Theater Reviews: Peter Marks on 'Antebellum' and 'The Faithkiller'

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Playwrights with a yen for elaborate plots have the power to paint us ornately original stories -- and sometimes, themselves into corners. This is especially evident in the first-time presentations of new work, when a writer gets that initial chance to see how his painstakingly crafted twists and turns go over with paying customers.

The challenge to author and spectator can be freshly experienced in two new plays receiving world premieres in Washington: Robert O'Hara's "Antebellum" at Woolly Mammoth, and Gwydion Suilebhan's "The Faithkiller" by fledgling D.C. troupe Taffety Punk. What you get on each of the evenings is exposure to a rich, imaginatively expressive intelligence, a mind taking you to places that you'd never have thought to go on your own.

But -- and it's a big but -- these dramas of wildly divergent tone and subject also share a problem: They're over-thought, so eager to show us the dramatist's creative reach that inspiration ultimately dissolves into contrivance. It's a subtle art, knowing how far to stretch the fabric of a play. The hope is that these debut runs provide shakeout periods through which the works might find more satisfying shapes.

"Antebellum" and "The Faithkiller" leave you with much the same nagging question: What story does the author really want to tell? Set in a house that doubles as the Atlanta estate of a mercantile Jewish family and the living quarters of a Nazi detention-center commandant, "Antebellum" transports us to the late 1930s and the intertwined lives of a black cabaret singer (Carlton Byrd), a gay SS officer (Andrew Price), a romantically ambiguous Georgia businessman (Nick Vienna) and his sexually sheltered wife (Jenna Sokolowski).

A knock on the door brings Sokolowski's vivacious Sarah face to face with a mysterious young woman named Edna Black Rock (Jessica Frances Dukes), who seems at first only interested in a sip of water. Soon, however, we will learn that Edna has other designs on the household -- and a past so theatrically overwrought that the production demands the skills of a forensic psychiatrist. Half a world away, and at some point before the events in Atlanta (the chronology is a bit confusing), the Nazi alternately salivates over and abuses Byrd's American cabaret singer, Gabriel (pronounced Gaaa-briel), who is being held in the detention camp as commandant Oskar von Schleicher's reluctant boy-toy.

The stories will converge, and some of the actors, particularly the winning Dukes, bring a buoyant comic energy to the proceedings; the evening, directed to erratic effect by Chay Yew, is most enjoyable when Edna, lobbying to become the family's maid, offers her patronizing fascination at Sarah's impending attendance at the Atlanta world premiere of "Gone With the Wind." (The eye-popping gown that Valerie St. Pierre Smith designs for Sarah's night out is an epic event in itself.)

Still, once the process of laying out the play's concerns begins, O'Hara -- last at Woolly as director of its excellent 2006 production of "In the Continuum" -- doesn't seem to know when to stop. Racism, anti-Semitism and the persecution of gay men are just some of the issues that swirl around a play in which the actors end up taking the machinations a lot more seriously than we do. (The appearance of several men in the buff seems added, gratuitously.) By the time we arrive at the night's garish, histrionic conclusion (complete with gunfire), we get the whiff of a writer who's run out of credible options.

"The Faithkiller," presented at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop for what must have been a fiftieth of the cost of the visually arresting "Antebellum," has its own flow-chart-worthy format. Embedded in this political message play, staged with admirable economy by Marcus Kyd, are live scenes in the studio of a vintage radio program and recorded ones on a video of a contemporary TV show, both of which share a title with Suilebhan's work.

You got that? While there's ingenuity in the effort to dramatize the tension between the worlds of entertainment and organized religion -- the TV series stars a superhero (Kasaun T. Wilson) with the power to neutralize religious beliefs -- you can detect too many of this contraption's gears and pulleys and improbable conceits. (For reasons no one really explains, the television show, which consists mostly of tight black-and-white shots of worried faces -- is a ratings smash. That is, until some church lady speaks out against it.)

As with the experience at Woolly Mammoth, "The Faithkiller" is best in its early stages, when the dramatist still holds out to us the promise that all his story-building is going to result in a pretty spectacular edifice. Ultimately, though, you realize that whatever beautiful composition there was never made it off the drafting table.

Antebellum, by Robert O'Hara. Directed by Chay Yew. Set, Tony Cisek; lighting, Colin K. Bills; sound and original music, Matthew Nielson; dialect coach, Jennifer Mendenhall. About 2 hours 15 minutes. Through April 26 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, 641 D St. NW. Visit http://www.woollymammoth.netor call 202-393-3939.

The Faithkiller, by Gwydion Suilebhan. Directed by Marcus Kyd. Set, John Shryock; costumes, Scott Hammar; lighting, Alice Lee; music and sound, Matthew Nielson; weapons specialist, Paul Gallagher; video director, Lise Bruneau. With Kimberly Gilbert, Steve Beall, Michael John Casey, Tanera Hutz, Maura Stadem Suilebhan, Theo Hadjimichael, Joseph W. Lane, Andy English. About two hours. Through April 18 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh St. SE. Visit http://www.taffetypunk.comor call 800-838-3006.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company