by Brian Sonia-Wallace~
[Editors Note: This review contains a rather extreme spoiler. Because it enhances the conversation about theatre, one of our main commitments, we are keeping the paragraph in. However, if you have not yet seen this play, you may consider skipping past that paragraph. It is clearly marked.]
Dutchman is something different and thought provoking. I want to acknowledge and laud that before anything else. In under an hour, it made me think more than any other entertainment I’ve seen recently. It’s not a play to hand you easy answers.
Yes, it’s one of those plays. You know the type. Beat poems disguised as drama, wordy melodies shot through with philosophy and just a hint of plot lingering on the fringes to give it shape. There is a black man. A white woman. A subway car, warped open to embrace the audience. It’s about men and women, or it’s about being black in America, or it’s about violence and desire, or it’s not about anything, just words that come from feelings and have no deeper agenda. The program explains that playwright Amari Baraka wrote the play while going through a breakup with his wife and embracing black nationalism, and that shows. Whether that makes the play a whine or a heartfelt wretch I can’t say.
Director April Daisy White orchestrates the short play with extreme attention to detail in movement and in voice that pays off. The whole play is set in a subway car (designed by Burris Jackes), but through excellent use of sound and lighting (designers David Marling and Kathi O’Donohue are to be commended), we firmly believe that the stage is in motion the entire time, stopping routinely and starting up again in a huge overarching metaphor. The illusion is added to by the way the actors physically perseverate, as if riding a bumpy train, through the play, with meticulously planned rough patches and turns that throw them into one another. The greatest success of this staging is the way it brings the subway car to life, and how that in turn brings the action to life.
Actors Iva Stelmak and DeForrest Taylor both gave strong performances, bringing a strength of body and voice that turned their characters into fantastic presences. Ms. Stelmak turns a particularly fantastic performance. She has more to do than Mr. Taylor—more dialogue and action—and so somewhat overshadows him through the first half, but Mr. Taylor’s character rallies and comes into his own late in the play. My critique of their characters really lies in the writing, as Ms. Stelmak’s character is so obviously batshit insane that we are never sure what Mr. Taylor’s character is thinking that makes him stay in the car with her and return her flirtations. Similarly, when Ms. Stelmak’s white character starts spouting overt racism and dropping N-bombs, Mr. Taylor has no reaction. Why?
However, for all that the specificity of movement is good, the naturalistic way the actors carry out what isn’t really a conversation but a poem seems somewhat at odds with the writing. The line isn’t drawn between conversation and poetry, which leads to confusion rather than synthesis, and the actors don’t seem entirely certain why certain actions match certain words. This issue will be fixed in part, I’m sure, as the run progresses. Equally harmful to the production is the token audience interaction, which consists just in directing passages meant for other subway riders in the car to the audience. This might have been effective had it not waited to happen until halfway through the show and had it not just consisted of shouting at other riders. Further, had the bulk of the audience been sitting onstage with the action and felt like they were in the subway car interaction might have seemed like a logical choice. Instead, the audience seating simply suggested a normal theatre, and the interaction actually broke the otherwise masterfully created world of the subway when the actors looked beyond it.
[SPOILER ALERT] Finally, I’m not sure how I feel about the entire premise of the show. A woman, a stranger on the subway, sexually harasses and kills a black man. I understand that this is a reversal of stereotype, but with the naturalistic staging and poetic dialogue it just seems unreal, and while it may be a valid critique of black male existence in America, what the hell does it say about women? This play closes with a blatant nod at the recent Trayvon Martin case—again an interesting statement that ties the play’s themes into the modern day, but one that has no precedent in the action before it and completely breaks the dreamlike, timeless quality the piece has built up in favor of modern political relevance. [END SPOLIERS]
All in all, Dutchman did some things very well and made a lot of interesting choices, but I wish it had chosen a firm direction to travel in. Right now, this train all over the map.
Dutchman is performed Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, and runs through May 26.
Art/Works Theatre is located at 6569 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90038.
Ticket prices: $25 general admission, $15 for students and seniors.
Reservations online at www.dutchmantheplay.com or by phone at (323) 929-2699