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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Dutchman and The Owl Answers
An Evening of Obie Award Winning One ActsPenumbra Theatre
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of The Critic & The Real Inspector Hound and You for Me for You


Kate Guentzel and Nathan Barlow in Dutchman
Photo by Allen Weeks
Penumbra Theatre has paired two one-act plays from the dawn of the Black Arts Movement, Amiri Baraka's Dutchman and Adrienne Kennedy's The Owl Answers. Both plays are set on a New York City subway car, but from that common point they diverge widely—one bluntly realistic, the other draped in metaphor and mystery. It makes for a fascinating and provocative evening.

The Black Arts Movement (1965-1975) erupted after the assassination of Malcom X, a cultural counterpart to the Black Power political Movement. LeRoi Jones was at the forefront of the Movement, and he claimed an African name, Amiri Baraka. His Dutchman first appeared in 1964, one of the first sparks in the Movement that would blaze throughout the decade to follow. Kennedy's The Owl Answers appeared in 1965. Both of these early entries in the canon of the Black Arts Movement address the boundaries society had placed around African-American men and women, and the expectations for behavior within those boundaries.

Dutchman is the better known of these two plays, being more accessible in narrative and also having been made into a film. Lula, a white woman, and Clay, a black man, are, briefly, the only two people on a subway car. Lula appears to be either highly inebriated, mentally unhinged, or both. In any case, she comes on to Clay with a mixture of seduction and condescension. She assumes she knows things about him based on stereotypes of all black men, while spinning a fantasy of how they will wind up together in her living room. Clay is wearing a three-piece suit and trying to read. He respectfully tries to ignore Lula at first, but her seductive advances eventually affect him and her scornful rapprochements rile him.

Gradually, other passengers enter the subway car. They show dismay at Lula's increasingly loud and vulgar display, but keep to themselves, as they do when Clay finally has had enough and turns his wrath against her. At the end, these innocent bystanders are engaged to rid the car of the mess that results, though none would say a word or lift a hand to prevent it. A woman holding a baby strokes the bundled infant continuously, as if dispensing maternal care protects her from any other responsibility or harm.


Austene Van and Cast
Photo by Allen Weeks
The central character in The Owl Answers is a woman known as Clara Passmore, daughter of a wealthy Englishman and the young black cook he impregnated. Clara was adopted by Reverend and Mrs. Passmore, both black, but is obsessed with her English heritage. After her white father dies, she has delusions of bringing his remains to London for burial in Westminster Abbey. Her imaginary companions are Chaucer, Shakespeare, William the Conqueror, and Anne Boleyn. Clara's identity is fluid. At times she is the essence of purity, Virgin Mary; at other times she is just "Bastard," child of an unmarried man and woman with no birthright of her own. When she turns to Ann Boleyn for counsel on love, Boleyn drops her mask and becomes Bastard's Black Mother, identifying herself as "somebody who cooks for somebody" as if neither she nor the man who raped her are of consequence. Later, the same woman becomes Mrs. Passmore and Clara's dead white father transforms into Reverend Passmore. Clara is haunted by accusations of meeting men on the subway and taking them to a room in Harlem. Such an encounter with one black man leads to her final breakdown and transformation into an owl.

In addition to the Owl, The Owl Answers has other bird imagery: a white bird, God's dove, and Reverend Passmore's canary. What the birds represent is not ever clear, though they are each a striking presence on stage, especially the white bird perched above the subway car, seeming to break away in flight, away from the despair and deception in the car below. The Reverend's canary can sing, but is a caged bird, its gift of beauty trapped by its law-abiding master. As for the Owl, revealed only at the end, perhaps it is the truth of Clara's existence as a creature of night, wise but unknown in the light.

The same eight actors appear in both plays. In Dutchman, Kate Guentzel holds forth a powerhouse performance as Lula, bursting with force, able to pivot on a dime from uninhibited seductress to ranting agitator to silly game-player and back again. She storms around the stage in ways that are impossible in a subway car, but it is her personal force, her power as a white woman—never mind how crazy or drug addled—and not her body, that occupies all the space. Nathan Barlow is Clay, fittingly named as a substance that lends itself to being formed. Barlow has risen from juvenile parts to a leading man role, which he fills with quiet dignity that is able to erupt into a tirade of suppressed rage.

