Weekly Wire
Austin Chronicle Exhibitionism

APRIL 20, 1998: 


Running Time: 90 min

Like water and sodium, the Greeks and the Trojans were a really volatile mix. For 10 years, these two communities beat the living snot out of each other in a brutal, horrific war over a Greek woman, Helen, who was kidnapped by a Trojan during a beauty contest. The Greeks, led by Helen's brother-in-law Agamemnon, decided to get her back, abandoning their families and farms, leaving behind a nation of elders, women, and children who were lost without the menfolk. Loss turned to bitterness, and Clytemnestra, Agamemnon's queen, got a little bit nutty as well as a little bit randy and took up with the son of the king's most hated rival, Aegisthus. With all of these plot points, Aeschylus, the playwright, had the makings of a kick-ass play, full of passion, bloodshed, and intrigue, like an ancient Dallas or a Mediterranean Melrose Place.

Instead, Aeschylus was hamstrung by the conventions of Greek theatre. All of the bloody stuff takes place offstage. All of the passion remains in the wings. All of the intrigue is simply talked about, and the audience never gets to see its machinations unfold. And then there's that damn chorus, an acting body that can't act on anything, only comment on its implications. Granted, all of this works really well when you are playing to an amphitheatre filled with rowdy Greeks who are rarely paying attention to the drama, need to have everything repeated 8,000 times, and are too far away to see any bloodshed even if it were onstage. Aeschylus' conventions fit his times and his audience's expectations.

Enter translator Robert Lowell, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet who was a rabid anti-war campaigner. Agamemnon seems right up his alley as it is a play about the horrors of war and the trials of those who stay behind. What you expect, however, is not what you get. Instead of transforming Aeschylus' drama into a gripping story about devastation, Lowell uses that damn chorus to be his personal mouthpiece to comment on the world, in keeping with the Greek traditions, conventions that refuse to sit right with a modern audience which is accustomed to being shown the drama instead of being sat down and given a lesson about it.

Still, there are ways around this. Offstage action could be brought onstage. The endless repetitions of plot points could be cut to the bare minimum. Essentially, the characters could be given something to do, instead of things to say. But, in this Different Stages production, none of this happens. These heads walk around talking about what they are thinking and feeling, like an endless session in a shrink's personal, tedious hell. Nothing surprising ever happens, since the chorus repeatedly tips the main players' hands, showing us all their cards and leaving little to chance. Granted, this convention works in an arena full of ADD Greeks. But it makes for a lousy night of theatre for a modern audience with different expectations.

And with nothing surprising ever occurring, it leaves the audience plenty of time to nitpick the production itself. While the cast is earnest, every member of it steps into the realm of melodrama as they struggle to push their parts to the limits in the effort to breathe some life into this static script. Matthew Kelbaugh's costumes and Sandra Fountain's sets seem to be fighting a war of their own, clashing over colors and textures. Laura Sandberg's lights illuminate both the stage and the audience. Royce Gehrels' direction does little to alleviate any of these problems; he does not seem to have helped any of these designers create a unified production or helped these actors find honest motivations for their overblown characters.

Which is a pity. Greek tragedy is full of so many strong stories, intense emotions, and quick action, ripe for mining by any playwright worth his word processor. But we no longer live in a world that needs the classic models, conventions that mix with our own expectations like the Greeks and the Trojans.
Adrienne Martini


Running Time: 1 hr

A man is walking, intently, with purpose, then he suddenly stops, as if he's heard someone call his name or caught a whiff of a familiar scent, something that reminds him of home. He turns, casting a look back over one shoulder, as if expecting to see someone or something that he knows. But he sees nothing. His face clouds with puzzlement. He casts a look over the other shoulder, but there is nothing still. The lines on his face deepen. Was it merely a breeze? A shadow? Or was it perhaps a spirit, an ancestor, a piece of his history whispering at him to remember, to bring his past forward and carry it wherever he is going into the future?

Nothing so explicit is asked in the opening moments of this Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre production of Sharon Bridgforth's new play, but it does begin with pauses and puzzled glances, and they sow seeds of absence, small, nagging feelings within of something missing or at best dimly recalled. We may not have a name for it, but when the full ensemble takes the stage and begin to speak of events from days long past, of old conflicts and actions taken, of comings together and goings apart, we hear them say without speaking, "This is what you miss. Our story. Let us tell it again."

And so they do. They spin a story set among the swamps of Louisiana and curlicued iron fencework of New Orleans, a story of the Creole world, of the blending of bloods the Native American, the African, the European and the singular people to whom it gave birth. It is a story of natives who wipe out white colonists with their own guns, simply by asking politely to borrow them; of blacks who make the saloons of the libertine New Orleans halls of freedom, places in which their song can be heard openly and with pride; of the woman-loving woman Bull-Jean, Bridgforth's lesbian folk hero who, as in the playwright's other works, is struck by beauty and devotedly, irrevocably, opens her heart to it; and of much, much more. The story flows forth like water, bubbling, cascading over time and place, swirling us through this time and that, there and here, sometimes in the sound of one voice, sometimes in the sound of many. As always, Bridgforth's sensibility is fluid, shifting setting and perspective, giving us one point of view, then another, until we find ourselves surrounded by the various currents of narrative and history. She immerses us in the waters of these cultures, baptizes us in them.

On this occasion, one is sorely tempted to stay under the waves. The atmosphere here is as seductive as a Southern summer twilight. Leilah Stewart's set is dominated by a wall of tranquil pastel blue off which hang weathered wooden shutters. When Ryan Brummel's warm, placid lights fall across them, the long, slatted shadows create a lazy evening world that calls us to linger. And the actors who people that world are so feeling, so alive in their evocation of this past, they make tarrying there inviting. Stacey Robinson is commanding as Bull-Jean, her devotion so intense as to stop your heart, her vulnerability enough to crack it in two. Florinda Bryant is a welcoming presence, a figure of open arms and comfort. Renita Martin has a saltier demeanor; the tang to her talk, the wry twist in her smile, betrays a turn or two around the block. Zell Miller III projects that jester's spirit, a sly mocking air tempered with a friendly wink and open smile. And Djola Branner, with his tall, lean frame, radiates focus and discipline and dignity. Each of these artists is captivating in her or his distinct way, providing some richness of personality, but the magic comes when they mix as the blood does in the Creole world, as time and space do in Bridgforth's poetry for then, in the collective movement crafted by director Laurie Carlos, the intertwining of voices she orchestrates, something greater emerges: a community singing its story, dancing its story. And it is a wonder. Robert Faires

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