Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Also: Orpheus

Ma Rainey's Black Bottom

Seattle Repertory Theatre; ends Sat., Feb. 19

Listening to the melodiously conversational characters of August Wilson is like listening to music, and as the protagonist of this 1985 piece observes, "The more music you got in the world, the fuller it is." There is a lot of music—both literally and figuratively—in director Jonathan Wilson's production. And despite a few very minor fizzles, its world is effectively, sometimes heartbreakingly, full.

It's 1927 at a recording studio in Chicago, and everybody is waiting for Ma "Mother of the Blues" Rainey to show up and sing. Irvin (Laurence Ballard), her manager, has to constantly placate impatient executive Sturdyvant (Charles Leggett) with promises of an unlikely hassle-free session. Meanwhile, Ma's band warms up and trades barbs about an era—and its music—in the midst of change: There's Cutler (Wendell W. Wright), the weary trombonist; literate, philosophical pianist Toledo (Don Mayo); laid-back bass man Slow Drag (Chic Street Man—how's that for a stage name?); and trumpeter Levee (Alvin Keith), the youngest of the combo and a man with so much flashy, fearless ambition, he dares God to strike him down.

It's no surprise that something will strike somebody down in their naturally besieged world, nor that Wilson's eloquent, everyday language holds us until the complicated doom descends. By the time the imperious Ma (Cynthia Jones) enters in full-feathered regalia, howling at the racist policeman (Bruce Eriksen) who delayed her, director Wilson has adroitly enriched everything that playwright Wilson's celebrated ear has heard in these voices. The resignation, the righteous hope, the angry resistance are sometimes didactic in this early work, but their ebb and flow are never less than remarkable. The Pulitzer-winning artist is that rare playwright who can stitch together many points of view with no apparent seams showing; he can write a captivating, contemplative monologue for Toledo, then just as easily turn around to articulate the other bandmates mocking it. The ensemble here—including Ballard's and Leggett's admirable avoidance of cliché—also confidently relaxes into such give-and-take that we're relaxed, too. This is a good thing, because their music chops seem suspect; only Jones, when she belts, shows the musicianship the play demands.

Ma herself is full of demands upon her arrival, including that her stuttering nephew, Sylvester (Reginald André Jackson, an amusing bundle of nerves), be allowed to holler the intro to her titular blues standard. She'd also prefer that all eyes remain off her roving plaything, the edibly round-bodied Dussie Mae (Charlie Parker, full of delicious swagger), who has an eye for Levee.

As Ma, Jones is both a revelation and, oh, somehow not enough of what she should be. If you've followed this appealing local performer in her various roles over the years—a hesitant lady desegregationist for ACT's Waiting to Be Invited, a sunny nurse in the Rep's New Patagonia, the soft-spoken, Christian minimum-wager of Intiman's Nickel and Dimed, et al.—you'll be truly awed at the ease with which she shatters her previously composed persona. You'd have to reach back to her stellar work as a faded, fuming Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill many seasons ago to find even a suggestion of the edges she brings to Rainey's hauteur. "They don't care nothing about me—all they want is my voice," Ma tells Cutler, outlining the method behind her madness. "Well, I done learned that, and they gonna treat me like I want to be treated no matter how much it hurt them." At such telling moments, the actress captures every spiked nuance of the furious, compulsory pride that fuels Ma's self-preservation. But Jones gets only about halfway to embodying the big stuff: You don't really buy her as the kind of terrifying, epic empress who could unsettle the most presumptuous of white men. Fiery, fulsome pain- in-the-ass? Sure. Indomitable force of nature? Not quite.

Yet she's got heft enough to counterbalance the story's other major ego, the brash Levee. As a man incapable of Rainey's surly, precarious poise, the show-stealing Keith catches both Levee's festering anger and the almost childlike innocence of someone bound to see his dreams dashed. When he finally does, it's as lucid an explanation of sudden violence as you're likely to witness, the most haunting moment from a production filled with haunted people. STEVE WIECKING

Orpheus

Open Circle Theater; ends Sat., Feb. 19

Jean Cocteau is the mod, Gallic Edgar Allan Poe, delving into his feverish opium dreams and wrangling like a ghost with the reflective image of death. In Orpheus, as in a story like Poe's "Ligeia," the poet investigates the liminal nexus of love, death, and desire, only to discover the unholy trinity inextricably intertwined in the human heart.

A loose retelling of the Greek myth, in which Orpheus enters the Underworld to rescue his wife, Eurydice, Cocteau's play revolves on the visual element, the so-called "male gaze"—the idea that Orpheus' love is grounded in his need to behold his adoring wife, and her need is to be looked at. Here, Orpheus (Jeremy Catterton) is portrayed as a self-involved poet obsessed with receiving Delphic transmissions from his car radio. Death enters in the form of the Princess (Beth Peterson), who takes not only Eurydice (Samara Lerman) but the promising young poet Cegeste (Andy Justus)—both by vehicular manslaughter. It is not so much Orpheus' love for Eurydice that drives him into Hades—in fact, his wife seems mostly to annoy him—as it is his combined fascination with Death and artistic inspiration. And Death, in turn, loves Orpheus, literally and metaphorically.

Directed by Chris Mayse, who did such an excellent job with Mamet's Edmond a while back, Open Circle's production is a charmingly atavistic affair, full of such '60s-style mod-hip regalia as squealing, single-chord electric guitar cues, strobe light signifiers, and leather-jacketed emissaries of Death. You half expect to see Elton John stomp onstage in spangled flares and 6-inch platform shoes. It takes balls these days to flood the stage with dry-ice smoke, and Mayse lets it rip, diving headlong into the zeitgeisty feel of Cocteau's film; he even opens the play by rolling the credits on a handheld screen. As spectacle, this is pure fun, and the spirit of daring mostly carries the production.

There are some problems, though. As with so much French drama, characters are Platonic, embodiments of ideas as opposed to naturalistic creations drawn from everyday life. Because the narrative arc depends so crucially on the audience's ability to empathize, a work like this demands powerful, almost outsized performances, particularly from the principals. That doesn't happen here. Some in the cast are good—Jeffery Gilbert shines in the role of Heurtebise—but most everyone else is a bit tentative, dipping their toes uncertainly into Cocteau's weird existentialism. They'd be well served to heed the words of Death herself, as she counsels the overheated Orpheus: "You mustn't try so hard, my dear, to understand what is happening." In other words, just go with it. RICHARD MORIN

 
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