Theater

And It's . . . Good!

In terms of sheer lyrical violence, "The Star-Spangled Banner" is fairly sissy. Rockets and bombs can't compare with, say, the "watering our fields with the blood of our enemies" prescribed by "La Marseillaise." But in Bo Eason's one-man show Runt of the Litter(MCC), Francis Scott Key's octave-challenger presages the brutality to come. When "O say" sings out, safety Jack Henry knows he has just a few seconds before he rushes onto the field and plays a game that could secure his team a place in the Super Bowl. A playoff game is pressure enough, but it also happens that Jack's extraordinary brother, Charlie, is QBing for the opponents.

Writer-performer Eason himself played pro ball for the Houston Oilers in the '80s and often languished in the shadow of his brother, Tony, who led the New England Patriots in the '86 Super Bowl. Eason lends his experience, physique, and physical and emotional injuries to the piece. Jack's history rings very close to Eason's own and the fierce scars decorating each of his knees further testify to the actor-character similarities.

Eason's story is compelling and he's a remarkably affable performer, earnest and grinning in his ripped T-shirt and warm-up shoes. But the play fumbles (and Eason's so solid it's really more of a fumble-and-recovery) when he forces an extreme dramatic arc onto the piece. Perhaps this brother-against-brother tale demands an extreme resolution, but real life rarely ties up so neatly (or, in fact, so messily, as Bo returns from the field awash in mud and blood). Director Larry Moss guides the play with a sure hand—you wonder if there was a chalkboard full of Xs and Os in the rehearsal room—and Neil Patel's set and Bruce Ellman's sound aid the verisimilitude. Denouement aside, this is Eason's premiere play, and he makes first down no problem. Alexis Soloski

Sore Loser

Waves plash, gray rags flutter in the breeze, light mottles an abstract cave. Soon a protoplasmic mass appears; it writhes in an eerie red light, breaking up into three robed figures who become the chorus of The Cure at Troy(Blue Heron), Seamus Heaney's "version of Sophocles' Philoctetes." The design for Kevin Osborne's staging seduces. But then these (and other) figures speak, and the spell fizzles.

Odysseus has sailed to this barren island where, 10 years before, he abandoned Philoctetes, who suffers from an infected snakebite that stinks and runs without surcease. Now, to fulfill a prophecy, the Greeks need this wounded archer and his Bow of Hercules to defeat the Trojans. The wily leader employs fresh-faced Neoptolemus to trick the outcast. The youth struggles between compassion and duty while Philoctetes seethes with rage.

Jolie Garrett's Philoctetes towers over the stage, a giant ruin with a stentorian roar and a blood-freezing howl of agony. Yet his anguish moves us only intermittently. His outsize performance doesn't jibe with Ian Oldaker's tentative Neoptolemus and Rainard Rachele's slimy, one-note Odysseus.

Whether author or director's at fault, the center of the drama jumps around. The young man decides, wavers, reverses himself. The older man's conflict gets resolved by a deus ex machina: From the volcano, Hercules's voice booms that Philoctetes should return to Troy and be cured. In Heaney's contemporary rendering, we might see this as the resolution of a psychological conflict, where the vengeful warrior relinquishes his self-defeating fury and his pain. But the moment clunks in a clumsy wrap-up. At the drama's start, the chorus derides "people so deep into their own self-pity . . . they're fixated, shining with self-regard like polished stones." Despite many good efforts, this production neither enriches nor lives up to Heaney's luminous poetry. —Francine Russo

Wright From Wrong

Can a classic be both timeless and outdated? The answer is yes, judging from Native Son(Classical Theatre of Harlem), a new stage adaptation of Richard Wright's 1940 novel.

On one hand, Wright's stark tale of oppression-bred violence still resonates powerfully after 62 years. The rage and despair felt by Bigger Thomas, its 20-year-old African American protagonist, remain compelling, as does the racial "fear and guilt and hate" denounced by Bigger's lefty lawyer. At its best Christopher McElroen's production uses thoughtful naturalism to show how these forces trap and destroy young men like Bigger. Ben Rivers (in the title role) makes the Chicago youth's anguish in physical proximity to whites palpable; in scene after scene Bigger recoils but can't break free. Set designer Chris Thomas also gives the social combustion a chilling visual metaphor with a smoldering basement furnace, reappearing throughout.

But the second half—packed with didactic speeches explaining that Bigger is society's victim—quickly becomes tedious. The lengthy courtroom debate (pointing always toward Wright's existential Marxism) only reminds us why James Baldwin once criticized the work as a "protest novel." Every meaning gets announced and every nuance extinguished.

The compact adaptation rescues the book from its tortuous stage history. (A 1941 version made alterations resulting in rewrites and a lawsuit.) But although McElroen covers the narrative efficiently, the inner life Wright ascribes to Bigger in prose evaporates; here the character mostly endures others in silence, speaking infrequently and in clichéd outbursts. In an uneven cast, Rivers comes just short of giving Bigger a classical hero's stature, as he suffers into knowledge; Johnnie Mae brings grace to Mrs. Thomas's desperation, and Dana Watkins stands out as a confused young red. —Tom Sellar

 
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