note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
The Zeitgeist Stage Company is fast becoming one of Boston’s theatre treasures, offering smart, well-done thought-provokers --- but does greater Boston realize/appreciate that? Last year, Zeitgeist produced the year’s best drama, Thomas Gibbons’ BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE, and Boston ignored it to its own loss and (I hope) shame. Come, then --- and be curious and unafraid --- to the Boston Center for the Arts where Zeitgeist now offers two entertaining studies of the human animal in love, lust and addiction.
Naeemah A. White-Peppers
Undressers: Jayk Gallagher; Oscar George; Chi Wright
CIRCLE is Suzanne Bachner’s modern-day spin on REIGEN, Arthur Schnitzler’s cool, clear-eyed look at ten couplings: A with B, B with C, and so on back to A to close the circle. The bedhopping formula is so simple it’s brilliant: what better way to conjure up all walks of society as well as drawing out the romance and the manipulation, the ecstasy and the boredom that flow through its collective heart? (For Mr. Schnitzler, that society was the Vienna of the 1890s.) Ms. Bachner is not the first to hold up REIGEN as a mirror to our own times; Michael John LaChiusa musicalized it as HELLO, AGAIN and David Hare brought out THE BLUE ROOM, which was overshadowed by Nicole Kidman’s (brief) nudity in the Broadway production; and one mustn’t forget the classic Max Ophuls film version (LA RONDE, with an all-star French cast). Mr. Schnitzler seems to be all the rage these days: one-half of Barry Harman and Keith Herrmann’s musical ROMANCE, ROMANCE and Stanley Kubrick’s final film, EYES WIDE SHUT were based on two of his stories; several weekends ago I saw an excellent off-Broadway production of Jonathan Banks’ FAR AND WIDE, adapted from DAS WEITE LAND (which Tom Stoppard had previously adapted as UNDISCOVERED COUNTRY); even Humble Self has been working on his own Schnitzler adaptation. What is it about the man that continues to fascinate us? Again, it’s that cool, clear eye which looked unblinking on the human condition --- and his insights are still startling to this day, especially when dealing with the sex drives of his men and women. Martha Clarke’s theatre-piece VIENNA LUSTHAUS goes hand in glove with REIGEN: Ms. Clarke’s world is the erotic dream life of a civilization poised on the brink of World War I; Mr. Schnitzler has that dream peeping through the elegant, repressed surface of waking life --- he was, after all, a contemporary of Freud….
CIRCLE is not a deep play --- Ms. Bachner lacks Mr. Schnitzler’s insights and focuses more on whatever turns two people on; the proper Mr. Schnitzer would never have populated his stage with same-sex couplings, sado-masochism, cyber sex, and a strap-on dildo as Ms. Bachner has done --- the mirror she holds up to us comes straight from a carnival funhouse. The evening is both naughty AND nice (the only real eye-opener is that women love to take it up the ass); still, I was amused to see one of my fellow scribblers gaping like a fish on ice throughout the evening, while another sat in tight-lipped silence (this is Boston, remember --- and both scribblers were male). Trust me, folks: if a play that deals with the Art of Fucking causes the women in the audience to laugh louder than the men, you know it’s good, clean fun --- and it was definitely Ladies’ Night Out on the night I attended.
Director David J. Miller has choreographed --- yes, choreographed --- a nimble cast that glides feverishly, giddily, warily around and on the black-and-pink circular bed that dominates the raked stage, signaling that something HOT! is about to happen --- and it does happen, during blackouts, accompanied by a rocket blasting off, Tarzan yodeling to the elephants, and other amusing sounds --- when the lights come up, the cast’s movements are slower, cooler --- the moment has passed. CIRCLE’s most delightful pieces of ribaldry are the adventures of Phil, a good-natured loser who first appears as a timid Master saddled with a demanding Slave, then becomes a keyboard Lothario for a lonely woman married to a philandering bi-guy --- a brief encounter that points out how often we tailor another’s image to fit our own desires. Kevin Steinberg is a loveable Phil (sporting a ‘do that must be seen to be believed), and he is well-paired with Mia Anderson as Rita, his Big Leather Mama and Danielle L. DiDio as Bonnie, a Mouse Who Roars.
Should you forget to wear your rubbers, guys, fear not --- you can always pick up a handful at the door. Play nice! And play safe!
Rosa Jenkins … Naeemah A. White-Peppers
Hopefully, Pearl Cleage’s one-woman show CHAINED (based on a true story) will not be ignored as was her bittersweet BLUES FOR AN ALABAMA SKY several months ago. Zeitgeist, too, reaped near-silence for its production of BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE and is to be commended for continuing to take risks in a city where Black doesn’t sell, though it has slotted CHAINED into Wednesdays/Thursdays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays/Sundays at 5 p.m. to take the sting out of poor attendance. Even if CHAINED were slotted into the graveyard shift, you should still hasten to see Zeitgeist’s star performer, Naeemah A. White-Peppers, who gives an unforgettable performance --- easily one of the year’s best.
