BWW Review: AFTER BIRTH OF A NATION at City-Theater
Co-founder and Director Michael Gray has created an admirable culture at City-Theater. The group takes risks with most every production. Well one supposes they should for their mission statement is to 'rid the planet (not just Wilmington!) of complacency, redundancy, indifference and FEAR'.
Gray gathered his finest actors from past productions for the World Premiere of David Robson's AFTER BIRTH OF A NATION, a zany comedy. The playwright had his PLAYING THE ASSASSIN staged at DE Theatre Company and now it is off to off-Broadway.
The show began subtly with few zingers. By Act II, though, I was waiting for Wolf J. Flywheel or Dr. Hugo Z. Hackenbush to appear and join the wisecracking fray.
The scene is the green room of President Woodrow Wilson's (Paul McElwee) White House. D.W. Griffith (Jim Burns) is premiering his movie "Birth Of A Nation" and aggressively looking for a PR push from POTUS. (The actual film, a silent epic, went on to be a commercial success but was abjectly racist, spewing hatred and 'the purity of the white race'. The majority of the Negroes in the movie were black faced whites a la Al Jolson. The original title was "The Clansman"; if that gives you a clue as to its intentions).
Griffith is a committed and unapologetic racist and Burns serves up the vitriol with a decided edge.
Wilson's daughter, Margaret, the versatile Dylan Geringer is a woman, I should say of, if not 1000 faces, at least a couple hundred. Margaret is an aspiring singer of the Florence Foster Jenkins variety. But Margaret lacks confidence and the inspiration for her to succeed comes from an unlikely source in Act II.
Colonel Edward House (Dan Tucker) is the White House Major Domo and the stabilizing epicenter of a cast of characters - all with their eccentric peccadillos. He is the calm in the center of a maelstrom of hijinks.
Clarence Fields (Chris Banker) is a black White House servant. His wide eyes and Stepin Fetchit demeanor works well early on, masking his nefarious intentions, to kill D.W. Griffith. The miscues of carrying out his mission are quite amusing and well-conceived physical comedy by Director Gray.
Probably intentional, writer Robson skewers religion by introducing the womanizing Reverend Richard Gamble (George Tietze). His over the top advances to Margaret Wilson reminded me of the hypocrisy of contemporary televangelists. Geringer's takes to suppress his advances were priceless.
The Good Reverend's somewhat unhinged, manic and lesbian wife Cora Gamble (Kerry Kristine McElrone) was channeling her best Sharon Stone. I have watched McElrone through the many years I have been attending City-Theatre. She has grown considerably as an actress, exhibiting great stage presence and always in complete control of her character. Cora is a banquet for her and the audience feasts.
This production demands the audience quit realism bigly. Events occur on the small stage that could not transpire in reality. In this current political environment, it would be irresponsible for a playwright to exclude a reference to Russia. Eugeny Demidov (Jeff Hunsicker) has a great Putin-esque accent. McElwee's turn as a tipsy and sexually provocative woman was a gender bender show-stopper. I consider the genre might be designated a madcap farce. Whatever the title, the veteran actors should be commended to playing their roles forthright. City-Theatre has taken yet another risk. But with great risks come greater rewards.
Through Feb 18 City-Theater.org The Black Box Theatre at Opera Delaware Studios
Next up is LIZZIE: The Musical April 7 The group also stages "Fearless Improv" at The Muse at Penn's Place in New Castle
Photo credit: Joe Del Tufo