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Goethe Institut – Gallery
Sunday, July 21, 7:15 p.m. Thursday, July 25, 5:30 p.m. Sunday, July 28, 5:15 p.m.
They say: “What does it mean to be a Jezebel? This new play mixes comedy and drama to revisit, revise and reclaim a classic story about sex and power with an 80’s twist.”
21 King is more of a rehashing of the Jezebel story than a revision or reclamation. In creating this disappointing production, playwright Jessica Lloyd Krenek and the Ensemble credited with developing the piece have changed some of the details. The setting is Charleston, South Carolina in the 1980’s, rather than the ancient kingdom of Israel. Jezebel is renamed Isabel “Z” Taylor. However, 21 King offers far too scant an exploration of “Z’s” perspective on events to constitute a substantive reconsideration of Jezebel’s story or reputation.
The play’s title refers to the First Book of Kings, Chapter 21, from the Old Testament. Jezebel was a Phoenician princess and the wife of the king of North Israel, Ahab. She conspired to have Naboth killed so that her husband could take possession of the vineyard in Jezreel that was Naboth’s ancestral inheritance. Eventually, her crimes catch up with her. She was betrayed by her eunuchs, thrown from a window to her death and eaten by dogs.
Jezebel is referenced and alluded to frequently in literature, art and music. The name will often be seen in the lower case, a jezebel being a woman who is impudent, immoral, cunning, or promiscuous. From a revision of the Jezebel tale, I expected the basic idea to be that if you tell the story from her point of view, Jezebel may have had valid reasons for her actions, or that a woman should be able to wield power and enjoy her sexuality without being slandered for it.
Lloyd Krenek and the ensemble seem to be responding to the both the biblical story and the 1938 classic movie that starred Bette Davis as a headstrong Southern belle whose unconventional behavior cost her the love of her fiance. The scenario has been updated to make Z the daughter of a real estate titan, played by Matthew Shifflet. The play is narrated by a chorus of two women, played by Nelly Diaz Rodriguez and Katherine Trapani, who work as assistants in the 21 King office. When Z comes to work for her father, she soon revives a romance with an old flame, and starts winning a slew of coveted contracts.
But how is she winning them? That is the question. Is she trading sexual favors or is she brilliant at her job? Her colleagues certainly believe it to be the former. Even her ex-lover believes it. Allan Davis, as Seth Barrett, does a good job navigating the transition from lover to competition. Unfortunately, Lloyd Krenek’s script doesn’t really give us any answers. As Z, Michelle Fitzgerald, has a confident and sensual presence that makes her well suited to her role, but her talent can’t overcome the obstacles in the script. Not one scene shows us Z interacting with her clients. Z claims, under duress, that she is achieving what others could not fair and square, but no real stage time is spent exploring her point of view or who she is as a businesswoman. We only witness and gain insight into what takes place in the offices at 21 King.
What makes 21 King such a letdown is that there is a kernel of a good idea here, one that deserves further development. At first, when the chorus/assistants narrate a scene in a way Z doesn’t like, she has the power make them retell it. She changes the story until it suits her interests and self-image. It’s exciting when it first happens and exciting when she loses this power. She loses it way too soon, however, for us to understand her motivations or morality.
The emotional arch of the folks back at 21 King is much better developed. The resentment of the assistants crescendos into a rabid, and very unsisterly, desire to bring down the woman whose power and influence is growing. Z meets her death at their hands, in a manner similar to Jezebel’s final encounter with those dogs from the Old Testament. The conclusion left me feeling like I’d watched a slightly altered version of the same old story and that being a jezebel means the same thing it always has.
The denoument is just another nail in the coffin. 21 King ends on an ambiguous note. The chorus, rather than commenting on what has happened, questions whose story they really have been telling the whole time. I suspect this ending is intended to strike a thought-provoking note. Instead it simply crystallizes the problem with the production. If the creators of the show do not yet have clarity on whose story they intend to tell, then I would argue they are not yet ready for an audience.
See it if: You are a junkie for all things Jezebel or biblical and simply must see every interpretation of the story.
Skip it if: You want your storytellers to be certain whose story they are telling before they invite you to the show.