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A CurtainUp Review
Red Letter Plays: In the Blood
By Elyse Sommer
The central character of this second of the Red Letter Plays being given terrific productions as part of Ms. Parks' Residency One at the Signature Theater Center, is like the Hester of Fucking A, played with great passion, in this case by Saycon Sengblogh. For her tragic story Hawthorne's epithet "Adulteress" becomes Slut and the letter A, scratched out on the cement ground and walls of the makeshift home under a bridge where she struggles to make a life for her five illegitimate children, is a metaphor for how far — or rather how little — she's progressed in her struggle.
While In the Blood has its comic moments, what it's definitely not about is light entertainment. This very raw re-imagining of "The Scarlet Letter" takes us into the subterranean existence of one homeless woman, her children and the people whose own weaknesses prompt them to prey on hers. It is an unremittingly dark and hopeless tale and yet, there's something poetically gut-wrenching in its picture of a living hell that remained firmly entrenched in my memory book when I saw the premiere production at the Public Theater.
I left that production hoping that stories such as this would become as outdated as Hester Prynne's public branding with her letter A. But as I write this homelessness is still with us. As a reminder, there's a couple that seems to have settled down permanently in a spot in front of the bus terminal I pass on my way to and from the Signature.
The plot remains intact and the current production still double casts all the characters except Hester to play her children as well as the adults who prey on her. But the bare bones staging of the original has been given a much more sophisticated, dynamic staging by director Sarah Benson. The stunningly creative set by Louisa Thompson (whose imaginative work I've admired ever since sic ) is additionally enriched by Montana Levi Blanco's costumes, Matt Tierney's soundscape and Yi Zhao's lighting.
The eerie, mesmerizing landscape now reaches from the bridge down to the below ground "home" of Hester's family. Other people's rubbish is regularly shot through a large disposal chute to the slanted surface that the children use like a playground slide and to crush the cans retrieved from that pile of garbage to earn them a little money.
Even though I've never been enamored of adults playing children, it somehow now fits the current set-up of the bizarre life of this family. Those poetic, devastating soliloquies which Ms. Parks calls "confessions" are now projected on a back wall and more devastatingly than ever depict how people — whether male and female, black or white — have failed to heed Hester's desperate cry for a "leg up."
There are six of these confessions that wind up with Hester punctuating her own stuck-at-letter-A tragedy with an outcry of despair and rage.
There's the doctor (Frank Wood), who carries his practice on his back like a hawker with a sandwich board, to end his talk of impotent pity with a confession of how he joined the men who exploited Hester with " I was lonesome and she gave herself to me in a way that I had never experienced.
The second confessor is The Welfare Lady (Jocelyn Bioh), a sharp physical contrast to Hester in her snazzy turquoise outfit. Yet her confident appearance is deceiving and so she too uses Hester to bolster her precarious hold on her middle class status and marriage. As she puts it "I walk the line/between us and them/between our kind and their kind. . ."
A more regretful than guilty confessor is Ana Reeder's the enterprising prostitute Amigaa Gringa. She persuaded Hester to join her in some profitable sexual activities but not her Lesbian peep show movie schemes.
The most egregious exploiter is Reverend D (Russell G. Jones), the father of Hester's last child who admits that he finds suffering "an enormous turn-on" and so when Hester sought his help to dealing with the four kids she already he seduced her. But with his new church thriving, he now sees her as a threat and does everything to get her out of his hair.
When Jabber turns into Hester's first lover Chilli (Michael Braun) for the sixth "confession" we have a few moment of hope and joy as they recapture the dream of their love. But after a reunion that includes his producing a wedding dress for her and their dancing to the play's only song (the tuneful music and lyrics by Parks) Chilly too fails her. When he sees her children he sees how far she's strayed from the picture he carried around with him of her raising their child and triumphantly surviving "like Jesus and Mary."
And with Jilly gone and reappears as an angry Jabber, Hester's story turns into a harrowing Greek Tragedy and Hester's own soul wrenching admission a that her "treasures" were all mistakes and defiantly bitter turnaround.
And so, while Hester's story remains downbeat and still proves its continuing reality courtesy of our large homeless population, In the Blood, like Fucking A, is a stirring, highly recommended theatrical experience.
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The Red Letter Plays: In the Blood by Suzan-Lori Parks
Directed by Sarah Benson
Cast: Jocelyn Bioh (The Welfare Lady/Bully), Michael Braun (Chilli/Jabber), Russell G. Jones (Reverend D./Baby), Ana Reeder (Amiga Gringa/Beauty), Saycon Sengbloh (Hester), Frank Wood (The Doctor/Trouble)
Scenery: Louisa Thompson
Costumes: Montana Blanco
Lighting: Yi Zhao
Sound: Matt Tierney
Fight Direction: J. David Brimmer
Wigs: Cookie Jordan
Choreographer: Annie-B. Parsons
Movement: Elizabeth Streb/Streb Extreme Action
Stage Manager: Terri K. Kohler
Running Time: 2 hours, without intermission
Pershing Square Theater Center's T Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre
From 8/29/17; opening 9/17/17; closing 10/15/17--a week beyond the originally scheduled closing.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 9/16/17 press preview
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