Rosa Jenkins is a 16-year-old crack addict living with her parents in Harlem. Rosa’s father has chained her to a radiator in their apartment to cure her after rehabilitation has failed. A period of seven days lapses, during which time Rosa --- in a monologue to the audience --- rages, goes through the effects of withdrawal and, finally, voices her clear-headed thoughts about herself, her parents, and her sort-of boyfriend who got her hooked and doesn’t seem as “cool” to her now as he was before. Will Rosa kick her habit for good or return to life on the street as she knows it?
Ms. Cleage leaves the girl’s future wide open. This is a tough, tough play, and a tragic one --- Rosa grew up in the South and had to quickly adapt to survive among her Harlem peers, turning her back on her parents, her past and her own identity --- all of which seep back as the poison flows out of her system. But CHAIN is never depressing; it is wonderfully leavened by Rosa’s equally tough sense of humor (if I had a dollar bill for every “shit” she utters, I would die a rich man) and she betrays a still-good, still-innocent quality that soon has you rooting for her (when Rosa knelt to pray, a woman two bodies to my left whispered, “That’s right, child!”)
This CHAIN is a triple triumph: for Ms. Cleage, who accurately charts the workings of Rosa’s mind in all its adolescence, addiction and flickerings of maturity; for Naeemah A. White-Peppers for her portrayal of Rosa; and for Mr. Miller who has guided Ms. White-Peppers to her laurels (even the choice of theatres --- BCA’s intimate Black Box --- adds to the over-all effect: there are no barriers (physical or emotional) between Rosa and her audience; she’s right there, in your face.
Mr. Miller is that rare creature: a director/designer, which gives him an extraordinary advantage --- he can visualize a play, design what he sees and then shape the actor(s) to fit that vision. I call attention to CHAIN’s spare, beautiful setting --- I don’t know if Ms. Cleage asks for such stripped-down realism but I cannot imagine her play being performed any other way after seeing this production: on the same raked stage are two patterned rugs, a radiator, a door, a pad and pencil, an Ebony magazine --- and that chain. That’s all, and it is so RIGHT: that old door, that old radiator (a stern presence) conjure up what you need to know about that apartment; those two rugs with their vaguely African patterns contrast with the heavy, clinking chain that Rosa drags across them (Ms. Cleage never conjures up slavery’s ghost). Here is Beckett in a brownstone: Rosa is condemned to pass the time in a vacuum --- at the same time, Mr. Miller’s open design frees Ms. White-Peppers to sculpt the very air around her with Rosa’s thoughts and movements.
CHAIN is the third collaboration between Mr. Miller and Ms. White-Peppers; by now they know each other’s skins, so to speak. A white director has directed a black actress in a play about crack addiction in Harlem written by a black playwright. It is beautiful to watch Ms. White-Peppers perform, knowing her Rosa was born from a mutual trust between these two artists: for Mr. Miller, to know when to let Ms. White-Peppers go where his own skin color bars him; for Ms. White-Peppers, to know Mr. Miller is there to temper and bring out the best in her (she is a “gut” actress), which closes a circle of my own: last year, when I reviewed Coyote Theatre’s production of THE HOUSE OF YES, I stressed the importance of allowing repertory theatres to flourish so that artists can put down roots and grow in a mutually supportive, (semi)permanent environment instead of drifting hither and yon. CHAIN would not be as memorable if Mr. Miller and Ms. White-Peppers had just met --- there are roots on that raked stage --- a true collaboration --- and may those roots strengthen to fight the cold winds they (and Zeitgeist) face in the future.
And Ms. White-Peppers is wonderful. She is part of CIRCLE’s ensemble, but CHAIN is her glory. Her evocation of a 16-year-old is near perfect (a 16-year-old would not have the palette to play Rosa); as Rosa sheds one more piece of her hipster wardrobe with each day of captivity, the Alabama girl awakens and we gaze upon a handsome young woman on the threshold of a still hopeful future. Ms. White-Peppers is a chameleon of sorts, able to change her physical proportions: her editor in BEE-LUTHER-HATCHEE was lean and elegant; here, as Rosa, she is convincingly budding; as Lois in CIRCLE she is quite the voluptuous lap dancer and also has a scene-stealing cameo as Phil’s silent pill of a wife, deflated to stick proportions. How does she do it? No matter; several weeks ago I wrote there is one thing that a man wants in a woman, and Ms. White-Peppers has it: Magic. What spell shall she next cast upon us, and where?