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A CurtainUp Review
The Red Letter Plays: F**king A
By Elyse Sommer
While both plays have a title character named Hester Smith and share Hester Prynne's as their inspirational forbear, the stories Parks has spun for each of her Hesters are quite different in both content and style. In the Blood, which I'll review after its 9/17 opening, is a starkly realistic tale of a homeless unwed mother, while Fucking A is a dystopian fable.
As was the case for the Residency 1's re-visit to the playwright's pre-Pulitzer plays Venus and The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World, Fucking A has been given a production that works well on all levels. It's directed by Jo Bonney with a sense for the rhythm to keeps it flowing. The cast, top to bottom, is up to giving fresh, meaningful life to this saga that's as relentlessly downbeat and bloody as any Greek tragedy.
Unlike the modern-day adulteress of In the Blood, this Hester (a gut-stirring Christine Lahti) is an abortionist with the letter "A" branded into her skin according to the law of thid imagined state of a hellish unknown country. The cartoonish Mayor (Marc Kudisch, also appearing as a scribe used by the illiterate Hester to write letters to her imprisoned son) who rules Fucking A's fictional no man's land may well seem all too real to viewers given the current state of a world that's rife with dictators and narcissistic, democracy-challenging the leader of our own country.
Being a fantasy, the script accommodates the interlocking plots that would be a credibility stretch in a more realistic play: the Mayor is married to the very woman (Elizabeth Stanley) who caused the long imprisonment of Hester's son (Brandon Victor Dixon) for a minor theft. While to Hester he's an angel, the program lists him as Monster which describes what prison has made him.
It is to earn money to buy his freedom that Hester, has taken a step down from her already low on the social rung job as a scrubwoman to take on the job of abortionist which in this imaginary Dante's Inferno requires its always visible insignia —. the letter "A" stamped right into her flesh.As that "A" is branded into Hester's skin, so her hate for the Mayor's wife and the image of her son as an "angel" are deeply imprinted into her psyche.
The devotion of her friend Canary Mary (a lovely, bouncy performance by Joaquina Kalukango), the Mayor's mistress who hopes to replace his sterile wife, can't keep Hester from her inevitably operatic path to perdition. Neither can her suitor (Raphael Nash Thompson), a butcher who also ends his work day with a bloody apron, . The bloody symmetry of their jobs and the rather too predictable result of his teaching her a trick of his trade notwithstanding, Thompson's butcher does add some much needed humor — especially with his hilarious monologue about the daughter about whose monstrous bad behavior he clearly has none of the illusions Hester has about her son.
Viewers familiar with Parks's work won't be surprised to see Fucking A as another example of her penchant for composing songs to provide her stories with numerous musical interludes. The lyrics and music of the songs she's integrated into this script are reminiscent of the musical commentaries often found in the work of Bertolt Brecht. Thus, after discussing their jobs, the pert Canary countering Hester's comment that her flouncy new yellow dress makes her look like a whore with "I am a whore", the two women launch into "The Working Woman's Song" ("It's not that we love what we do/but we do it").
In fact, with cast members not needed on stage in balconies on either side of the stage providing instrumental accompaniment and several musical theater veterans playing key roles— notably Joaquina Kalukango, Marc Kudisch, Elizabeth Stanley and, most movingly, Brandon Victor Dixon as the Monster son — this often feels more like a dialogue heavy musical than a straight play.
To enhance the sense of the outsider status of her female characters, Parks has also invented a language she calls "Talk" for interchanges about strictly female matters. These brief bursts of foreign-sounding gibberish with English translation projected on an upstage screen don't add much to the play. However, this doesn't detract from the overall excellence of this production.
Credit for the show's visual success can be attributed to Rachel Hauck's set which makes excellent use of the space. Bravos are also in order for Jeff Croiter's stark lighting and Emilio Sosa's costumes.
While Lahti is the center of this blood-soaked tale, under Jo Bonney direction all the actors are guided to fully inhabit their roles, in some cases more than one. Brandon Victor Dixon is especially touching as the "angel" son turned monster. In the play's most harrowing scene, Ben Horner is memorably scary as a prisoner pretending to be Hester's son during a picnic she's been allowed to have after years of no visitations.
The Butcher's teaching Hester one-step, painless throat cutting telescopes the use to which she will put that lesson. Still, when that happens, it still comes as a shock. And the scar left on her young son's wrist so she could identify him no matter how much time passes before she can see him again is rather melodramatic as well as obvious. But then this is a fable so it's not really subject to the credibility called for by more realistic story telling. More about that, when I review In the Blood and, hopefully, before too long, the completion of Ms. Parks' 2014 epic Father Comes Home From The Wars .
Editor's Note: While the title has become one that does indeed dare to fully speak it's name, this production's Playbill cover t still uses asterisks. I've followed suit for my headline for this review since I've experienced malware attacks when using the f-word in headlines.
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The Red Letter Plays: Fucking A by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Jo Bonney.
Cast: J. Cameron Barnett (1st Hunter, Guard, Waiting Woman #1), Brandon Victor Dixon (Monster), Ben Horner (2nd Hunger,Jailbair), Joaquina Kalukango (Canary Mary), Marc Kudisch (The Mayor, Scribe), Christine Lahti (Hester Smith), Ruibo Qian (Freedom Fund Lady, Waiting Woman #2), Elizabeth Stanley (The First Lady), Raphael Nash Thompson (Butcher).
Scenic Design: Rachel Hauck
Costume Design: Emilio Sosa
Lighting Design: Jeff Croiter
Sound Design: Darron L West
Projection Design: Rocco DiSanti
Music Direction: Todd Almond
Choreographer: Tanya Birl
Wig & Make-Up Design: J. Jared Janas
Fight Director: Thomas Schall
Stage Manager: Evangeline Rose Whitlock
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, includes 1 intermission
Romolus Linney Theater at The Pershing Square Signature Theater 480 West 42nd Street
From 8/22/17; opening 9/11/17; closing 10/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 9/08/17 press preview
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