BWW Review: Washington Ensemble Theatre's IS GOD IS Gives the Bloody Brutal Without the Context
Context is Key. Without context, your message can be completely lost. Such has happened with Washington Ensemble Theatre and their season opener, Aleshea Harris' "Is God Is". If you look up information on the show or even read the promotional material put out by the theater, the show "Inspired by Spaghetti Westerns and Afro-punk, this electrifying play follows twin sisters who go on a killing spree to exact revenge on their creator" bringing up notions of allegory and some comedic undertones. In fact, from what I could find about the original production, that's where they aimed. But here they've missed the mark on the context and are left with a story of violence and revenge leaving me, after the show, to ask "why".
The show focuses on the sisters, Racine and Anaia (Kamaria Hallums-Harris and Maya Burton). Both scarred from a fire in their youth, Anaia more so, they've practically raised themselves within the foster system. But when a letter arrives from their presumed dead Mother (Laura Steele), they find that she's not dead but has been withering away in a nursing home and now wants them to seek out revenge on the man who set the fire and tried to burn them all alive, their Father (Brace Evans). But not simply revenge, she wants him and is entire world "DEAD! DEAD! DEAD!" in as bloody a fashion as they can manage. Looking on their Mother as God, as she created them (a point which is barely touched upon and therefore became confusing as to why they were referring to her as God), the two set off on a rampage to enact God's revenge and allow her to die peacefully.
When I left the show, I was perplexed. Sure, it was mostly done well but where were the elements of "Spaghetti Westerns" they mentioned and without that context, why are we telling this story? The set from Lex Marcos doesn't evoke anything like that. It's an interesting configuration but more resembles a trash heap than anything else which doesn't fit into the world the playwright was trying to create. And the lighting from Ryan Dunn seems to be trying to more obscure the visuals in shadow than illuminate a tone. Consequentially, we don't even see anything close to the Spaghetti Western until the final scene and by then they had lost me in all the gratuitous violence. Violence, I might add, which might not have felt so gratuitous if that context had been there throughout.
Additionally, a quite pivotal scene early in the show that sets up the "mission" is staged quite oddly by director Lava Alapai. A three-person scene where one character repeatedly delivers her few lines facing upstage and completely obscuring another character as she's delivering a lengthy monologue. Granted I was seated on the side, but sightlines are important from every point in the theater. And because of this, the power and import of this monologue was quite diminished. And Alapai does nothing to help along the tone of the piece. I'm not sure she understands what a Spaghetti Western is. I believe the playwright does.
The actors do a fine job in the world created for them, but I can't help but feel if this world had the right tone, their performances might have been more on point. However, as the sisters, Hallums-Harris and Burton have a wonderful protective chemistry about them. Steele brings in some wonderful moments portraying two women, in different situations, but under the same influence. Evans too pulls in double duty as a tragic drunk and a beast of a father. And Charles Antoni and Tre Scott as the younger half-siblings of the sisters show off the dichotomy of the two worlds well as they overtly display their privileged attitudes.
This production doesn't fail, it just doesn't completely succeed. In the right context, the show makes sense. Without it, it's just a violent revenge story with no reason to tell it. And so, with my three-letter rating system, I give Washington Ensemble Theatre's production of "Is God Is" a "searching for meaning" MEH+.
"Is God Is" from Washington Ensemble Theatre performs at 12th Avenue Arts through September 23rd. For tickets or information visit them online at www.washingtonensemble.org.