Wednesday, November 18, 2009

The Brother/Sister Plays


By Tarell Alvin McCraney. Part 1 directed by Tina Landau. Part 2 directed by Robert O'Hara. The Public Theater. (CLOSED)

Young playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney has his share of supporters and detractors. Some critics call him the next August Wilson, while others, though recognizing his talent and potential, find his writing in his trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays, to be self-indulgent. McCraney's techniques of characters referring to themselves in the third person and speaking stage directions have really polarized critics, but the design team and actors get kudos all around.

The New York Times A+
(Ben Brantley) Mr. McCraney’s characters — who notably include a charismatic high school track star, a garage mechanic, two recent parolees and a 16-year-old boy surprised by his attraction to men — often say what they are going to do, in the third person, before they do it. Smile or scowl or touch someone. Yet instead of distancing us from the narrative, à la Bertolt Brecht, this stylistic device draws us in deeper. It’s as if we had a share in weaving the narrative and in the pure, heady pleasure the performers derive from navigating their characters’ stories. When the actors address the audience directly, asking for agreement or advice, it never seems disruptive because we already feel so complicit in the creative process. This lack of artistic self-consciousness is the more remarkable when you realize that the plays are all about levels of consciousness, as Mr. McCraney’s characters search for, or try to escape from, reflections of themselves. “In the Red and Brown Water,” patterned on García Lorca’s “Yerma” (1934), Oya (Kianné Muschett), a barren young woman with the name of a powerful Yoruban nature goddess, longs for a baby that will allow her to “look down and see myself mirrored back to me.”... The cast members are, to a person, wonderful at embodying and narrating their characters in the same moment (though never archly). I have seldom seen a play in which the tellers and their tales seem so ineffably one.

Variety A+
(David Rooney) The buckets, tubs and oil drums that serve as props and percussion instruments in part one of "The Brother/Sister Plays" conjure thoughts of bailing out a drowning world. And even before Hurricane Katrina is evoked, it's impossible to watch the Louisiana bayou characters of Tarell Alvin McCraney's hypnotic trilogy without picturing those people whose invisibility was shockingly exposed in the wake of that disaster. Images of water run in a lyrical vein through the interconnected plays, which draw on West African myth to tell down-home stories rich in cultural specificity, salty humor and portentous dreams. Let's be clear upfront that those forebodings of Katrina, which is never directly named, do not mean this is some breast-beating dirge for a wounded people. The plays depict life in the projects in the fictitious community of San Pere, where narrow prospects, poverty and crime are the norm, and where folks are always braced for tragedy. But these are spiritual works that thrum with vitality, whether it's joyous or melancholy, told in vigorous language that artfully folds together slangy vernacular with bursts of haunting poetry. If there's an heir to the legacy of August Wilson, the gifted 29-year-old McCraney may be on his way to claiming that title.

The Daily News A+
(Joe Dziemianowicz) The men and women in McCraney's world constantly break character, as if to provide running comment on their actions. The device takes you by surprise at first, then becomes part of the fabric that the author weaves. Moments of exuberant music and dance pop up and flow through the show, giving it a fantastical feel. Director Tina Landau ("Superior Donuts") has expertly guided all the various storytelling elements into something rich and atmospheric.

Entertainment Weekly A
(Melissa Rose Bernardo) Two parts, three plays, five and a half hours of characters discussing themselves in the third person, verbalized stage directions, heavy-handed Hurricane Katrina imagery, allusions to Yoruba deities, and periodic bursts of song. On paper, The Brother/Sister Plays sounds like a theater snob's dream — overstuffed, highbrow, see-them-only-to-say-you-saw-them shows with an academic aura (playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney, now 29, apprenticed August Wilson at Yale School of Drama) and downtown street cred (it's showing at Off Broadway's Public Theater). But on stage, The Brother/Sister Plays seem like they were written solely for the audience's enjoyment. The three pieces are genuinely (sometimes bawdily) funny, miss-them-and-regret-them shows with authentic characters and rooted-in-reality story lines.

