Kitchen Dog's Long Way Go Down Too Cinematic For Stage;Jubilee Sails With Gem Of The Ocean
Fluids of all sorts have cameo roles in Zayd Dohrn's soggy new play, Long Way Go Down, getting its debut production in Kitchen Dog Theater's current New Works Festival. In the small, spare office of a Phoenix trucking outfit where most of the drama happens, buckets catch steady leaks from a badly patched roof. Vomit soon makes an appearance, followed shortly by blood, sweat, tears, beer, cheap tequila, spilled coffee and then a lot more blood. You will learn more than you want to know about the bathroom habits of long-haul drivers in this play, and about the stinking conditions endured by Mexicans hidden for hours under sticky, dripping crates of bananas stacked in trailers driven over the border by unscrupulous coyotes who smuggle people for a hefty price.
Long Way Go Down offers something that's trending big on stages here and in New York at the moment: Effluvia. The New York Times recently chronicled the Broadway productions that feature gross-out examples of "streams and squirts." Like last year's Tony winner, Yasmina Reza's God of Carnage, which requires a major projectile spew by one of its leading ladies in full view of the audience (a cool effect whose secret has yet to be revealed to curious media). The new play This Wide Night by Chloe Moss gets its marquee actress, Edie Falco, beer-drunk, makes her dance all over the stage and then asks that she barf on cue. A young character wearing his mother's nightdress stands and pees all over her bed in Manhattan Theater Club's current That Face, a new play by Polly Stenham.
Fake blood has been an effective theatrical waker-upper from the first blinding of Oedipus Rex in 429 B.C. to the mass murders in Macbeth and up to and beyond the slicings and dicings of Sweeney Todd. During its recent Broadway run, Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore was described by critics as "Tarantino-esque" in its massive splashes of red stuff across the floor and walls. (Addison's WaterTower Theatre is doing this one next season, so plan your pre-theater dining accordingly.)
Dallas theaters aren't shying away from excretions, human and animal. Dallas Theater Center's production of Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty this spring culminated in a bloody fistfight. Dallas Opera's world premiere Moby-Dick at the Winspear offered a queasy-making glimpse of a severed, bloody whale's tail, dripping a little too realistically over hot cauldrons. A main character in Eric Bogosian's gritty subUrbia at Upstart Productions kept up his end of the conversation even as he took a noisy whiz in a corner of the stage.
All this pissing, bloodletting and upchucking is effective if the play's good. With Long Way Go Down, the flow of words is far less exciting than the endless gushers of the other stuff.
Dohrn's better play was 2008's Sick, maybe Kitchen Dog's best-ever debut at its annual New Works Fest. That one was a claustrophobic look at a family whose mother, obsessed with germs, has raised her children like hothouse plants, never allowing them to experience the outside world. Long Way begins by exploring another tense family dynamic—the bullying of a son (played by Drew Wall, one of Dallas' most exciting young actors) by his mean racist pig of a father (Bruce DuBose, sleepwalking as usual and never for a moment believable in the role).
The young man, Chris, is part of his father Billy's human trafficking business. When a pretty but nauseated girl named Violetta (gorgeous newcomer Ani Celise Vera) can't pay the balance of her $1000 "fare" from Mexico, she's left as collateral in the trucking office by her boyfriend Nini (Ivan Jasso, in his debut at KDT). He hopes to borrow the cash from his grandmother, but when that doesn't work out, he grows desperate.
With a few (too few) hints of humor in the Coen brothers vein, the play spins out of focus and into a confused series of overlapping episodes. Chris convinces himself he's in love with Violetta, even as he holds her hostage in the office. A fight over her between Nini and Chris results in a broken nose. "I got blood all over your face," Chris says to the girl. "It looks good, though. Like a ninja."
Billy drags Nini out for a dangerous drive into the Arizona desert, a scene that takes place in the cab of Billy's rig. A nice effect for that piece of scenery is achieved by designer Bryan Wofford. But really, when you have to build a huge fake vehicle onstage, what you've really got is a movie script masquerading as a play.
And that's the biggest problem with Long Way Go Down (directed by Christopher Carlos). It just feels like it doesn't want to be a piece of live theater. The actors, with the exception of DuBose, try to bring urgency and realism to every moment. There's just no way to get past the script's herky-jerky pacing (cinematic jump-cuts don't work on a stage) and its dependence on the full canon of expletives in place of interesting dialogue. Kitchen Dog seems to have a fondness for nurturing Zayd Dorhn's writing, but he might be better off workshopping these things at Sundance.
Jubilee Theatre in Fort Worth has a strong track record with the plays of August Wilson. Their latest is Wilson's 2004 drama Gem of the Ocean, one of the most difficult and evangelical of the playwright's 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, each touching on a different decade in the African-American experience over the 20th century.
Set in 1904 and directed by Akin' Babatunde', this one tells the first chapter of the saga chronologically and sets a tone of mysticism and spiritual transformation through connection with the past. At the center is Aunt Ester Tyler (Cheryl Tyre), a feisty woman of indeterminate age who tells firsthand stories of slave ships of the Middle Passage 250 years earlier. She presides over the household as a sort of living oracle in a crisp white dress and royal blue sash.
A young man named Citizen Barlow (Akron Watson) seeks sanctuary in Aunt Ester's home. He thinks he's responsible for the death of a black millworker and has heard that Ester can "wash his soul." That she does in a mesmerizing scene in the second act. As the parlor wallpaper of designer George Miller's set turns transparent and shimmers like the sea, Ester and her family members Black Mary (Mikala Gibson), Eli (Bill Hass) and Solly Two Kings (Douglas Carter) chant Citizen into a trancelike state in which he "remembers" his enslaved ancestors making the horrible journey from Africa.
Though they declaim their lines at top volume—unnecessary in this small theater—the actors connect deeply with the play, which helps make it accessible to the audience. They achieve some breathtaking moments. One is when Black Mary's brother Caesar (played in a cynical strut by Al Garrett) reels off a litany of reasons why black men (he uses the n-word) have to live by the oppressive rules of white society in order to get rich. His is the soul that needs the scrubbing.
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