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BWW Reviews: Living In A World Of Gray, THE BEST OF ENEMIES at Orlando Shakes

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Cohabitation was a law that prohibited different genders and races from occupying the same nighttime residence. This was Florida's contribution to the repugnant Jim Crow Laws back. 1964 wasn't just a great year because it gave us HELLO, DOLLY!, it was also the year we got the Civil Rights Act, outlawing discrimination based on race, sex, and religion. Overnight, citizens from the all over the county welcomed change, adopted acceptance, and became enlightened musical-theatre loving philanthropists.

...Yeah, right. Naturally, there was resistance in trying to digest this new way of life. While segregation was now illegal, it didn't stop people from blasting hate towards those different from them.

In THE BEST OF ENEMIES, set in Durham, North Carolina in 1971, playwright Mark St. Germain tells the real life story of Ann Atwater, a Civil Rights activist, and C.P. Ellis, a proud member of the KKK. The action begins as Bill Riddick, a Department of Education employee played with quirky facetiousness by Corey Allen, arrives in Durham, North Carolina to head up a charrette for representing the town's best interest on the topic of desegregating schools.

Naturally, the two want no part of one another. At lights up, the characters are on opposite sides of the stage, delivering monologues depicting their inherent bigotry. Through cleverly directed scenes with small moments playing out, director Mark Rotheir shows the growth of these two characters with simple blocking that, as their respect for one another develops, they are placed closer and closer together.

The first example of this is when C.P. is forced to be in the same room as Ann, he wipes down anything she has touched. But Ann soon learns that C.P.'s wife (a drowsy Anne Carol) is terminally ill, and eventually leaves him as a single father raising a child with disabilities. Then C.P. learns that Ann is a survivor of an abusive marriage, and has trouble finding work. Both begin to look past the colors they've been painted with to realize their portraits are exactly the same, and end in an embrace.

St. Germain's script is packed with wisdom, wit, and wise-ass one liners, but it does become cumbersome that the script attempts to defend both characters' arguments early on. Eventually, after the two leads' screaming anger melts away, St. Germain poetically depicts the two characters as full-blooded people, a far cry from textbook archetypes taught in junior high history classes.

In her portrayal of Ann Atwater, Avis-Marie Barnes brings refreshing nuance to her scenes. She avoids being pigeonholed as simply "sassy" or "attitudinal," and even though her performance is peppered with those traits, it's her character's intelligence that steals the show. Richard B. Watson as C.P. is a shouty actor who is not afraid of showing us the ugliness of reality. He did it in RACE a few years ago, also at Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, and he is now outdoing himself.

Particular attention needs to be given to Andrew Mulkey's subtle yet sublime projections, which were woven throughout this production and blended well with Bob Phillip's collage set. Rotheir's valiant production evokes every possible audience response. Rotheir also succeeds in unearthing the humor in what easily could have become a melodramatic period piece. I found myself laughing more during this production than I have in the recent past with billed comedies. Sometimes we can't help but laugh at our own follies as a society.

The fall Orlando theatre season started off with less than stellar opening. With a revivals that failed to live up to the legacy they left on the theatre community, it is reassuring to see THE BEST OF ENEMIES at Orlando Shakespeare Theatre is humming at full speed, raising the bar for theatre in Orlando.

THE BEST OF ENEMIES runs through November 16th, for tickets visit their website.


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