Thursday, February 20, 2014

ASF: "Twenty Seven"

Literature is full of examples of natural disasters that point out human limitations, and often demonstrate our best qualities in helping others in such times. The impacts of recent hurricanes, typhoons, and floods around the world are still being felt, showing brute untamed Nature determining much of mankind's outcomes.

William Faulkner used the 1927 Mississippi River flooding as the focal point of his story "Old Man" in which an unnamed convict is sent to rescue an unnamed pregnant woman from the flood and, though he is presumed to have died in the attempt and has various opportunities to escape, he eventually returns to the Penal Farm only to receive a longer sentence as a political pawn.

"Old Man" has been adapted several times in film and for television, and now a new version World Premier of Twenty Seven by Edward Morgan is playing on the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon stage.

Mr. Morgan's two act drama is given a sensitive-ironic-minimalist showing in director Nancy Rominger's production featuring a strong seven member acting ensemble. And while it takes several liberties with its source (Faulkner purists will disapprove, no doubt), the script easily shifts time and place, incorporates unobtrusive narrative into the dialogue, maintains suspense in its plot and character development, and issues provocative philosophical questions with some crudely humorous language -- all in keeping with Faulkner's prose.

The muted tones of an enormous mural depicting a Mississippi backwater serves as a backdrop to simple platforms and minimal furniture in Peter Hicks' understated set, affording the company significant freedom to shift location and explore the nuances of Mr. Morgan's script. And the audience is brought into the intimacy of the space.

Making an impressive ASF debut, Justin Adams portrays Aikins as a complex man whose answer to "What is the natural state of man?" is simply and succinctly that he is "born to die"; but how he gets there is so important to this Aikins and his sense of duty that he can't accept freedom "till I've earned it". As he recounts his adventures on the river to fellow inmates who can't fathom Aikins' voluntary return -- Drew Parker as the youthful and sex-obsessed Tommy, and Larry Thomas as the sardonic older guitar strumming Ike (both excellent)-- events of the present and the recent past alternate, allowing these two foils to follow Aikins' journey as he tries to make sense of the world he has been thrust into, a world that bioth mystifies and threatens him, victimizes and affords him release.

Vasnessa Bartlett plays Ellie, who avoids eye contact with Aikins at first rescue, and who maintains her own secret despite the intimacy of sharing a small boat. -- In the course of their few weeks together, we see a gradual development of a relationship; Aikins is confident in his abilities to manage a boat through the flood and appears to live in the moment but is reluctant to connect with Ellie, her "belly is a millstone around my neck"; she, on the other hand "needs a plan" from him; and ultimately there is a softening in their relationship. -- Mr. Adams and Ms. Bartlett work so well together that we can get involved in their respective plights, and understand their different solutions; very credible performances.

Eleven other characters are brought to life by a cadre of three actors -- Carl Palmer, Kevin Hearn Cutts, Brian Wallace -- who create memorable characters. Among them: Mr. Wallace's outrageous depiction of a Cajun gator hunter who comes to the couple's aid; Mr. Palmer's Deputy Buckworth as both a comic caricature and a reprehensible sadist; and Mr. Cutts as the Warden caught between doing what he knows is right and what is convenient...a finely nuanced portrait.

Ms. Rominger moves the action at a brisk pace, mixing humor and seriousness, and her actors are so finely tuned to one another, shifting time and location effortlessly while depicting in thoroughly credible characters, that audiences are left pondering their own decisions.