Newsday A
(Linda Winer) The wonder comes in both the tales and the way they are told. All three plays follow generations of characters in the Louisiana bayou. There is little in the way of sets, just the occasional table or oil cans for stools. Characters - portrayed by a chameleonic company of 14 - are unmistakably American, but they have names from Yoruba mythology. Stories - both playful and awful - establish their muscular narrative through ritualized gesticulations, bits of chant, allusions to moons and the wind and, especially, the sounds - often the gasps - of breathing. Most distinctive is the way McCraney has characters say their stage directions before they carry them out. For example, Oya (Kianné Muschett) says "Oya laughs at her crazy mama," then laughs and says "You crazy." It's a technique that can teeter on the edge of self-parody, but it is more often provocatively unsettling and, when fused to the wrenching confrontations in "Brothers Size," it becomes an inextricable part of the spell.

Theatermania A
(Dan Balcazo) Johnson, who is the only actor to play just one part in all three plays, nevertheless finds different aspects of the character to emphasize in each piece; Ogun seems vulnerable and unsure of himself in the first play, confident and slightly aggressive in the second, and contemplative in the third. Holland also takes a journey with Elegba, who grows from boy to man within In the Red and Brown Water, and emerges as a fully sexual and charismatic presence in The Brothers Size. The actor's work as Marcus in the third play is filled with a playful, yet sweet sincerity. The remaining cast members all do fine work, with standouts including Muschett's Oya, Henry's Oshoosi, Heather Alica Simms' Mama Moja, and Kimberly Hebert Gregory's Aunt Elegua. The design work is also strong -- particularly that of lighting designer Peter Kaczorowski, who impresses from the opening moments of In the Red and Brown Water as a man turns over a physically empty bucket, only to have the light ripple out in a convincing and gorgeous water effect.

Associated Press A
(Jennifer Farrar) Fluidly directed by Tina Landau, Oya's gradual emotional decline is told by these lively relatives and neighbors in memorable scenes, with cast members also creating a sympathetic, watchful Greek chorus. Minimalist set design by James Schuette, aided by Peter Kaczorowski's skillful lighting, creates a clean background for McCraney's stylized group storytelling. The only props are buckets, used as pedestals, drums and vessels. The shadow of Hurricane Katrina is everywhere, with watery imagery repeatedly invoked in all three plays. The lives of some of these characters and their descendants continue in Part 2 of McCraney's trilogy, the previously successful "The Brothers Size" and "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet." These two plays, performed together, are directed with muscular precision by Robert O'Hara.

The Faster Times A-
(Jonathan Mandell) As with much poetry, McCraney’s trilogy sometimes achieves its beauty while sacrificing some of its clarity. The sacrifice might have been unacceptably high were it not for the splendidly down-to-earth acting. All nine actors are so good — entertaining, charming, compelling, sympathetic (or at least understandable) even when playing characters who are behaving like jerks — that it is almost unfair to single any out. If I had to pick one, though, it would be Andre Holland, who appeared in the most recent Broadway revival of August Wilson’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (the show the Obamas attended). Holland appears in all three plays, first as Elegba, and then in the last play as the title character Marcus. And if I had to pick one play, “Marcus” is the one that stood out for me, as the most accessible and entertaining. But of course, I don’t have to pick. There is no worse curse than calling somebody promising, except maybe calling them (as Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis does) “a major new voice in the American theater.” So let’s just say: Put me down for a subscription to the future works of Tarell Alvin McCraney. A-
(Saviana Stanescu) All the actors deserve accolades for such a tour de force, as they nuance their multiple roles in all three plays, alternating main characters with members of the chorus. As for the directors, I must say that Tina Landau's heightened yet minimalist style, the way she uses the space, the props, and the ensemble of performers, emphasizing the poetic/mythic symphony of words, gestures and sounds (In the Red and Brown Water), seemed to me to serve better the text than the more grounded and realistic approach that Robert O'Hara employs in the last two plays. However, McCraney's dramatic stories are so original and strong that they allow various directorial interpretations without losing their amplitude and appealing power.

