Gumbo's in season with two plays set among Louisiana's Cajun crew now simmering on Manhattan stages. The Women of Orleans is a full-blooded, spicy stew of a piece, bursting with authentic regional flavor though played in a nearly bare space with minimal props. The Knee Desires the Dirt has designer Peter Harrison's sumptuous hanging vines and swamp grasses, but that's as close as the insipid production gets to evoking the real thing.
The Women of Orleans bewitches from its opening sequence: a black woman in 19th- century servant costume dances in, balancing a basket on her head and singing a lilting French song to a viola's lush accompaniment. As she sways, skirts swirling, she rubs her hands in strange ritualistic motions. Soon, the music shifts tempo, and we hear the self-satisfied laughter of white men in tuxedos as they spill onto the stage, smoking and glad-handing. Suddenly we are in a world of mystery and sensuality where race, privilege, and sex scent the heady atmosphere.
Like her memorable Mad Shadows last season, The Women of Orleans is another of director Kristin Marting's gestural creations. Using repeated symbolic movement to represent feelings, she synthesizes minimal dialogue, stylized action, and music into compressed visceral drama.
Four women and four men of different racial shadings play out their bloody, lustful destinies in postCivil War New Orleans. By the end, we'll have seen a rape, a cold-blooded shooting, a vengeful stabbing, and an attempted lynching. Throw in a couple of drownings, and scarcely a character is left breathing.
The women are a savvy black servant, a coquettish quadroon, the bored young wife of an aristocratic patriarch, and the rebellious new wife of the patriarch's son. The male characters include the patriarch, who's determined to keep "the Negro" down, his ineffectual son, and a set of half brothers, one white, one quadroon. Nearly everyone covets someone forbidden. Where the powerful take, the powerless make voodoo.
All of this is acted out to Matthew Pierce's original score, which, played by a very fine five-piece ensemble, leaps from elegant waltzes to eastern Gypsy strains to pulsing jungle rhythms. In Mattie Ullrich's gorgeous period costumes deep-red satins and velvets for the women the spectacle is mesmerizing. And each scene of violent mayhem is transfixing.
The actors are uneven, but most are good and several are standouts: Rachel Leslie smolders as the quadroon beauty, Leslie Jones brings wily intelligence to the lowly servant Clemence, and Richard Toth is chilling as the autocratic, arrogant father convinced of the rightness of his racist moral code.
The one weakness in the production is its tendency to have the characters make literary pronouncements about equal rights, self-definition, or other broad abstractions. Some of the relationships are also a bit murky. But these are small quibbles about a piece that gets you in the gut.
Playwright Julie Hébert suffers a more serious case of literary pretension in The Knee Desires the Dirt. The play, set in present-day Thibodaux, Louisiana, tells the story of Christine, a biology teacher haunted by the ghost of her late husband he likes to fondle her breasts while she lectures her class about the evolution of the cell and its metaphorical implications.
Then there are Christine's more earthly problems. Her implacable mother Althea is refusing to continue chemo, and her 13-year-old daughter Denise wants to see what sex is like. Mothers and daughters snipe at one another: Althea especially never lets up about Christine's no-account boyfriend, who borrows her money and car.
Most of the first act is static. Some issues are dragged to a resolution in the second act, but Christine only rarely gels as a character. Still, there is some clever and amusing writing, and a couple of sequences show that Hébert may be capable of much better. In one scene, a disturbed but keeping-herself-in-check Christine deals with confused and vulnerable Denise after her first sexual experience.
Denise, animated delightfully by Sarah Rose, is given the best lines: the actress is natural as an adolescent curious, spirited, irreverent. But Denise is the only one of these women to wholly inhabit the flesh-and-blood world. Christine, whom Barbara Gulan never makes quite credible, has silly scenes with that dead hubby. And as Althea, Lynn Cohen clearly an excellent actress is given the thankless task of painting her face blue and digging in the dirt with her fingernails.
It would be hard to pull off Hébert's supernatural or eccentric moments in any case, but director Susana Tubert's anemic production doesn't begin to create an atmosphere that would make them credible. It's all played like a generic contemporary comedy sprinkled with Howard Johnson Creole sauce.
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