Sunday, October 27, 2019

Slave Play - An Attempt At Understanding

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

One of the most important aspects in a committed relationship is one partner’s willingness to help satisfy the emotional needs of the other. Even if those needs don't necessarily align with their own. This message is at the heart of Jeremy O. Harris' penetrating, messy and brilliant work, Slave Play. The show transferring to Broadway’s Golden Theatre following an acclaimed run at New York Theatre Workshop last season. At times hard to watch, the piece looks at the issue of racism and relationships, while showing how much, and how little has changed in the U.S. since the days of slavery.

Act one of this intermissionless work opens at the MacGregor Plantation in the Antebellum South. Those at the Plantation include slaves, overseers, indentured servants and the sexually frustrated lady of the house. The overall grimness of the situation offset by several all-too familiar stereotypes. Think "Gone with the Wind" meets "Roots", with a bit of "The Carol Burnett Show" thrown in. Also quiet telling are the various hierarchical actions observed among the aforementioned groups.

Act two shifts the action to the present day where several interracial couples - all of whom see themselves at different points on the racial spectrum - are participating in an unusual therapy session. "Spectrum" being a deliberate world choice by this reviewer, as not all of the characters define themselves as simply “black” or white”, but instead being somewhere in-between. Explaining any more would give away too much of the story. However, suffice it to say there are some parts of the play that may make one rather uncomfortable - either due to what you are seeing or how you find yourself reacting to what is taking place on stage.

         Annie McNamara and Sullivan Jones (photo by Matthew Murphy)

Slave Play starts by saying "racism exists, but the way people are affected by it, and how they perceive it in others, often depends on how they were raised". Many factors thus contributing to shape the characters' different viewpoints. From attending a privileged school, to taking a trip to a plantation as a child, or having no direct cultural connection at all because you spent your formative years in a different country. The question then becoming whether it's possible to move beyond certain long-held mindsets; and through that movement, start to work towards a better understanding of issues people have grappled with for decades. Harris' script and Robert O'Hara's  direction delivering these ideas through the use of shock, grim reality, and humor. James Cusati-Moyer doing an especially nice job in the latter context with a turn as a totally self-absorbed actor.

The entire cast is excellent, though most of them function more as stand-ins for a particular point of view, rather than anything really three-dimensional. Joaquina Kalukango and Paul Alexander Nolan are the two notable exceptions, as their characters make their case to each other - and the audience. Particularly amusing are Chalia La Tour and Irene Sofia Lucio as the therapists who run the session. Two people who, while they have clearly read all the requisite materials for their rather novel approach to the issue of sexual dysfunction when it comes to race, ultimately fall short on just about every level; both personally and professionally. They also tend to favor the use of multi-syllabic words when something simpler will do just as well. There's also more than a bit of irony present, it taking the one character most opposed to the therapy process in the first place to get to the heart of the matter; while everyone else is more often than not, just dancing around the truth.

Joaquina Kalukango and Paul Alexander Nolan (photo by Matthew Murphy)

O'Hara nicely juggles the different styles and pacing of the various scenes. Though the story starts to get bogged down in the group discussion, and an excise of about 10 minutes here would help to make things a bit clearer. Conversely, an intermission between the first and second acts would certainly not have destroyed the flow of the story, and probably made it even more of an abrupt change for the audience. The only thing that didn't ring true in the play was the sudden halting of all of the different therapy sessions, when only one was deliberately ended prematurely.

Clint Ramos' sets - with a liberal use of mirrors - works especially well. Jiyoun Chang's lighting nicely runs the gamut from simple and stark during the therapy discussion, to subdued and shaded for the more intimate moments. Special mention must also go to Bryon Easley's use of movement, and the work of intimacy and fight director Claire Warden. Their efforts helping to make the different sequences crackle with tension and passion throughout.

Slave Play doesn't so much as grab the audience by the throat as open an intriguing window into a situation most people would rather not discuss. One seductive enough to draw the audience into the story before they know what's happening. It's also a play that strikes very close to home, no matter where one sees themselves on either the racial, or the human spectrum. 

Featuring: Ato Blankson-Wood (Gary), James Cusati-Moyer (Dustin), Sullivan Jones (Phillip), Joaquina Kalukango (Kaneisha), Chalia La Tour (TeĆ”), Irene Sofia Lucio (Patricia), Annie McNamara (Alana), Paul Alexander Nolan (Jim)

Slave Play

by Jeremy O. Harris

Scenic Design: Clint Ramos
Costume Design: Dede Ayite
Lighting Design: Jiyoun Chang
Sound Design & Original Music: Lindsay Jones
Hair & Wig Design: Cookie Jordan
Movement: Bryan Easley
Intimacy & Fight Director: Claire Warden
Dramaturg: Amauta Marston-Firmino
Advertising: RPM
Press Representation: O&M
Social Media: Marathon Digital
Public Relations & Strategic Marketing: The Chamber Group
Casting Director: Taylor Williams
Production Stage Manager: Gwendolyn M. Gilliam
Dialect Coach: Dawn-Elin Fraser
Production Counsel: Nevin Law Group
Production Management: Juniper Street Productions
Company Manager: Brian Tucker
General Management: Foresight Theatrical/Mark Shacket

Directed by Robert O'Hara

Golden Theatre
252 West 45th Street
Tickets: 800-447-7400, or
Running Time: 2 hours, 15 minutes no intermission
Closes: January 19, 2020

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Caesar and Cleopatra - More Intellectual Than Gripping

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

Who would have thought Julius Caesar would be turn out to be a moderate sort? At least that’s how he appears in George Bernard Shaw’s seldom-seen comedy, Caesar and Cleopatra. Written in 1898 and presented by Gingold Theatrical Group at Theatre Row, the play offers some valuable lessons on wisdom born of experience, and the dangerous impetuousness that comes with youth.

