Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Brother/Sister Plays

Centerstage has posted the review that the review that Zach Freeman and I wrote of the Chicago premiere of Tarell Alvin McCraney's The Brother/Sister Plays at Steppenwolf. It's three plays, presented on two bills: the first is In the Red and Brown Water, the second made up of The Brothers Size and Marcus, Or the Secret of Sweet. Centerstage sent two of us to the shows, so while I saw both, I only reviewed the second half.

And as to the hype you've heard: it's deserved. McCraney is a fantastic author, the real thing, and he isn't even 30. He'll go on to great things, I hope. And Landau's production is really gorgeous: simple but hugely involving.And the physical and vocal precision in each moment, coexisting with such sponatneity? Well, my best of 2010 list is starting early.

And my review didn't have space to mention:

--The fact that characters often speak stage directions out loud, a device that draws the audience in, rather than distancing them as in Brecht's work.
--The singing that pervades the show.
--How sexy the whole thing is.
--Details of how great the entire cast is.
--The post-show discussion with the playwright after, and how smart and fun he is.

Also, Steppenwolf has a pretty good array of discounts available. Here's a rundown.

Okay, here's the actual text of the review. Remember, the first part is Zach's, so I get no credit:

The stories that snake through the three interwoven plays included in The Brother/Sister Plays take place in a low-income neighborhood near the Bayou in Lousiana during the "distant present" – a time period that may sound odd but perfectly encapsulates the timeless timeliness the show invokes. Young playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has created a complex, multi-generational world that unfolds over the course of the three shows, constructing an intimate portrait of a culture that is rarely given full life on the stage.


"In the Red and Brown Water," reviewed by Zach Freeman

The first, chronologically, of the three plays is the superb "In the Red and Brown Water," a piece with an ensemble reminiscent of a Greek chorus – a hip, sassy chorus trained in movement and vocal performance. As the plot rhythmically weaves in and out of the lives of the various characters, mostly following the early life of Oya, a star athlete with a chance for a scholarship to the state university, the audience is introduced to – and quickly immersed in – McCraney's singular writing style providently presented by director and ensemble member Tina Landau.


The opening moment of the show, begun with the house lights still fully up, is the first hint that this is not a standard performance to be passively witnessed from a darkened auditorium seat. Using intimate, stylized asides, the actors allow for constant real contact with the audience – nurturing the feeling of being told a story rather than simply watching one unfold - while simultaneously maintaining the steady ebb and flow of the intermingled storylines as well as the constantly surprising sidetracks that make this show truly unique.


Watching these people (they're beyond characters) come to life on the sparsely decorated stage is a thrill. Though each actor seems almost impossibly well-suited to his or her role - or roles, as the case may be - Jacqueline Williams as the brassy Aunt Elegua, Glenn Davis as the smiling young prankster Elegba, and ensemble member K. Todd Freeman as the stuttering stalwart Ogun Size are particularly impressive. Ensemble member Alana Arenas, as the beautifully tragic Oya, is simply sublime.


"In the Red and Brown Water" is dramatically heartfelt, laugh-out-loud funny, and intensely moving. It has the epic feel of a Shakespearean tragedy and the contemporary vibe of a Kanye West single. This is theater at its best and most alive.


"The Brothers Size," reviewed by Zev Velancy

From the dreamlike "In the Red and Brown Water," we move to the starker dramatic world of "The Brothers Size": three men - Ogun and Oshoosi Size (Freeman and Phillip James Brannon) and Elegba (Davis) - telling their own story. Even the props of the previous show — a variety of buckets — are gone, replaced by four rocks, marking off a playing space. It's storytelling at its most elemental, and it's stunning, in the most literal sense: I don't think I breathed for the last five minutes, and was dazed for the entire intermission. It's a simple tale: what happens when Oshoosi comes home from prison to stay with his brother, and what he and Elegba learn about their own friendship. But McCraney's stark poetry, Landau's diamond-cut staging and three deeply felt performances give it an impact far beyond its brief running time.


"Marcus, Or the Secret of Sweet,", reviewed by Zev Valancy

"Marcus, Or the Secret of Sweet" focuses on Elegba's son (Davis, again), grappling with his sexuality in what appears to be the weeks before Katrina. It's the funniest of the plays and the most contemporary-feeling. It's full of tasty moments in acting and language (Williams, Arenas, Rodrick Covington are particularly vibrant) but the ache in these characters' lives still throbs beneath. By the end, it's exceptionally moving.

But underneath it all are McCraney's fierce intelligence and his love for his audience, for his characters and their world, and for the act of telling a story theatrically. Combined with Landau's staging (radically simple yet emotionally lush) and generous performances, it's an extraordinary journey for the audience. You won't regret taking it.

1 comment:

Rob Kozlowski said...

I'm seeing all of these in one day in March. I can't wait!