BWW Reviews: Curious Theatre Raises the Bar with Their Haunting Masterpiece, THE WHIPPING MAN
Curious Theatre Company presents the regional premiere of Matthew Lopez's THE WHIPPING MAN, playing now through February 15th. In the aftermath of the Civil War, a Jewish Confederate soldier returns home to discover two of his former slaves living in the ruins of his family's once grand plantation. Bound together by faith, they reunite to celebrate Passover and confront their past, present and future. The WHIPPING MAN is a hauntingly powerful drama about newfound freedom and the painful legacy of slavery.
I have always appreciated the amazing work that Curious Theatre has done over the years; and have thoroughly enjoyed so many of their entertaining and thought provoking productions. Each season Curious does one show that is so powerful and emotionally charged that it has left me in a fetal position, rocking back and forth, and sobbing my eyes out in the aisles. Two seasons ago it was 9 CIRCLES led by Sean Scrutchins who blew everyone away with his Colorado debut. Last season was THE BROTHERS SIZE with the dynamic duo of Cajardo Lindsey and Laurence Curry at the helm each giving sensational performances that I will never forget. So when this trifecta of talent came together for this production of THE WHIPPING MAN, I must admit that I had high, high expectations and these extraordinary gentlemen did not disappoint one bit!
I have to pay homage to the genius words and unforgettable plot and characters from the talented playwright, Matthew Lopez. I am in awe that this exceptional piece of art came from the mind of an truly gifted man that is so young and shows so much promise (see review for THE LEGEND OF GEORGIA MCBRIDE). I will definitely be looking for future productions from this wonderful artist. Matthew Lopez made sure that the audience was paying attention from the very start with a intense beginning that kept me white-knuckled in my seat. I adored his fluid transition from intensity into tenderness and exploration of these fine characters that entranced the audience throughout. And just when you thought this show was coming to a dramatic conclusion, Matthew leaves us with an massive reveal in the last two minutes of the show that was a perfect ending and left my head spinning! At first I found Jewish slant a bit puzzling and wondered how many African Americans are of the Jewish faith. Upon reflection this became a fascinating side of the story bringing such a tenderness to the script and a bond amongst the men of the household. I also appreciated the parallels of faith and race and the irony of that (my religion is freed yet I am still enslaved).
These fine actors brought their A-game to this challenging production. Each of them had such a keen grasp on their craft I felt like I was attending a master class for the art of dramatic theatre. They developed these complex characters fully and their engaging interactions and interpersonal ties made for heartfelt performances and a memorable production. I also have to note the comfortability and natural camaraderie among these fine gentleman that elevated the production to a true masterpiece. Sean Scrutchins brought amazing intensity to the stage from the very start and kept us enthralled throughout as Caleb. While his exterior pain kept us bare-knuckled and on the edge of our seat, it was his internal struggle that truly affirmed the superb quality of Sean's acting. I was transfixed with his exploration of his character's pain; from a broken man that had lost his way on so many levels to finding something or someone to believe in and fight for. His tender and heartfelt reading of his letters to Sarah in the beginning of Act Two drew us in and had us yearning for him to find his lost love. Cajardo Lindsey showed such strength and tenderness in the role of the master of the house, Simon. I especially noted and appreciated his growing independence for an oppressed slave transitioning into a freed man and trying to find his own voice in this chaotic time. He further proved his amazing acting skills at the end of the play with his external betrayal and captivating speech that moved every member of the audience to tears. Laurence Curry showed such contrast and range in the role of the rebellious John. He provided so many moments of comic relief that offered a refreshing tension release in this profoundly dramatic show. In addition to the humor, Laurence also commanded the audience's attention with his vividly dramatic description of his visits to the whipping man.
The collaboration of directors Kate Folkins and Chip Walton was apparent throughout this stellar production. They really took the time to digest and appreciate the gifted words of this fine playwright and picked the perfect cast to truly honor each character. The sensible blocking and understanding and highlighting of the intense and tender moments added to this superb stage experience. Markas Henry pulled double duty in his design of the set and costumes. The set reflected the decay and aftermath of a war-ravaged town and I adored the massive, towering windows that dominated the set and added so much depth. His costumes were also superb and spot on for the time period. I especially appreciated his competent design of Caleb's Confederate uniform and the creative construction of the bed and gave the shocking appearance of Caleb being an amputee. Shannon McKinney's (lighting design) and Brian Freeland's (sound design) skills were highlighted in the invigorating thunderstorm that added to the intensity of the show. The set was completed by the thoughtful, finishing touches from properties designer Michael Duran. He brought an impressive array of pieces for the growing quantity of John's loot. I also have to give a special shout-out to makeup and special effects designer Todd Debreceni for a wound on Caleb's leg that was so ghastly that it made me and the audience cringe when it was revealed.
This truly is a gripping, emotional and haunting work of art; with exceptional actors demonstrating the gifted skills of their craft. THE WHIPPING MAN is enticing audiences now through February 15th. Curtain times are Thursdays - Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. For tickets or more information, contact the box office by calling 303.623.0524 or online at www.curioustheatre.org. Curious Theatre is located at 1080 Acoma Street in Denver.
"No guts, no story" embodies the ethos of Curious Theatre Company. Established 16 years ago by a vanguard Artistic Company that has since grown to more than 30 professional actors, designers, and directors at its core, Curious brings the best new theatre to Denver, producing thought-provoking plays designed to challenge ideas, stir emotions, and leave audiences talking.
PHOTO CREDIT: Michael Ensminger
Sean Scrutchins as Caleb