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|A CurtainUp Review
The Women of Orleans
By Les Gutman
If we were to eliminate all of the plays currently onstage that deal with issues of racism and/or sexism, we would be left with an awfully quiet theater scene. And yet there is something so raw and elemental about the way these issues are confronted in The Women of Orleans that I'm inclined to think it might not be a bad idea. Wipe the slate clean and consider how it all got this way.
Louisiana in the days after the Civil War was ground zero, the incubator of ideas and circumstances that have driven racial and sexual politics ever since. What makes it fascinating is its seeming innocence. Mathematics engineered a social order just as it still explained the racial pecking order: white plus black equals mulatto; white plus mulatto equals quadroon. It was a period when wealthy white men were in possession of a moral code that unconditionally predicated the future on their white male offspring, treating the offspring of color they prolifically created as little more than cogs in the machinery of their society. The women who bore their future were, similarly, little more than a means to an end.
Into the ointment of the Pontalba family (father, Agricola (Richard Toth); son, Celestin (Kevin Bergen); wife, Edna (Mari Newhard); and two half-brothers, who share the name Honoré (André Canty and Todd Griffin), but with different skins) comes a fly named Micaela (Gretchen Lee Krich), Celestin's wife. Two other women, who do not share the "helmet" of the family name, are also about causing trouble: one a quadroon named Pal myre la Philosophe (Rachel Leslie) and the other a black servant named Clemence (Leslie Jones). This being Louisiana, French integrates with English, voodoo infects daily life and neither family nor racial boundaries are not treated as sexual ones; violence in all forms is a way of life.
Kristin Marting has drawn on several sources to compose this work. It is expressed most eloquently in movement. Highly-stylized, ritualistic choreography is especially effective in conveying emotions and behavior that is at once circumscribed and explosive. Particularly notable is the haunting Pal myre of Rachel Leslie, Richard Toth's nervelessness and, in almost freakish counterpoint, Gretchen Lee Krich. A "dark and depressing gloom" is strikingly punctuated by metallic jolts (loud shots from Agricola's gun, the sound of a metal trap closing on Clemence's leg, etc.). Matthew Pierce's music shifts evocatively and is enriched greatly by a group of five musicians situated behind tall shutters at the side of the stage.
So rich are the play's non-verbal features that it would seem the maxim, "the less said, the better," might be applied. The play's most word-needy subject is the intrusion into Agricola's ordered world of Celestin's more worldly Micaela. Told she must "respect our ways," she responds by condemning them. Micaela boldly abrogates Agricola Pontalba's racist bedrock: "the skin," she says, "is only a surface". It's clear the two cannot coëxist under a single roof.
The specificity with which this interaction is drawn alters the play's balance. There is a sense that we are missing something in the other relationships because they are dealt with more abstractly. Moreover, despite one of the finest performances in the ensemble, Krich is unable to give flight to the wooden pronouncements she is called upon to recite. The other strong performance (and not overburdened by language) is Toth's Agricola. He reveals a blind, unshakable loyalty to his values, repulsive as they may be in execution. He succeeds in keeping his rage in check, his posture maintaining a certain decorum even as he loses control.
The expansiveness of Here's mainstage is, notwithstanding its unavoidably ill-positioned structural column, perfectly suited to this production. Allen Hahn has wisely adorned it with meaningful but extremely spare touches. He also uses lighting extensively to portray the days and nights of southern Louisiana against the backdrop of a scrim creating a shifting shore horizon. It is put to particularly effective use to create a distant stage in several scenes. Mention should also be made of Mattie Ullrich's beautiful costumes which add greatly to the flavor of the piece.
Kristin Marting's work tests the edge between dance and theater in exciting and interesting ways. Building on her similar work in Mad Shadows, it negotiates a language that calls upon us to "listen" with our eyes as well as our ears. It's a notion well worth considering.