In ancient Egypt, Roman commander Caesar (Robert Cuccioli), head of a conquering army, has a chance meeting with Cleopatra (Teresa Avia Lim), the young Egyptian Queen. At first bemused by her impetuous attitude - and her fear of the approaching Roman soldiers; she thinks they will eat her - he quickly sees possibilities in this young upstart. His plan being to mold her into someone who will rule Egypt in his stead when he departs. Caesar's efforts met with the initial displeasure and eventual grudging consent of Cleopatra's Chief Nurse and defacto ruler of the royal palace, Ftatateeta (Brenda Braxton).

While Cleopatra soon begins to grow into her role - as evident from the way she carries herself, and by the clothes she learns to wear - her actions show her to still be very much a child. Especially when it comes to choices made in the heat of anger. The results of which neither Caesar or Cleopatra can afford. Egypt being in turmoil when it comes to the leadership question. A situation Pothinus (Rajesh Bose), guardian to the young King Ptolemy, is doing his best to inflame.

       Robert Cuccioli (Caesar and Teresa Avia Lim as the title characters in Caesar and Cleopatra.
                                                                  Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg.

Containing more than a few elements of Shaw’s later work, PygmalionCaesar and Cleopatra is all about the teacher/pupil relationship. However, where in Pygmalion, the student eventually outgrows the teacher; here it is the teacher who is firmly in control. A keen military strategist, and a student of human nature, Caesar understands just how far he can cajole, threaten and push those who oppose him. Violence always being for him, the final option. Of course, the underlying message here is that those who do not heed Caesar's warnings, do so at their own peril. As one person, who stays too long where they are not wanted, ultimately finds out.

As with most of his plays, one can find numerous examples of Shaw’s caustic wit sprinkled throughout. The chronological differences between the two main characters being a frequent subject of discussion and through it, a window into the play's take on the eternal battle between youth and age - and which of them actually knows best. Though it should be noted that Caesar himself is far from infirm and can still indulge in a bit of youthful exuberance under certain circumstances. The show also takes the occasional poke at late 19th century British society – another favorite target of Shaw's – through the character of Caesar's loyal servant, Britannus (Jonathan Hadley).

Cuccioli does an excellent job as Caesar. The actor bringing a genial, and at times almost whimsical world-weariness to the character. While never letting anyone forget the power he commands. Lim is fine as Cleopatra. No Eliza Doolittle here, the actress shows Cleopatra as one who too quickly becomes the person Caesar tries to create. She embracing her new role, but initially unprepared for the responsibilities that go with it.

Braxton is fine as the officious, but always to be reckoned with Ftatateeta. Jeff Applegate is very good as Rufio, basically matching Ftatateeta when it comes to loyalty; and someone always more comfortable when he has a sword in his hand. Bose gets in some good political points as Pothinus, and Dan Domingues offers enjoyable comic relief as Apollodorus - the Sicilian.

                                       Brenda Braxton as Ftatateeta. Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg.

Despite its many pluses, the Gingold presentation also suffers numerous missteps. David Staller's direction in particular, never able to make the production feel anything more than amateurish. As such, one is never truly enveloped in the story. The entire presentation lacking any real passion, which makes it hard to care what happens to any of the characters on an emotional level. There is also never a true feeling of danger or peril present in any of the more tension-filled moments of the story. Something those involved with the production needed to find a way to properly bring out.

This is a work that also screams for something more than the “one size fits all” set design by Brian Prather used here. Ftatateeta also acting as a narrator of sorts during various transitions from scene to scene and location to location. Some of Frederick Kennedy’s sound effects also come off as more laughable than realistic.

Caesar and Cleopatra is an intriguing work with some very important points to make. But this production, despite an excellent cast, is unfortunately not able to do its message full justice.

Featuring: Brenda Braxton (Ftatateeta), Robert Cuccioli (Caesar), Teresa Avia Lim (Cleopatra), Jeff Applegate (Rufio), Jonathan Hadley (Britannus), Rajesh Bose (Pothinus/Ptolemy/Sentinel), Dan Domingues (Apollodorus).

Bernard Shaw’s Caesar & Cleopatra

Scenic Design: Brian Prather
Costume Design: Tracy Christensen
Lighting Design: Jamie Roderick
Sound Design: Frederick Kennedy
Production Stage Manager: April Ann Kline
Assistant Stage Manager: Kate Mandracchia
Production Manager: Cate DiGirolamo
GTG General Manager: Alyce Stark
GTG Associate Director: Stephen Brown-Fried
Advertising & Marketing: DR Advertising
Press Representative: David Gersten & Associates

Directed by David Staller

Presented by Gingold Theatrical Group
Theatre Row
410 West 42nd Street
Tickets: 212-239-6200 or
Running Time: 2 Hours, with one intermission
Closes: October 12, 2019