BWW Reviews: AN OCTOROON Cruel and Incredible Theatre
Radiantly avant-garde, disasterously thought-provoking, and more relevant each passing day, Brandon Jacob-Jenkins' pristine An Octoroon has landed in south Florida at last. In the hands of honed director John Rodaz, the script's challenges are imagined as spectacles of the highest sort. The distasteful blurs into the high satire, melodrama becoming sincere layers caught between Brecht and Stoppard, culminating in a breath-taking production that can only be called an experience.
An Octoroon is infinitely more complicated to explain than to view, as it would be to describe a concerto to a deaf cynic. Condensed, just know that it is a sarcastic retelling of one of America's most famed plays, with fictional versions of the original show's playwright and this show's playwright functioning as all the roles of color. Blending antiquated American stage melodrama and postmodernist technique, An Octoroon clashes in an artistic manner.
John Rodaz' An Octoroon was shown in rehearsals to be one heavily dependent on the fantastic and nuanced performances of each actor and actress, both those inside layered racial roles and those disguised in the metafictional narrative. Along with Rodaz' smoothed out technical tricks and delights, An Octoroon's endless visual escapades bring an edge against the throat of Miami theatre while audiences are unable to stop their laughter.
Taking the roles of both the protagonist and the antagonist, along with the playwright BJJ, is the rare talent Robert Richards Jr. In his professional debut state-side, Richards delves into the most fascinating and layered performance of the post-post-racial American theatre. In subverting the "gritty, truthful portrayal of the Black experience in America", Richards finds just that. Richards isn't necessarily setting out to be representative of any racial experience he feels living, but as an actor in An Octoroon he is forced to play two absurd white characters who bear down on a white actor in blackface in just as surreal a situation. The subversion is doubly inverted into oblivion and the whole show becomes deconstructed into what's left of the performers sincerity- something Richards has in ample bunches.
Swelling furiously alongside Richards is the comedic ferocity of Mallory Newbrough (a sort of southern Gothic Lucille Ball) as love interest. It is for whom this southern belle tolls that drives the plot, both sides of Richards rolling around her for their own devices, and Newbrough plays both sides off smartly. Richards love interest (as both characters) lies in the layered performance of Amanda Tavarez as Zoe, the titular octoroon. Her wrenching performance lies directly on the line of the classic melodrama and brings in moments of clarity to the hazy metatextual confusion.
Gil Kaufman, playing the 19th century playwright Boucicault and the subsequent Native American character, strengthens his dialects to switch from Irish to Indian gibberish to auctioneer with style. His assistant, played by the imitable Seth Crawford, gives the shows two most peculiar and divisive performances- as both Pete, the house slave and Uncle Tom stock character, and Paul, the little black boy that may have once been deemed a 'golliwog' character. Each joke he lands brings laughter and guilt in equal sway, some of An Octoroon's deepest messages hidden within each comedic moment he brings, and, undoubtedly, his masterfully respectful balance is rare performance deserving ovation.
The show's importance cannot be overstated in a political landscape that has remained in our nation since its foundation. There are line upon line upon facial expression upon costume choice that Rodaz uses to cement in the melodrama, the humor, and the timeliness of Jacob-Jenkins work. But there are pieces audiences will find after intermission that grate his claws into the backs of eyelids and sear into memory- for better or worse (conservative theatre-goers be warned), you will not easily forget an evening of An Octoroon.
With his excellent lighting and set-work that coincide so well with special effects and costuming, Rodaz' technical aspects are as crisp as they were during initial runs. An Octoroon remains one of the decade's most scathing scripts, for all the right reasons; once under Rodaz' bruised fighter's knuckles, the fists of Jacob-Jenkin's show gained a new left hook. Whether it be for any of the performers star-turn, or the spectacles the latter scenes provide, An Octoroon is closing out 2017's Miami season with ferocious resolve.
An Octoroon plays September 24th-October 8th at the Area Stage Company. Tickets can be purchased online or at the door.