Sunday, April 11, 2010

ASF: "The Fall of the House"

Another Southern Writers' Project World Premiere opened this weekend in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's Octagon Theatre. "The Fall of the House", a haunting two act dreamscape by Robert Ford, links the past and the present and analyzes the consequences of our choices.

An often puzzling script that nonetheless intrigues audiences, "The Fall of the House" is fortunate in its sheer literacy and its extraordinary performances, and anyone who is fascinated with figuring out a mystery is bound to get involved in its intricate plot.

Alternating between two time periods -- the 19th Century and the present day -- the action begins with the mysterious end of the life of celebrated and obsessive American poet, Edgar Allan Poe [Gerritt VanderMeer], when he is met a few days before his death by an enigmatic former slave woman named Maddy [Erika LaVonn] who has a message for him and wants some answers from him.

Before any answers are provided, the scene switches to a present day courtroom interrogation of Janice Berry [Angela K. Thomas] an up-and-coming Black architect whose strangely designed house was destroyed, with tragic results for its inhabitants.

How these two stories are interwtined, as scenes shift between time periods, is the crux of the matter -- and a device reminiscent of Tom Stoppard's "Arcadia" that was performed at ASF some seasons back. But, rather than tracing the genetic history of the play's central characters [and spoiling much of the mystery], there are other things to consider in this tantalizing play.

Ford's themes are significant, ranging from a consideration of the nature of art, to racial stereotyping, to the power of memory, to the role of the writer, to the nature of love & beauty & dreams & madness, and to the value of endurance. So, audiences are made to think their way through the labyrinth as they are guided by the script and the performances.

Director Nancy Rominger balances Ford's script's two linguistic styles as she challenges her able ensemble cast to articulate the rhythms of both 19th Century polite speech and contemporary naturalistic diction. The sounds are distinct in every scene, and lend credibility to Elizabeth Novak's understated & authentic costumes and Bill DePaola's evocative screen projections that support the time-frames.

Other than the roles of Maddy and Janice, all the actors play mulitple roles and appear in each of the time periods in such rapid succession that one wonders how they managed the changes so quickly -- not as confusing as it sounds due to their precise and distinct impersonations. Mr. VanderMeer's dark and brooding Poe is balanced in the modern scenes by his officious Judge and understanding Social Worker. Margaret Loesser Robinson is a distracted Eliza Poe -- the cast-off wife of the poet's brother David -- and a solidly professional lawyer interrogating Janice. Jonathan C. Kaplan plays Eliza's cheating husband as well as the love-interest of Janice with a dexterity that enlivens each scene. And local student Ta'Myia Narcisse-Cousar as the young Janice and the little girl Linney draws our sympathy despite the fact that many of her lines were too soft spoken.

It is through Maddy and Janice, however, that the play's themes and intentions are most directly communicated. Ms. Thomas plays Janice's conflicts most credibly; whether she is confused by the interrogations and her adherence to the truth, or investigating a new romantic relationship with all its trepidations, or discovering both her true self and the ghosts of the past, she invests all with honest conviction.

Maddy's journey from the past to the present, with subtle transitions of time and behavior and appearance, is mesmerizing from start to finish in the person of Ms. LaVonn...her quiet intensity and enduring stance make for an admirable performance.

The phantoms of the past are always around us, says the playwright. Whether we acknowledge them is up to us.