Regional Reviews: Connecticut and the Berkshires
Regional Reviews by Fred Sokol
After a startling initial scene featuring apes (important symbolic figures for Jacobs-Jenkins), Tate (Donte Bonner) and Joanne (Rachael Holmes) come together at their mother's bed in a hospital. Quarreling siblings, Tate, who tends to angrily yell, and Joanne cannot agree about: their mother, philosophies of life... They are African Americans and Joanne has married Malcolm (Greg Keller), a white man who has his own distinctive views. Elfriede (Trezana Beverley) wanders into the picture. She is German, speaks only a few English words, suffers from some malady, and says she is sister to Roberta. She is accompanied by her son Tobias (Philippe Bowgen), whose English allows him to converse with all. The cast includes the versatile actor Tyrone Mitchell Henderson playing both Alpha (the primary, if you will, ape) and also a Nurse (orderly).
Branden Jacobs-Jenkins excitedly pushes to an edge of theatrical convention during the first portion of this arresting play. The actors, initially, are on stage and casually laugh at first, then begin to physically and vocally emulate apes. Jacob-Jenkins went to Germany on a Fulbright Fellowship a few years back and has explained, previously, that he there saw performers in ape outfits in plays. The playwright's ape motif in War is jarring and definitely disturbing. We might be viewing them as Roberta's projections. While she is on the verge of death, the writer permits this character to actualize into someone functionally articulate, able to express feelings, perceptions, and thoughts from time to time.
The first act set, designed by Mariana Sanchez Hernandez, features two large all-white walls surrounding a somewhat smaller black wall. At times, this configuration opens and the actors scale upstage on a vertical tilt. The transposition, during intermission, facilities a completely different context for the second component of War. We are now in Joanne and Malcolm's apartment where Tate lashes out against both his sister and brother-in-law. The notion is that Roberta might be recovering enough to soon be released from the hospital. Elfriede and Tobias arrive in the living room, a space which includes a pullout sofa, appropriate lamps, and wildly floral wallpaper. A scene featuring Elfriede reading a letter translated by Tobias is far too long and becomes a distraction.
The concluding scene of the play is most effective, though the ending is abrupt.
A contemporary play, set in Washington, D.C., War is transfixing at times and its overall impact is pervasive. The playwright does not give, though, Tate much room for interpretation or nuance. The character is one dimensional. He is upset, hostile, and unafraid to shout and share his opinions. Donte Bonner does with Tate, and the New Haven cast is uniformly excellent. No weak links here. The ape actualization is provocative to be sure and its presence is of great import to the playwright. This is a strong, emotional, deep-rooted family drama (with moments of comedy). The apes and Elfriede's letter interrupt. Still, one respects Jacobs-Jenkins' bold and inclusive decision.
Lileana Blain-Cruz, directing, and Jacobs-Jenkins have known each other for a decade, and collaborated before. This is the first time she directs one of his world premieres. War is an evolutionary work and acute, intellectual, imaginative individuals have combined talents to sculpt and embody the Yale Rep presentation. This play will probably evolve during its run in New Haven and later, too. I would love to have the opportunity to see it again in a year or twosomewhere.
War continues at Yale Repertory Theatre in New Haven through December 13th, 2014. For tickets, call (203) 432-1234 or visit yalerep.org.
- Fred Sokol