BWW Reviews: Outstanding Performances in WHIPPING MAN Saddled by Underwhelming Script
As part of a Jewish family, I have had to sit through my share of Passover Seders, some of which are more bizarre and uncomfortable than others. That said, a Seder between two once enslaved black men and their former owner just days after the end of the Civil War takes the matzo cake. Matthew Lopez's period drama The Whipping Man, now enjoying its Texas premiere at Austin's City Theatre, certainly has a thought provoking subject matter and a trio of incredible actors, but sadly Lopez's text is a bit underwhelming and overdone.
The show begins with Caleb (Andrew Bosworth), a young, wounded Confederate soldier, stumbling into his former home in Richmond, Virginia. Now ransacked and deserted, the house lays in shambles. Its only inhabitants are two of Caleb's former slaves, the authoritative but gentle Simon (Robert Pellette) and the morally ambiguous John (Richard R. Romeo). And while the opening scene, which ends with the horrific onstage amputation of Caleb's mutilated leg, is fast-paced and intense, the rest of Lopez's text falls flat in comparison. The most action of the play comes in those first 20 minutes. After that, the amputated Caleb is bedridden and immobile which greatly limits director Stacey Glazer's staging, and Lopez doesn't give his characters much to say or do aside from some late revelations that are hardly surprising. The subject matter of Jewish slaves and slave owners is certainly a compelling one which is often left discussed, but sadly Lopez's play isn't nearly as interesting as it could be.
Thankfully, all other elements in City Theatre's production are of an exceptional quality. The lighting and set design, both by Andy Berkovsky, create a battered, beaten, and dark environment that greatly enhances the piece, as does the incredible sound design by Scot Friedman. Friedman, one of Austin's best actors, proves here that he is a man of many talents. His sound design features a nearly two and a half hour long rainstorm that, while constantly underscoring the action, occasionally swells to create more drama and then fades until it's barely audible. It's so effective that it's easy to consider the rain as a fourth character.
And as mentioned, all three performers give some of the best performances any theatergoer is bound to see in Austin this season. The character of Caleb poses two of the biggest challenges that any actor can face: How do you create a sympathetic character out of a slave owner, and how do you create a memorable performance out of a character who is immobile for the majority of the play? Andrew Bosworth is more than capable of handling the challenges. There's a constant intensity in his eyes, and while he does show us some of Caleb's less sympathetic qualities, he also shows us moments of remorse, sorrow, and loss. Richard R. Romero is equally as memorable as John. While the older Simon believes former slaves need to treat their newfound freedom with a certain dignity, the younger John thinks that after centuries of slavery, those who are entitled to steal from their former owners. John is one of those perfectly crafted characters with a twisted sense of right and wrong. His ideas of justice are probably far off from our own, and yet due to Romero's confident and occasionally humorous portrayal of him, he's easily the most likeable character in the play. But the backbone of the play is Robert Pellette as the older and wiser Simon. He commands respect and believably portrays a man who has seen the horrible degradation of his people but finally has a glimmer of hope, something he clings to with an almost desperate optimism.
The Whipping Man may be a bit of a mixed bag, but it's definately worth a trip to The City Theatre simply to see these three actors in action.
Running time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission.
THE WHIPPING MAN plays The City Theatre at 3823 Airport Blvd, Suite D, 78722 now thru Sunday, March 2nd. Performances are Saturday 3/1 at 8pm and Sunday 3/2 at 5:30pm. Tickets are $12-$25. For tickets and information, visit www.citytheatreaustin.org.