Atlas Performing Arts Center
1333 H Street, NE
202-399-7993, ext. 2
Young local company force/collision isn’t afraid to take on tough material.
Their last production was a site-specific project inspired by the Washington Navy Yard performed over a nippy spring weekend in outdoor fountains at a park on the Southwest Waterfront. Now, the ensemble is tackling very different-but-equally challenging work by experimental dramatist Erik Ehn titled “Shape” (currently nearing the end of a world premiere run at Atlas Performing Arts Center). In both cases, the productions have proved intriguing and visually compelling.
Roughly based on the lives African-American vaudevillians Billy and Cordelia McClain, “Shape” follows the married couple’s experiences over time as they move from place to place.
As the lights come up, the scene is set by Survivor (the excellent Dexter Hamlett), a narrator who’s big on lyricism but short on concrete detail (thank goodness for program notes). It’s turn-of-the-century Ambrose Park, Brooklyn where Billy (Frank Britton) and Cordelia (Dane Figuero Edidi) are headlining in “Black America,” a true life spectacle in which about 500 black entertainers glorified plantation life in the Old South.
After the Brooklyn show closes, the couple sojourns to Europe where they eschew their usual daily dose of minstrelsy for racier entertainments — Cordelia introduces a new sexy Jazz Age act while Billy finds adventure in the arms of myriad other women. The marriage crumbles and they return to the states where Billy is on hand for the Tulsa Race Riots of 1921, a hideous episode in American history that left thousands of black families homeless and scores dead.
Director John Moletress, who is gay, leads a talented design team in admirably presenting Ehn’s sometimes puzzling play.
Collin Ranney (also gay) transforms Atlas’ black box theater into an enchanted place. Above a lawn of excelsior hang tiny glowing fairy houses that rise and fall like the vaudevillians fortunes. In the center sits a stump; nearby there’s an old steamer trunk. At either end of the space are billowy sails, bookending a small world both redolent of the past, of suggestive voyage and escape.
Ariel J. Benjamin’s dramatic lighting and Derek V. Knoderer’s equally evocative soundscape add to the overall effect.
And while the production is visually appealing, and boasts inventive staging (random chairs and a few actors magically morph into a railroad passenger car) and a strong cast, its lack of linear narrative can be frustrating at times, especially since Ehn is tying historical facts to larger themes. (“Shape” is part of Ehn’s “Soulographie,” a series of 17 plays about genocide and reconciliation.)
Mostly, it’s best to sit back and let Ehn’s dreamlike prose wash over you; enjoy the production’s haunting songs, stirring, avian-inspired movement and the dedicated cast. Figueroa Edidi’s Cordelia is sublime: a diva with a sense of humor. She’s resilient but not wholly inured to life’s hardships. In one of his stronger performances, Britton captures Billy as the charming philanderer. Other standouts include Karin Rosnizek’s clueless French reporter and Luci Murphy as a soulful, singing vaudevillian.
The parts of Cordelia and her maid (S. Lewis Feemster) have been cast with male actors, heightening theatricality and a focus on identity. The choice also pays homage to black vaudevillians of the early 20th century who often played cross-gendered roles.
With “Shape,” force/collision strikingly fulfills its mission to create new performance works. And while “Shape” is sometimes hard to follow, it’s always beautiful to watch.