Friday, April 3, 2009

I’ll tell you what… I did not see that coming

Performance: Ante Bellum
Theater: Woolly Mammoth Theater, 641 D St, NW
Metro: Gallery Place-green/red or Archives/Navy Memorial-Green. Directions here.
Genre: They say it’s half Hollywood romance, half murder mystery.
Cost: from $15 for people under 25. $15 rush seats sold 2 hours before curtain. Also, Pay What You Can nights are this Monday and Tuesday (3/30 and 3/31). More info below.
Dates: Through April 26
Rating: 3/5 Starving Artists

There’s a new show at Woolly, and man has it got plot twists. If I had a quarter for every time I thought to myself “I did not see that coming”, I could have broken even on the ticket (though it was Pay What You Can night). It’s a good show, with some standout performances (and a weak one or two) and it definitely raises some interesting questions. The night we saw it was the first performance for an audience, EVER, and it definitely has some kinks to work out. Some of them will get ironed out as the cast hits their stride. A few others make me think that the script might need another revision or two, but all told, I found it to be a fascinating and surprising piece and I vote that you go see it. If you have already seen Crowns, you should try to make it to this one next.

The set is a Woolly set, so of course it is wonderful (though some features of it may be a bit unnecessary). Jessica Fraces Dukes was terrific as Edna Black Rock and Jenna Sokolowski was really good as Sara, especially in the second act. Something about Nick Vienna as Ariel really bugged me, but it may just have been an off night. I would be interested to see this production in a week or two, when the performers really find themselves in the roles.

I am going to make this a short review. We went with a group of 8, so I hope some of them (and anyone else) will comment below with their thoughts. We had some very different opinions about the show, so I hope they share them below.

Also, a warning: there is a fair amount of male nudity in this show. Be prepared,


  1. Andrew Price as Oskar von Schleicher was also a stand out. He really owned the role - a little cold Nazi soldier plus closeted homosexual. I would have preferred him with a slightly thicker accent and poorer English, but overall, a quite convincing - and therefore a little scary - performance

  2. I saw the show on pay-what-you-can night too.

    It was a play that forced me to think - something that I think all great theater should do. The characters were good and defined, but, as DB suggests, could use a little more time to fall in to the pattern of their roles and the interplay necessary to bring out the true color of several very complex relationships.

    The design of this play really stood out to me - on a few levels. The set was beautifully crafted to get the most out of both the space and the actors who used it. The play is also designed to layer different character interactions on top of one another(I won't spoil it by reviewing details) and does so with a certain fierceness that I have not really seen in theater before.

    Overall, I found the play one that was good to watch, albiet somewhat difficult to see. I think that one's appreciation for theater as art must rival his or her appreciation for a story to make this play a valuable experience - I think that one going for a story alone might leave a bit let down.

    Strong performance overall and a creative piece of theater. Prepare to be shocked.

  3. “Antebellum” wants to force audiences to reexamine their previous conceptions of race, sexuality, Nazism and interracial relationships. It aspires to provide some very, very important insights about the politics of race relations and vast ethnic divides in America and Nazi Germany before World War II.

    But more to the point, “Antebellum” wants to know this: what happens when two Jews, two African Americans, and a Nazi are entangled in an interlocking, rapacious, bisexual love triangle?

    I, for one, haven’t a clue. “Antebellum” thinks it does. If the story seems implausible, it is, and none of its long, pretentious monologues, clichéd one-liners, and gratuitous nudity can change that. As the story’s various strands begin to converge and expose the increasing absurdity of the plot, the script becomes loaded with lines of such groan-inducing banality (my favorite: “you are the contradiction that stables my heart”) that the play succeeds in trying your patience more than piquing your intellect.

    And this is all a great shame, because, in fact, there is much in “Antebellum” to admire. Most conspicuously, the play features a five-member cast delivering fabulous performances, a beautifully designed set, and the seeds of a tale that – in better hands – could have sprouted a more compelling production.

    Andrew Price plays a chillingly haunting Nazi who alternates between domineering racism and petty childishness. As African American outcasts in Germany, Carlton Byrd and Jessica Frances Duke perfectly capture the competing centripetal forces of their lovers and their race. And Jenna Sokolowski steals every scene she's in as the shrill, naïve and emotionally unstable wife of an unfaithful husband who has refused to consummate their marriage.

    In the first, superior half of the play, the motif of “Gone with the Wind” constitutes an effective framework to introduce many of the themes that the play explores (usually unsuccessfully) in later scenes. For most of the first half, we remain captivated by some effective writing (we don't yet realize how silly the plot will become) and by the strength of the performances, which transcend the play's many other weaknesses.

    Yet the play's second half squanders the audience's trust gained in the first. The script deteriorates into earnest platitudes and protracted monologues about race and gender, characters strip for no apparent reason, and sex and rape ensue before our eyes. All but one character in the play ends up sleeping with (or getting raped by) at least two other characters. In most cases, the script does not make clear why these characters are attracted to one another, which makes their unions seem bizarre and contrived. Worst of all, near the end, the play ask us to care for a Nazi who plays a key role in running a concentration camp.

    I won't spoil the various twists and turns of the story, but I will note that they seem to stem primarily from the playwright's desire to shock and surprise us, not from an organic byproduct of the scenes that precede them. In this vein, the stunning, graphic nudity on-stage is not artistic nudity. It is voyeuristic nudity, staged by a writer and a director who seem to believe that the shattering of boundaries and the advancement of provocation are akin to intellectual profundity and artistic grandeur.


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