horror to a tense-filled, important scene.
The sound design by Bear Hamilton is at times a little much. It rains constantly throughout the play, and while the sound is realistic, it is non-stop and becomes a bit cloying because of the lack of sufficient variety in the storm. Fortunately, this isn’t a major distraction.
African American Repertory Theater has mounted a play that is a must-see. The quality of the production, both in acting and directing, surpasses what I’ve seen in most other local theaters. The play’s brilliance shows they are masters of the stage and makes them a company worth patronizing. The Whipping Man is a play that will transport you to another era, make you laugh uproariously, and hold your breath in fear. It is also one that you will discuss, as I did with my theater companion, for hours after the performance. Truly brilliant.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
- OMG: Adam Lambert and Queen will rock Dallas, together, in July
- Theater review: The [Expletive] with the Hat is masterful and funny, wise and appalling
- New restaurant Town Hearth expected to open in Design District in 2015
- Komali and Salum in Uptown have a new executive chef
- Miley Cyrus' over-sexed persona is hurting concert ticket sales