Thought provoking ANTELBELLUM at Cleveland Public Theatre
In 1939, Hattie McDaniel was the first African-American to win an Oscar for her portrayal of Mammy in GONE WITH THE WIND. She was also the first African American to be an invited guest to attend the Oscars. Ironically, she was required to sit alone at the back of the Cocoanut Grove, the site of the award ceremonies, a far distance from the white performers in the movie.
Berlin in the 1930s was a hotbed of decadence. There were over 160 gay and lesbian bars and nightclubs. The use of drugs, prostitution, cross dressing and other lifestyle choices were in vogue before the rise of the Nazis.
It is against these two backdrops that Robert O’Hara’s ANTEBELLUM, which is getting its regional premiere at Cleveland Public Theatre, is set.
The play is part mystery, part romance, and an adventure that bridges together religion and race in a time of hatred. Its underpinning is expressed in the director’s notes in the program: “As I see [U. S.] conservative extremists gaining momentum, I often have the same fear that Gabriel shares in the play, ‘The majority remains quiet..And it is the minority…which strikes the match.’”
We watch as the scenes switch back and forth between a Southern plantation, a Berlin cabaret, and a concentration camp. We find Gabriel, a Black American cabaret singer as he transitions from entertainer and the lover of a Jewish Southern American male (Ariel Roca) who is in Berlin “on business,” to becoming a companion to a Nazi officer (Oskar von Schleicher).
Meanwhile, in Atlanta, there is much decadence surrounding the world premiere of the movie GONE WITH THE WIND. Into the southern setting steps Edna, who arrives unexpectedly at the home of Ariel and Sarah Roca. Yes, the same Ariel that we saw in Berlin. Why is Edna there? What havoc will her appearance cause? Time will tell, and the results are shocking and illuminating.
O’Hara’s script is well crafted, but a bit melodramatic. It’s appropriately written in both the genre of the overdone romance movies of the 30s, combined with mystery approaches of the films of that same era.
The CPT production, under the direction of Beth Wood, generally works. Staged in a runway theatre configuration, with the audience on both sides of the stage, set up in the middle of the Gordon Square Theatre, Wood’s stage design allows for easy flow between various settings and keeps the audience close to the action. The major flaw is that the theatre’s high ceiling and hard walls causes echoes and difficulty in clearly hearing the words. The backs of the performers are constantly turned away from one part of the audience or the other. The actors make straight line stage crosses, rather than the traditional figure-8 eights used for this type of staging, which would have opened them to the audience. This, plus the southern drawls and German-American accents, makes clear hearing problematic.
Nicholas Sweeney as Gabriel, the cabaret singer, effectively develops his tightrope walking roll, moving from show boy, to lover, to medical experiment, with clarity. Dana Hart is properly both horrific and tender as the German commandant, who acts against the principles of the theories of the master race with his love for the Black, gay Gabriel. Laurel Hoffman clearly carries the audience on a journey asking whether she is a ditz, crazy or a manipulator as Sarah, the southern belle and unfulfilled convenience wife of Ariel. Mark Rabant is believable as the conflicted Ariel.
Only Audrey Lovy, as Edna, fails to develop a real character. She stays on the performance surface, using forced physical movements and unmotivated vocal idea development. Lovy doesn’t make us understand her real torment. The program credited-acting coach needed to work on this.
Sarah’s GONE WITH THE WIND gown, as created by Melanie Boeman, is one of the season’s costume highlights.
Capsule judgement: ANTEBLELLUM is a production well worth seeing. It is a thought provoking piece, which gets a very good production at CPT.