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St. Louis by Sarah Boslaugh

The Fall of Heaven
The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

The Fall of Heaven
Jeffrey C. Hawkins, Corey Allen and
Bryan Terrell Clark

Walter Moseley's first play The Fall of Heaven, will feel familiar to fans of his detective fiction. The story is set in the African-American community of a large city (in this case New York) and the lead character is a trickster-like figure who does the best he can in a world he never made. Moseley excels at this type of writing and it transfers to well to the stage: The Fall of Heaven is populated by vivid characters who are engaging and entertaining.

However, there's another dimension to The Fall of Heaven, one which tries to deal with weighty philosophical and religious issues, and this aspect is much less successful. Moseley's tendencies to go for obvious symbolism (you just know someone's going to eat an apple before the final curtain) and to pound on issues long after his point has been made are both unnecessary and wearying. The Fall of Heaven would be stronger and more effective with half an hour trimmed and with the elimination of some hokey effects which are more unintentionally humorous than impressive.

As the play opens, Tempest Landry (Bryan Terrell Clark) is busy keeping two cell phone conversations going, one to his wife and one to his mistress. Suddenly he's gunned down by city policemen who mistake his phone for a gun. Remind you of the Amadou Diallo case? You're not alone and this beginning gives The Fall of Heaven a ripped-from-the-headlines feel more appropriate to a television program or a blockbuster movie than a play (unless, of course, this play is intended to be as disposable as last season's TV shows).

There's a strong television/movie aesthetic in the structure of The Fall of Heaven as well. It's composed of many short scenes and uses music not only to bridge scene changes but also to supply or reinforce the emotional content of scenes. One crucial scene resembles a music montage of the type so beloved of teen romance flicks in which a well-known popular song, rather than the script or the actors, does the work of conveying how the characters feel.

But back to our story: Tempest is called to judgment by St. Peter, the first of several characters to be heard as a Wizard of Oz voice over the PA system. Tempest has quite a charge sheet, from bearing false witness to stealing from a charity, but he's a scrappy underdog more than willing to defend himself. He has an explanation for every one of his "sins" (he stole the money to help his family, he lied to get a bad man put away, and so on) and wins a stay of execution which will give him a chance to prove that he doesn't deserve eternal damnation.

This is the first of many statements of the play's primary theme—it's tough to be a Black Man in America—as well as what is presented as a corollary, that unless you've lived that life you have no right to judge those who have. No doubt everyone, regardless of race, gender or geographic location, has had this feeling at times, but as a moral principle it's not particularly practical. For instance men, including Tempest, make judgments about women every day despite having exactly zero experience of being a woman.

Tempest's ability to talk his way out of every situation also poses a dramatic problem: it reduces the play's moral discussions to the equivalent of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, with Tempest as Bugs and God and His representatives as Elmer Fudd. What's amusing in a three-minute cartoon soon gets old in a two-hour play and once you realize how one-sided the recurring philosophical arguments are going to be it's hard to sustain any interest in them.

The Fall of Heaven has another strong character in the person of Joshua Angel (Corey Allen), a celestial angel sent to earth to live as a mortal while overseeing Tempest's temporary return to earthly life. You could make an argument that Joshua is the play's true protagonist, as he undergoes more significant changes than Tempest over the course of the play, evolving from a cartoonish moralist to a person with real human emotions.

The most significant female character is Branwyn (Kenya Brome), the girlfriend at various times of both Tempest and Joshua. Rachel Leslie plays Tempest's other girlfriend, Alfreda, as well as a secretary in Joshua's company (he's not only an accounting angel in heaven but an accountant while on earth). Sadly, both exist only in relation to the men and both are well-worn stereotypes: Alfreda is the temptress/whore while Branwyn becomes the Holy Mother.

The final character (aside from members of the ensemble who walk diagonally across the stage at certain points, apparently to create a sense of movement in an otherwise very talky play) is Basil Bob, a metrosexual who, as his name would suggest, is the devil himself. He's also the only white cast member in this production and is the least developed character. Bob is also saddled with some egregiously offensive lines (including the expected n-word) which come entirely out of left field and are just disappointing: in a play which purports to take on serious moral issues I would have expected more subtlety from the author. On a more positive note, Bob does get to participate in the play's most effective visual moment which drew a strong response from the opening night crowd despite being an obvious steal from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

The faults of The Fall of Heaven lie with the playwright far more than with this production. Bryan Terrell Clark creates an engaging Tempest while Corey Allen as Joshua shows great depth as an angel who is forced for the first time to confront issues faced by humans on a daily basis. Rachel Leslie and Kenya Brome create vivid characters, while Jeffrey C. Hawkins feasts on his role as Basil Bob while also providing the voices of St. Peter, Mr. Chin and Mr. Akbar (the latter two are bosses of Joshua at the accounting firm—and yes, they are also stereotypes).

Robert Mark Morgan's set is a marvel of efficiency which facilitates the many scene changes (some achieved with sets moving on tracks, some by the old-fashioned method of having stage hands carry them on and off) and Michael Lincoln's lighting design takes full advantage of the possibilities offered by scrim serving as an intermediate wall. Myrna Colley-Lee's costumes play a vital role in establishing the characters, from Joshua's off-white suit to Basil Bob's ensembles of black with red highlights. Rusty Wandall's sound design effectively incorporates a number of jazz and popular tunes to set the mood and cover the many scene changes.

The Fall of Heaven will continue on the Mainstage of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis through January 30. Ticket information is available from the Rep Box Office, by calling 314-968-4925 or online at www.repstl.org/season/alltickets.

Cast
Tempest: Bryan Terrell Clark
Joshua Angel: Corey Allen
Alfreda/Darlene/Ensemble: Rachel Leslie
Branwyn: Kenya Brome
Basil Bob/Voices of Saint Peter, Mr. Chin and Mr. Akbar: Jeffrey C. Hawkins
Ensemble: Jerome Lowe, Borris York

Crew
Author: Walter Mosley, based on his novel The Tempest Tales
Director: Seth Gordon
Stage Manager: Champe Leary
Assistant Stage Manager: Tony Dearing
Scenic Designer: Robert Mark Morgan
Lighting Designer: Michael Lincoln
Costume Designer: Myrna Colley Lee
Sound Designer: Rusty Wandall
Casting Director: Rich Cole


-- Sarah Boslaugh

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