The Good, the Bad, and the Boring in Theater and Other Creative Arts Around and About Hampton Roads, VA.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Play Fest Opens Summer's 9th New Work

Stronger and Leaner, Nat's Last Struggle Returns

“Nat’s Last Struggle,” the ninth and final new play of the Norfolk Summer Play Fest, opened last night at The Venue, and though I’d seen an earlier version (and reviewed it here), I found myself caught in its spell once again. The story alone is captivating.

But my earlier review (posted in the Thinking Dog Reviews archives for 2009) really says it all about the spell of this production. There isn’t much I’d write differently now.

George T. Davis III, the solo actor who plays Nat Turner, has modulated his powerful voice and is more centered in his role than in 2009. His performance is very convincing yet still developing, and if he has the opportunity to keep playing this role it can only keep growing in subtlety and complexity.

For if nothing else Nat Turner was a complex character—a point playwright Patti Wray has digested well. She has captured and Davis has brought to the stage a man we can understand.

In her Nat, the Christian gospels have become so entwined in his consciousness with the horror of being a slave that all he can imagine is an apocalyptic resolution between good and evil which, he increasingly believes, God has chosen him to instigate.

I suppose today we might call Nat Turner a terrorist. But we can also see why Nat might think the way he did. Given his circumstances, any of us might conclude that God has chosen us to free our people from the horrors of bondage. It’s a common theme among the religious insane.

The trouble with the insanity theory is that Nat’s visions were literally prophetic. They foresaw the Civil War, much as the Apostle John foresaw the fall of Rome in his Revelation (which Nat especially related to).

Wray has pruned this version from the last, cleaning out some dead wood and adding further details. Though barely an hour long, it’s a surprise to realize it’s over. Nat is washed clean in the blood of the lamb, justified and forgiven, if only in his own mind.

“Nat’s Last Struggle” remains as much education as strong drama. Many people, black and white, don’t know the story of Nat Turner, and, while Wray makes no claim to a factual biography, she may have one-bettered history by giving us a Nat who is not shadowy but definite and also credible.

Finally, there’s a lot in this piece concerning what the cost of slavery has been for both races. The conclusions are quite verifiable in slavery’s long aftermath, which continues to this day. Michelle Bachman recently assured us of that.

Dani Spratley deftly handles the relatively complex light and sound cues of the current production. It’s worth seeing and hearing and continues at The Venue tonight at 8, tomorrow (Sunday) at 2:30, and next Friday and Saturday Aug. 26-27, at 8. For more information and reservations, call 757-469-0337. The Venue is located at 631 W. 35th St., Norfolk, VA.

I hope in a later post to offer my reflections as I look back on the first season of the Norfolk Summer Play Fest.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

You vs. Opens at The Venue

CORE Theatre Ensemble Starts a Conversation

With a relatively gentle irony CORE Theatre Ensemble skimmed through the average, American middle-class family experience in less than an hour last night (Aug. 5), evoking laughter, recognition, empathy, and a bit of puzzlement in its opening night audience at The Venue on 35th in Norfolk.

CORE Ensemble from left: Emel Ertugrul, Edwin Castillo, Laura Agudelo.
Not shown: Nancy Dickerson

You vs. is an ensemble-created piece with polished performances by Laura Agudelo, Nancy Dickerson, and company co-founders Emel Ertugrul and Edwin Castillo. In their briskly moving formations and rapid-fire verbal pick-up, they have created a tight, well-choreographed, visual and aural poem of associative one-liners, with one beat quickly following another for the length of the play.

Or is it a play? Better to call it a theatre piece, though there is a kind of plot as the actors, who are playing “you”—i.e., we—are born, grow up, hate their parents, graduate, get jobs, seek relationships, become desperate, finally get married, have children, and the whole cycle starts in again, with “you” always developing some sort of conflict with someone else. Thus, the show’s title: You vs.

It’s the human condition. At least, CORE Theatre Ensemble suggests it is, and who could disagree?

But that, if anything, is the main weakness of the piece. Sharper on technique than on content, it takes no philosophical risks, echoing the wide consensus among humanistic believers of an acceptance, tinged in melancholy, of the normal cycles of human generation and regeneration as somehow ennobling, a lot worthy of our embrace.

However, the piece can cause you to think about questions it does not specifically ask but definitely begs. Do you remember what an ordeal it was to live with your parents? Are you any different as a parent yourself? Why do we start out loving our new jobs and co-workers and after awhile hate them? Why do parents seem to forget what it was like when they were children? Why does every generation make so many of the same mistakes?

Other questions, asked but not answered, can also provoke thought. Why is the sky blue (not green or yellow)? Where do babies really come from? What happens to us when we die? Why do we have to go to funerals? And—a recurring one—what’s next?

If, as the playbill reads, CORE seeks to start a conversation, the company has delivered a fertile field for plowing.

My favorite beat is the four ensemble members witnessing a human birth, with varied reactions from shielding the eyes to rapt amazement, reminding us that “the miracle of birth” is a very messy, undignified, unsavory process.

But not all scenes are as easy to read. The beat least clear to me has to do with popping balloons of hope lonely people have floated in the personal ads. The stage business of filling the balloons from a portable helium tank tends to steal focus. Aside from that—or maybe because of it—the intent of the beat itself seems muddy.

Still, like all CORE’s work, You vs. is edgy, intelligent, and, in this case at least, quite amusing.

It is also the eighth of nine new plays produced this summer in the first annual Norfolk Summer Play Fest, a project shared jointly by The Venue, the Generic Theater, and Little Theater of Norfolk. The Thinking Dog has seen them all and has left reviews of them on this page.

You vs. continues tonight at 8 and next weekend, Fri. and Sat., Aug. 12 and 13, also at 8. There are no Sunday performances. Admission is $12. For reservations or info, call 469-0337.

The final play in this year’s Summer Play Fest is Nat’s Last Struggle, by P.A. Wray, playing two weekends, Aug. 19-28, at The Venue. For a review of an earlier version of that show, see the archives on this site for Aug., 2009.