CurtainUp A-
(Elyse Sommer) Seeing the complete trilogy will also give you a chance to see two different directing styles that connect seamlessly thanks to the the staging, the splendid ensemble acting and the playwright's unifying stylistic elements. Most notable in the latter category are the frequent dream sequences, the melding of poetry and street talk and the device of having the actors speak the stage directions before playing them out. The spoken stage cues not only underline and bold face the characters feelings and actions but fit in with the story telling mode. On the other hand, this device tends to make the audience too aware of seeing a play to be really swept up in the story and, used as extensively as it is, does get a bit tiresome. As long as I'm quibbling about the intriguing but over used spoken stage directions. . . the non-specific staging and the characters' African names tend to obscure the fact that their stories play out in an American housing project and not a country village in distant Africa. When a reference to the project is actually made it doesn't seem to fit in with what we're seeing and hearing. This is especially true in Tina Laundau's highly stylized staging of In the Red and Brown Water. O'Hara's more naturalistic direction, though also relying on generic props (a table that doubles as a bed and a car) does add a large garage door and some very realistic rain.

Village Voice B+
(Michael Feingold) Nothing is so simple in McCraney's works, where ancient gods and last night's dreams keep drifting into and out of the action, and the characters' dialogue tracks, with hairbreadth precision, into and out of self-narration. The constant repetition of data that results can get maddening, but it can also be used for subtle effects. Both Tina Landau, staging Part 1, and Robert O'Hara, directing the double bill of Parts 2 and 3, use it so: One remarkable aspect of the event is its unity of style. Only Landau's imagistic use of background figures, and the intentionally harsher sound effects in O'Hara's double bill, differentiate the two stagings. And, although much in both is shoutingly overplayed, whenever the story turns serious, the acting turns transcendent. Marc Damon Johnson, evolving from the stammering adolescent of Part 1 to the weary, grieving oldster of Part 3, acquires breathtaking stature.

Theater News Online B-
(Sandy MacDonald) Tarell Alvin McCraney’s two-parter at the Public Theater – In the Red and Brown Water and The Brothers Size & Marcus: or the Secret of Sweet – doesn’t really amount to one play, let alone a pair. Captivating as these scripts are, especially as interpreted by two finely attuned directors (Tina Landau and Robert O’Hara) and a uniformly superb cast, these glimpses of life in a Louisiana bayou sometime in “the distant present” are fragments, really, analogous to sketches done by a young artist of extraordinary promise. Although McCraney, at 29, has yet to construct the fully formed drama that will put him in a league with former mentor August Wilson, we’re privileged to sit in on his creative process. It’s a tribute both to his seemingly organic writing and to the actors who bring his words to life that we end up craving more of their company, even if these particular stories haven’t as yet fully coalesced. At two scant, fast-moving hours, Part 1 is really only half a play – and the longer Part 2, while echoing themes and bringing back certain characters, makes little attempt to pick up the thread.

Lighting & Sound America C+
(David Barbour) The talk can also be brutally honest, sizing up whole lives in a handful of words. Ogun, fed up with his brother's troublemaking ways, says, "You say I ain't never been in the pen?...All my life, I carry your sins on my back." Or it can conjure up a stylized, wittily woeful poetry all its own. "Ever had so much on your mind that you forgot what you wanted to think about?" wonders Marcus, weighed down by the fear that he might be "sweet." ("They ain't even have gay folks in Africa," he haplessly tells a properly nonplussed adult.) His would-be girlfriend is under no such illusions; "I mean, you the only one I can sing The Wiz straight through with," she points out, outing him once and for all. The author has bigger ambitions, however, and these afflict all three plays with a bad case of self-consciousness; he is aided and abetted in this by his collaborators. It's one thing to have the actors address the audience throughout; it's another thing to have them constantly speak their stage directions. "Moja looks at Oya like, 'What I say?'" says Oya's mother, following up with "What I say?" It's a gimmick that gets old in record time; the fact that it doesn't cripple the plays is a testament to the cast's superior skills.

