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LETTERS TO EDITOR
by Les Gutman
Angelique is the story, true at least to a point, of Marie Joseph Angelique (Lisa Gay Hamilton), a Madeiran slave owned by Francois Poulin de Francheville (Jonathan Walker) of Montreal in the early 1730's. Francois presented Angelique to his wife, Therese (Pamela Nyberg), in the vain hope the gift would perk up his chilly marriage.
For American audiences that may recall the pivotal role Canada played in the Underground Railway, it may come as a surprise that slavery existed in Canada until the 1830's. But it did and, while in the humidity of the Deep South slavery was cloaked in the lexicon of agricultural economics, nothing shielded the hideousness of slavery in the cold air of New France. For these wealthy families -- Francois owned an iron works -- slaves were nothing more than a status symbol.
Francois and his business partner, Ignace (Jonathan Fried), discuss their slaves as one might imagine speaking of race horses. Angelique was, in their parlance, a fine specimen, and it thus followed that she should breed with Ignace's slave, Cesar (Earl Baker, Jr.), a worthy stud. It also followed that her sexual favors should be made available to Francois. Angelique, alas, had other ideas: unthinkable thoughts about being free, as well as an illicit attraction to Claude (Jason Weinberg), a (white) indentured servant.
The story begins by telling us how it ends (she is executed for arson), and then backs up to fill in the details. It unfolds in a fast-paced series of short scenes, cinematically woven together by Derek Anson Jones. Although he occasionally gets carried away with symbolism, more often he exhibits the same steady, sensitive hand with which he directed Wit (review linked below) in the same space. (It has here been modified into a thrust configuration, with seats on three sides). As in Wit, it is the compelling performance of the actress portraying the play's central figure that renders this a memorable evening of theater.
But this play, which arrived in New York bearing a major Canadian playwriting prize, is not the Pulitzer-prize winning Wit. It is uneven and struggles to maintain its voice. It is at its best when it lets Ms. Hamilton convey the contours of Angelique's heart, dampened by the "coldness and cruelty" she endures. It falters when it attempts to become something larger than itself. At times, Lorena Gale's lyricism is eloquent, as in a scene in which Angelique unlocks for Claude the key to her African rhythm -- it is, she shows him, the "beat of the heart when the spirit is in flight." But at other times, Gale's language bogs down under its own weight. And while a number of scenes are imbued with great poignancy, far too much of the exposition is delivered in mono-narratives that are bereft of any dramatic element.
The playwright's path also includes two dubious tangents that detract far more from the story than they add. The first is that the play's time setting shifts from the 1730's to the 1990's."Then is now. Now is then." This results in the silly transformation of the characters from their 18th Century wigs and satin into contemporary clothing, and more. (Haven't we seen enough laptop computers juxtoposed into period settings already?) Of course, we all get the heavy-handed point Gale apparently feels compelled to make, but it would never have escaped us without being subjected to this nonsense.
The second misstep is a subplot involving Ignace's disdain for Therese as a business partner after the sudden death of Francois. It accomplishes nothing except to add ten minutes to an intermissionless play that is now ten minutes too long and to generate a reason for Derek Anson Jones's most unfortunate staging idea -- a scene in which the tug of war between the two is played out far too literally.
None of this detracts from the splendid way in which Jones has blended words with movement and rhythm that movingly expresses the essence of slavery, and from a female perspective. (Kudos to Robert Murphy for the significant part his music and sound play in this, as well as to Schele William's for the excellent dance and movement that permeates this production.)
But most of all, the successes of this Angelique flow from the charismatic performance of Lisa Gay Hamilton. Hers is a thoroughly believeable portrayal of this thoughtful, frustrated and yet spirited woman. Those who know Hamilton only from television and film rather than from the substantial and impressive stage work that preceded it will be quickly disabused of any idea that she is another screen celebrity joining the current parade to the stage.
The men portraying Angelique's lovers: Weinberg, as the one who chose her, and Baker as the one chosen for her, are both exceptional matches who perform well and credibly with her. The remainder of the cast is adequate, but rarely more.
The final scenes of Angelique build to a crescendo of substantial force, followed by a moment of somber, lonesome power. It's a stunning conclusion. If one can sustain the discipline to edit out the play's few wrong turns, it is definitely a fruitful experience.
LINK TO REVIEW MENTIONED ABOVE
CurtainUp's review of the MCC production of Wit
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