Austene Van plays The Owl Answers' Clara Passmore starting with what seems a sensible and sensitive view on matters, drawing us to sympathize with her desire to pay proper tribute to her English father. Then, bit by bit, she reveals the madness within Clara's heart, and we see all traces of logic drain from her being. Other cast members in The Owl Answers play their roles as icons, some of which never speak, symbols on which Clara's tragic story is revealed.

Dutchman is directed by Penumbra Co-Artistic Director Lou Bellamy like a jazz riff building up intensity, players trading off solos, until it builds into an explosive crescendo. The physical production greatly contributes, with Maruti Evan's grimy subway car; Marcus Dilliard's intense lighting—the glare of the subway lighting making Clay and Lula's psychic duel all the more harsh, and the avoidance of eye contact by the other riders more cowardly; and Mathew LeFebvre's costumes, with Clay's pressed suit, Lula's wispy dress (seemingly designed for ease of removal), and the world-worn attire of the other riders. Kathy Maxwell's video images provide a masterful view of the unceasing thrust of the trains through their underground tunnels, and Kevin Springer has captured the sounds of grinding noise and steam emissions, along with a well-matched jazz soundtrack.

Being far less transparent, Talvin Wilks had a mighty task directing The Owl Answers. The skilled hand he demonstrated two years ago at Penumbra directing The Ballad of Emmet Till is less in evidence here, as the plays shifts in time, place, and from the real to the imagined are difficult to follow. Much of that, of course, is how Kennedy wrote the play, laden with images and symbols; too much articulation of their meaning removes the poetry, too little leaves the work striking but aloof. The same production team again created vibrant physical elements. Mathew LeFebvre's costumes capture the fantastical aspects of Clara's life, Maruti Evan's subway car proves to be more versatile than in Dutchman, Kevin Springer's soundscape roils with amplified whispers and otherworldly bird noise, and Marcus Dilliard's lighting design separates the harsh reality of the subway from the softer images that lie beyond.

Penumbra Theatre's bold programming of these two plays—by no means easy works to perform—has given us one wholly successful, Dutchman, and one that succeeds more in its execution than in the mining of its meaning, The Owl Answer. Both of these pieces are valuable lights on the convergence of civil rights and cultural history fifty years ago. These works are timely today as we continue to have struggles in our nation between espoused positions on racial equality and realities in the street, even as our racial and ethnic groupings have become more diverse and complex. For its artistry, Penumbra has once again served as well; as a springboard to thoughtful discussion, their work is invaluable.

Dutchman and The Owl Answers, An Evening of Obie Award Winning One Acts, continues through March 27, 2016 at Penumbra Theatre, 270 North Kent Street, Saint Paul, MN. Tickets are $24000, $35 for seniors with ID; $15 for college/university students with valid ID. For tickets call 651-224-3180 or go to www.penumbratheatre.org.

Dutchman Writer: Amiri Baraka; The Owl Answers Writer: Adrienne Kennedy; Dutchman Director: Lou Bellamy; The Owl Answers Director: Talvin Wilks; Scenic Design: Maruti Evans; Costume Design: Mathew LeFebvre; Lighting Design: Marcus Dilliard; Sound Design: Kevin Springer; Video Design: Kathy Maxwell; Props Master: Amy Reddy; Assistant Director: Dennis W. Spears; Stage Manager: Mary K. Winchell.

Cast for Dutchman: Nathan Barlow (Clay), Jamecia Bennet (rider on the train), Brian Frutiger (rider on the train), Kate Guentzel (Lula), H. Adam Harris (young Negro), Neal Hazard (conductor), Peter Moore (rider on the train), Austene Van (rider on the train).

Cast for The Owl Answers: Nathan Barlow (The Negro Man), Jamecia Bennet (Bastard's Black Mother, Reverend's Wife, Anne Boleyn), Brian Frutiger (Chaucer), Kate Guentzel (Shakespeare), H. Adam Harris (White Bird, Reverend Passmore's Canary, God's Dove), Neal Hazard (Goddam Father, Richest White Man in Town, Dead White Father, Reverend Passmore ), Peter Moore (William the Conqueror), Austene Van (She, Clara Passmore, Virgin Mary, Bastard, Owl).


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