Backstage C+
(Erik Haagensen) The Tarell Alvin McCraney bandwagon is rolling. Embraced by the cream of the nonprofit theatrical establishment and winner of the first New York Times Outstanding Playwright Award, the talented 29-year-old is placed in the esteemed pantheon of O'Neill, Miller, Shepard, and Parks by Public Theater artistic director Oskar Eustis in his effusive program notes. It's a heavy burden to put on any young author, and McCraney can't shoulder it in his sprawling new trilogy, "The Brother/Sister Plays." While there are definitely elements to admire, particularly in "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet," the final play, there's also a good deal of overblown mythologizing combined with a paucity of convincing character writing. At his best, McCraney has a decidedly original way with language; at his worst, he relies on sociological stereotypes for easy laughs. Is he deserving of careful nurturing and support? You bet. Is he the second coming? Not yet.

Talkin' Broadway C-
(Matthew Murray) Part of the trouble with The Brother/Sister Plays is that, in totality, they amount to little more than an elaborate gay parable. Two years ago, “The Brothers Size” felt timeless; now it just seems trite. Another issue is that McCraney’s specific style here, of having the actors speak almost all their stage directions, grows wearying after a while. Their saying what they’re going to do and then doing it is supposed to render a three-dimensional world out of the depthless construct of a play script, but it’s not a vivid enough idea to retain its initial magic over four and a half uneven hours. Even the most accomplished playwrights - Eugene O’Neill with Mourning Becomes Electra, Tom Stoppard with The Coast of Utopia, Horton Foote with The Orphans’ Home Cycle (now in previews Off-Broadway) - wait years or perhaps decades to assemble their epics, so they can first fully develop their voices, points of view, and theatricality. McCraney is simply not ready yet for this mammoth an undertaking, gifted as he’s proven himself with snatches of individual writing here and his dazzling Wig Out! last year. But when he is, assuming he has the right help along the way, he could emerge as one of the most original playwrights of his generation.

New York Post D+
(Elisabeth Vincentelli) Blame it on self-indulgence. A rainy dream sequence is so nice, we see it twice. Worse, the script instructs the actors to recite the stage directions. "Enter Shango, dressed in an Army recruit uniform," Shango (the charismatic Sterling K. Brown) announces. Well, yeah, we can see that. If this heavy-handed staginess wasn't enough, the actors occasionally indulge in soliloquies and direct winky asides to the audience. As precious and redundant, naive and obvious as it is, this affectation is an integral part of McCraney's poetic storytelling style. Too bad it often feels like an MFA writing assignment... And yet the plays entertain almost in spite of themselves, thanks to directors Tina Landau (for Part 1, "In the Red and Brown Water") and Robert O'Hara (for Part 2, "The Brothers Size" and "Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet"), and the superb ensemble they pilot.

Time Out NY D+
(David Cote) Everyone longs for connection and roots, to see themselves reflected in a baby or a lover or a community. Such desires could ostensibly lead to drama, but McCraney overwrites terribly, and his fusion of African and American folkways undermines both. He aims for archetypes but ends up with shrill, verbose stereotypes, wandering through a vague mythopoetic landscape. Tina Landau and Robert O’Hara stage their sections movement-theater style, eliciting passionate performances from an appealing cast. (At its worst, though, the group gestures and choral speaking come across like a poor tribute to Joseph Chaikin’s Open Theater.) McCraney is undeniably talented but also self-indulgent; he needs dramaturgical focus and concision, not more awards.

The New York Times A+ 14; Variety A+ 14; The Daily News A+ 14; EW A 13; Newsday A 13; Theatermania A 13; AP A 13; The Faster Times A- 12; A- 12; CurtainUp A- 12; Village Voice B+ 11; Theater News Online B- 9; Lighting $ Sound America C+ 8; Backstage C+ 8; Talkin' Broadway C- 6; New York Post D+ 5; TONY D+ 5; TOTAL: 182/17 = 10.71 (B+)

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