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Each time the big man in white steps through the storm into a dream, thunder rumbles. And when a young woman pivots from playfully fierce to no-fooling furious in a confrontation with the best friend who’s hurt her, the crackle of real electricity charges the air.
That’s about it for truly elemental moments, though, in the Studio Theatre’s staging of Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet. And the more’s the pity: Tarell Alvin McCraney is one of American theater’s talked-about young talents, and Marcus is the capstone on his much-heralded trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays. Expectations were high.
It’s not that the title character—a 16-year-old coming to terms with some strange dreams and his own sense of himself—isn’t a charmer. J. Mal McCree makes him bright-eyed and playful, wary of what people want to assume about him but willing to grab what he wants as soon as he knows it. You want to hug him and let him know he’s going to be terrific—assuming that hurricane on the horizon doesn’t wipe him and his whole clan out.
That looming storm, plus the more quotidian dangers at large in San Pere—a fictional, gritty-colorful Louisiana locale that’s the setting of all three Brother/Sister plays—are what have Marcus’s mom (Bianca LaVerne Jones) and his close-knit clan of neighbors looking crosswise at the boy, whether he’s struggling to explain half-remembered dreamscapes or sneaking out of the house to meet an out-of-towner with hunger in his eyes and a smooth, sexy roll in his shoulders. (Lance Coadie Williams plays both that danger-bringer from Brooklyn and the more mysterious figure in Marcus’ dreams, and he’s powerfully magnetic.)
Marcus, in short, may be heading for trouble. He may well be prophesying it, too—but then such things are par for the course in San Pere, where past is always present, the veil between worlds is thin, and the people bear the names of Yoruba deities: Elegba, Marcus’s long-lost father and the trickster among the orishas; Ogun, sturdy big-man neighbor and the warrior god; Oba, single mother and mother-goddess. Dreams mean real things among them, though some have forgotten how to listen.
Not how to speak, thankfully. McCraney’s writing crackles with wit, trips to its own singular rhythms, makes up its own rules. Characters finish each other’s thoughts, swerve mid-sentence to speak a stage direction, follow a lyrical meditation with a hard-ass jibe.
As ever, those knowing meta-theatrics will strike some as amusing, some as arch and artificial; chacun à son goût. Similarly the many speeches addressed directly to the audience will connect with some and leave others cold. McCraney is young—under 30—and his formal dexterity doesn’t quite match the range of his imagination yet. But it’s quite an imagination.
Timothy Douglas’s staging has imagination of its own, and a spare grace about it: He’s paced things just on the leisurely side of brisk, with a design that establishes a vaguely brooding vibe but doesn’t get in the actors’ way.
But aside from those few live-wire moments, the evening never builds to an emotional cloudburst. That might be fine in another play—there are gentle, tidal dramas that can move audiences profoundly—but there’s the unmistakable sense in Marcus that McCraney and Douglas are striving for thunderclaps. Each time the moment passes without one, what’s left is a disappointing feeling of…damp.