BWW Review: The Flames of FERGUSON Fizzle
Phelim McAleer's FERGUSON makes scintillating use of the actress Carol Todd as an unreliable witness giving deposition on the interaction between Michael Brown and Darren Wilson. Delivering a masterclass in ambivalence, Todd - whose character is an internet troll who uses racist language, bipolar, a car accident survivor, and afflicted with admitted memory problems - grapples with what she wants to be true and the incontrovertible evidence that proves otherwise. Here, the soul of what FERGUSON might have been surges forth beautifully: a study in doubt or how people who feel complicit move past tragedy that has rent their community asunder. In this scene, Todd is equal parts combative, coquettish, and remorseful; her acting is such that one forgives her even as she tells obvious lies and voices repugnant sentiments. Intriguingly, she is so guilelessly convinced by her own confused words that one believes in her and feels compelled to challenge the very nature of honesty. If only the rest of the play had followed suit. In David Mamet's hands it could have, unfortunately this clunky work of agitprop is no OLEANNA. The schism between what constitutes a wrong is the crux of Mamet's dazzling play on words and as frustrating as it frequently is, the captivating drama OLEANNA unleashes is magnitudes greater than McAleer's slanted lecture demonstration.
Unevenly directed by Jerry Dixon, FERGUSON purports to tell the truth about what really happened between Michael Brown and Officer Darren Wilson on August 9th, 2014. Shaping testimony from the actual trial as a means of cloaking himself as "the teller of truths" does McAleer few favours. His heavy handed transcription - in clear service of a fixed agenda - delivers an unintentionally comical reading that borders on the jejune. Following a by-the-numbers formula, FERGUSON resembles the sketch of a LAW & ORDER episode that telegraphs its results like a foregone conclusion. Lawyers, experts, and witnesses spew chunks of carefully positioned exposition that plods along like a guide for "how not to make a convincing argument even when you control all of the facts"; little of what is seen feels particularly trustworthy or essential beyond proving the author's point. When Ryan Murphy attempted a similar exercise with the O.J. Simpson murder trial, he came up with AMERICAN CRIME STORY. True to the spirit of theatricality, Murphy focused on the reactions to what happened rather than Simpson's obvious guilt. That Michael Brown broke the law has never been in dispute, which begs the question, "what truth is FERGUSON exposing besides McAleer's obvious bias?"
Beyond its dull conceit, what hurts FERGUSON most is its nebulous staging. Avoiding a clear courtroom set up, the actors give testimony flanked by their colleagues while frequently facing the audience and rapidly switching between private chambers and the witness stand with scarce indication that a location change has occurred. Equally problematic is Ian Campbell Dunn's miscasting as Darren Wilson. Dunn is the same height as the actor who portrays Michael Brown's friend and accomplice. Throughout the play, much is made of how small this friend was in contrast. Wilson was a strapping 6'4, 210 pounds, trained police officer when this incident took place, and while he portrayed himself in testimony as a helpless baby to Brown's towering behemoth, he was hardly a wilting flower. Whatever his merits as an actor, Dunn lacks the physical stature necessary to offset that crucial point. Looking at him, one thinks, "Of course you shot Michael Brown. He would have crushed you like an ant."
Whether or not Officer Wilson was right to shoot Michael Brown matters little, theatrically. Legally, in the state of Missouri and in much of this country, if a police officer feels threatened, that officer is allowed to respond with deadly force. Nothing about that verdict makes for interesting theatre, especially as it was handled here. A more compelling story would have highlighted the toll living under such allowances exacts on a community or the feeling of conflict that continues to haunt those who lived through this incident. Sadly, that point missed McAleer entirely. Though FERGUSON reportedly offended a number of people during its original run in Los Angeles, based upon this production it is difficult to imagine it eliciting more than a tepid sigh.
FERGUSON continues at 30th Street Theatre through November 5th, 2017. For more information, visit: fergusontheplay.com