BWW Review: Brilliant FUCKING A From Iron Crow
Fucking A is fucking brilliant. (Decorous diction being pointless with a show titled as this one is.) Suzan-Lori Parks' three-ring circus of a play is what might have emerged if Brecht and Weill had been commissioned to write a Jacobean revenge tragedy. The plot drives straight toward a horrific forced abortion that is a dark joke of fate on the abortionist herself, followed by a killing that destroys what the killer held most dear. All of this is brought off with sometimes hilarious song and dance, with comedy of a sort (for instance a courtship carried out via a nervous-making demonstration of how to slit throats), and a deeply sardonic attack on the ways of kleptocratic governments. Also the odd picnic that turns into a rape. You have to be deeply disturbed to write a show like this - and fucking brilliant.
But then life often presents us reasons to be deeply disturbed. Though the show is set in an unnamed place that come across a lot like the Jim Crow-era American South, many of the realities that lead the characters to live such distracted lives can also be found in our own sphere, in our own time. There are still prisons run for profit; there are still peonage arrangements that surround them; prison still turns rambunctious youngsters into monsters; powerful men still marry for money and consort with sex workers; abortionists still operate in a legally uncertain zone and are stigmatized. Most important, the poor mostly stay poor, abused and exploited by the rich.
In production by Iron Crow Theatre, which bills itself as "Baltimore's only professional queer theatre," Fucking A is being framed as, in words of Sean Elias, the company's Artistic Director, "most queer in its form, its construction, and its encounter with the 'other'." I'm not sure I see all that in this play by a heterosexual playwright with no overtly gay or transgendered themes, but it scarcely matters; this is a terrific production, and we can only be grateful to Iron Crow for bringing it to us.
The title? The central figure, the abortionist, Hester (Jessica Bennett), has been required by the State to wear, publicly displayed on her breast, a brand of an A, which, it is explained, is both stigmatizing and a license to practice her profession. (Resemblances to a certain Nathaniel Hawthorne protagonist also named Hester are purely intentional.) Hester and her best friend, the self-characterized whore Canary Mary (Deirdre McAllister, who also doubles as the show's musical arranger and musical director), struggle though their lives trapped between their poverty and their dreams -- Hester's to be reunited with her imprisoned son Boy, Mary's to wrest the Mayor (Jamil Johnson) from his loveless marriage to The First Lady (Cricket Arrison) and marry him herself. The society in which they live has no plans to fulfill either dream. Like Brecht's Mother Courage, however, Hester and Mary keep on surviving and keep on pursuing their dreams because they have no alternatives.
The absence of alternatives is indeed the fundamental condition of all the characters' lives. The society criminalizes a ridiculous range of behavior, from murder down to not picking up one's room, giving the law near-total discretion to imprison whom it chooses - the better to run an extortion racket on the inmate's relatives. To be sure, there must have been some trivial bad choices at the root of any imprisonment, but the human condition does not allow anyone to get through life without making some of those. And prison amplifies them. The principal inmate, Hester's son Boy, who in prison has made some other bad choices and consequently become known as Monster (Javier Ogando), had little choice, it seems, but to have been dehumanized by his incarceration. Another inmate, Jailbait (Kaya Vísìon), has been driven ravenous by the absence of real food in prison, resulting in behavior that ranges from rude to brutal. Most centrally, society's relentless oppression of Hester leads her to abandon her relentlessly sunny and optimistic dream and opt for revenge with the previously-mentioned unforeseen consequences. Victimization and bad choices are then so intertwined that to speak of individual moral agency seems almost pointless. And this holds true almost as much for the oppressors as for the oppressed.
None of this detracts from the fact that show is frequently quite funny. I particularly liked the low comedy wrung from the roles of three bounty hunters, played as Duck Dynasty-esque males by three nontraditionally-cast female actors (Caitlin Weaver, Martha Robichaud and Kelly Hutchison), who, when occasion demands, could also sing in a tight harmony like latter-day Andrews Sisters; listening to them exult over how they will torture Monster when they catch him was grim humor indeed but it was indeed funny.
Hats off, in particular, to Bennett and McAllister, and to Jared Swain, who turns in a nicely understated speaking and singing performance as the Butcher who would be Hester's love interest, if she had any love left to give. Hats also off to director Stephen Nunns, whose control of the tone of this wildly varying production was always assured.
Not everything about the production was perfect. Sometimes the downstage characters would be speaking in circumlocutions or an incomprehensible language while upstage characters would speak "translations" into microphones; my understanding is that the play as written calls for projected surtitles instead, which if employed would have kept anything being said from becoming unintelligible - as everything being said under these conditions usually was. In fact, even when there were not competing voices, there were sometimes issues with intelligibility - without which the other aspects of good acting are insufficient. And Theatre Project, where this show is staged, is not known for bad acoustics. Still, these were minor flaws overall.
This show will not be here long. Catch it while you can.
Fucking A, by Suzan-Lori Parks, directed by Stephen Nunns, presented by Iron Crow Theatre, through February 12 at Theatre Project, 45 West Preston Street, Baltimore MD 21201. Tickets $15-$25, http://www.ironcrowtheatre.org/fuckinga. Adult vocabulary, sexual situations, violence including lethal violence, sexual violence, adult themes, smoking. Not suitable for children.