Two playwrights, two companies (one big, one small), two world premieres about what happens when mortals dance with dark powers and worldly affairs get tangled with otherworldly doings. Coincidence, or the supernatural at work?
The former, presumablyand not least because the concerns of the corporeal are very much at issue in both plays. Tom Walker, Arena Stage’s postmodern take on the Devil-and-Daniel Webster genre, mixes the colonial era’s Old Scratch obsession with liberal doses of contemporary argument about economic injustices and racial inequities; Gris Gris, a chronicle of Louisiana’s voodoo culture staged by the African Continuum Theatre Company in the Source Theatre’s 14th Street space, has as much to do with Business 101 as with Baron Samedi.
And yet both carry with them that air of the exotic, that fascination that seizes the dilettante who flirts with danger. To one degree or another, audiences at both houses will feel for at least a time as though they’ve dipped a toe in dark waters, and they will shudder deliciously at what they think is the risk.
Consider the opening image of Tom Walker: A striking young black woman, cloaked in layers of West African mudcloth and girded with a cincture of cowrie shells and small bones, calls herself the devil’s daughter and conjures a tale-telling from those she calls the dead. She carries a bowl full of fire, twines the skeletons of small birds as ornaments in her hair, and stalks the stage with the confidence born of power, and the picture she presents is both potent and over the top. Snicker if you will, but you’ll snicker uneasily.
It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that this woman (Margaret Laurena Kemp, playing the kind of narrator who occasionally steps into a play’s action) turns out to be something other than what she appears. This is a play for modern audiences suckled on Seinfeld and weaned on MTV, and author John Strand can’t offer up an image or an emotion without commenting on it. In the early going, as we’re getting acquainted with shiftless drunkard Tom Walker (John Glover) and his shrew of a wife, it’s all good ironic fun. Things continue creepy in the Massachusetts colony, as Tom meets a mysterious character offering the classic diabolical bargain,and then comic, as the missus (Kate Buddeke) berates him for not sealing the deal on the spot. Once we’re past the play’s midpoint, though, and once both mood and plot have taken sharp turns, it’s harder for Strand to reconcile the lightness of his tone and the heaviness of some of the issues he wants to deal with.
Take the subplot about a genteel widow (Martha Hackett) whose gambler husband has left her in the lurch: The callousness with which Walker exploits her vulnerability is part of his deal with Strand’s devil (a master manipulator in Wendell Wright’s authoritative performance), but the sheer thoroughness of the formerly amiable man’s transformation raises the question, as Strand surely intended, of where the impulse for evil really has its root. The confrontational scenes between Walker and the widow are naturally but noticeably less given to quips; they’re tighter and darker than the body of the play, and the mood swings can be jarring.
The plot sprawls, with side trips to ships and swamps and Southern cities, not to mention the odd lunatic asylum. (It’s not giving away too much to let on that poor Mrs. Walker doesn’t handle her own meeting with the Black Woodsman very well, but it is worth noting that her fate is one of the stitches Strand dropped as he sewed the play up into its neat 90-minute package, complete with happy ending.) There’s an elaborate and deftly constructed revenge scenario, which keeps the action driving ever forward, but there’s also a repetitive bit with an incomprehensible drunkard (J. Fred Shiffman) that seems merely pointless and intrusiveuntil Strand uses it to underscore the consequences of the bargain Walker has struck for himself, at which point the gimmick becomes irritatingly preachy.
The performances are all solid as can be, and Kyle Donnelly’s direction is tight and bright, if prone to flourishes that seem designed to distract from the material’s essential thinness. Players and props are forever emerging from the swirls of mist that constantly cover the Fichandler’s floor; flames erupt from hands and from pits in the ground, and fire rains from the same ceiling that produces both snow in the cold colony and snakelike vines in the Woodsman’s swamp.
It’s all very impressivein the manner of a magician’s misdirection. But then Tom Walker is more concerned with style, verbal and structural and actorish, than it is with the minimal substance Strand and Donnelly are able to work in between flashes of cleverness. It succeeds well enough as an entertainment, and that may be enough.
If the African Continuum Theatre Company’s Gris Gris is a good bit less slick, it’s no less convinced of the power of imagery. Director Jennifer L. Nelson, saddled with an overlong script and an unwieldy number of scene changes, puts her stagehands and supporting players in stark white masks and sweeping white robes and sets them to dancing. They open the play with a voodoo “ritual,” all swirling movement and eerie chant, that establishes both their devotion to Marie Laveau and the notion that they’ll be backregularly, both to move furniture and to act as a sort of silent Greek chorus, observing but never daring to comment on the politics that play out in the household of New Orleans’ legendary 19th-century voodoo queen. It’s an elegant solution to a problem small theaters regularly fail to solve.
Daniel Du Plantis’ earnest but atmospheric tale turns on the aging Laveau’s machinations as she goes about shoring up an empire that has begun to totter. Her age is one issue for pretenders and political enemies to exploit; her daughter, Young Marie, is another. The heiress finds the crown alternately alluring and constricting, and Gris Gristhe title comes from the bastardized French catch-all for amulets, charms, luck, and stray bits of voodoo magicis largely the story of tensions between mother and daughter, duty and individuality, the privilege and power of the hothouse world of voodoo and the promises of the larger world that calls to Young Marie from outside.
Du Plantis takes the skeptical position that Old Marie’s vaunted powers consisted of as much craft and glamour as anything supernatural, though the Louisiana-born playwright is respectful enough of his subject not to dismiss her authority or ignore voodoo’s very real sway in the lives of Orleanians high and low. (The faithful still knock on the door of her tomb, asking for favors, though her cottage on St. Anne has become a tourist trap selling charms and tchotchkes to the unwary.) But watch her browbeat the priest who condemns Marie’s rites or humiliate the police chief who comes looking for a missing statue, and it’ll dawn that Du Plantis’ Old Marie is less the pope of the voodoos than their donshe’s ruthless first, religious afterward.
From the moment the imperious Jewell Robinson as Old Marie seizes center ground amid the chalked sigils that cover the playing surface, you assume she’s going to triumph. Robinson is that bold, that crafty, that magnetic; the fun is in the low politics with which she engineers her victoriesand in how, exactly, Young Marie will choose to resist. Kamilah Forbes, less self-consciously regal, is no less captivating a figure as she vacillates between love for her mother and the desire to live her own life (she wants to run off with her aristocratic white lover); the ploy she eventually chooses doesn’t pan out, but then Old Marie is the sort of chess master who sees every move coming.
She’s like Tom Walker’s Old Scratch that way, and it’s not the only thing they have in common. Both of them are keenly conscious that they draw their power from what others believe about them, and they’re both awfully good at managing their public image. The only difference, besides the scale of the special effects, is that at Arena the devil turns out to be a little less impressive than his reputation would suggest. In Gris Gris, Marie Laveau is always a little bit more. CP