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A CurtainUp Review
Raw Boys
by Kathryn Osenlund

There is something incredibly sexy about language, ideas. . . --- Shane

Jamie Harris (L) and John Keating (R) as Billy and Shane
Jamie Harris (L) and John Keating (R) as Billy and Shane
(Photo: Jim Roese)
Dael Orlandersmith's Raw Boys is in World Premiere at the Wilma Theater. Like her last work, Yellowman, it is directed by Blanka Zizka, Artistic Director. Yellowman's themes of insecurity, self-hatred, child abuse, both physical and psychological, and parental issues, in particular alcoholism, resurface here in a different setting. These two plays share the view that the ethnic characters' internal family problems are perhaps even more serious than their troubles with the outside world.

A "mixed" couple originally from Belfast-- he's Protestant, she's Catholic-- have two sons, Billy and Shane. The boys, very different, share the scars of their upbringing in a London Council flat where their parents " use whiskey and lager to pretend they don't remember things."

This play is composed of to-die-for solo parts. Monologue, not live character conflict, is the engine that drives the play's themes. These successive monologues and brief dialogues shed light on each member of the family. The three males have dreams of making it in music, acting, or poetry. The mother seems to have no ambitions beyond survival in a male world. Audience members, but not the other characters, are privy to the insecurities, longings, and isolation of each character. Raw Boys most lyrical moments are descriptions of past events.

The music gets into a slow groove. The lights and the acting are just perfect as James Gale as William, the father, gives a transporting recollection of the time he saw Otis Redding and Otis Redding saw him in the crowd. He says, ":How could I just live out the rest of my life after seeing that?" Gale delivers the goods as the disappointed, and abusive father.

Rose, the mother, fragile with her faded loveliness and lost hope (played with great skill by Nancy Boykin), has a wonderful, poignant monologue about how the Council flat families hear each other's lives through the walls. She describes encounters when women with party walls pass in the halls or on the street, and would like to say something to each other, but they don't say it. Rose, a thin reed, is unable to protect her sons from her tyrannical husband. It's surprising that this Orlandersmith play has no strong women's roles.

Billy (Jamie Harris) and his brother Shane (John Keating) are poisoned by their father's abuse, victims of behavior patterns handed down from grandfather to father to son. In a highly charged scene, Billy (Jamie Harris) delivers a striking monologue, violent, raw, and sad, describing his first sexual encounter at sixteen. Billy can't understand or accept a girl who has feelings for him. Harris proves himself to be a powerful presence on the stage in this scene and in many others. This guy is a fabulous actor.

The second act has some marvelous individual ingredients, but it dissipates the dramatic tension which was built up in the first act. It does contain a singular and powerful scene of conflict between the brothers; would that there were more scenes like this.

Advance publicity noted this play's Nuyorican element, but actually that is a side issue and a bit of a detour. Not introduced until the second act, the New York Puerto Rican father, played with ease and grace by Mateo Gomez, has one basic function in the play: to lead Shane to Alta, his daughter.

Alta (a fine, fresh January LaVoy) is seen on stage just long enough to illustrate Shane's problem: Like his brother, he cannot accept a woman's love. Although he easily could become involved with a woman of another ethnicity, he must feel that she is in his intellectual league. If he can't respect Alta as a poet, then he can't relate to her as a potential mate. With excellent verbal ability to carry this demanding role, along with a feel for the character's attitudes, John Keating shines as Shane.

A post-realistic trend for distancing is highly evident in Blanka Zizka's direction. This brave re-envisioning and reconfiguring of tired old realism results in an almost counter intuitive displacement of actors. The actors are kept physically separated most of the time, with dialogue flung across the stage. There's a fight where a punch is thrown and the other person, five feet away, falls. Interesting in concept, but alienating in execution, post-realism is like the theater version of Nouvelle Cuisine-- you don't know whether to eat it or look at it. The few encounters where actors actually collide and interact do not always pack the punch they should, maybe because these moments are too few and too isolated to accumulate intimacy.

The set is quite interesting. Twenty or thirty mismatched chairs are on the stage. A few of them plus a small table are placed on top of a very large platform made up of many tables. The rest of the chairs line the perimeter of the platform. Twenty or thirty mismatched lights are suspended from above. During the production, various ingenious combinations of these lights are used, including a couple of surprise lighting choices.

Orlandersmith's extraordinary virtuosity with language is Raw Boys' greatest plus and paradoxically also its greatest minus. It draws attention to itself, demanding admiration on a separate plane, keeping the characters from interacting as real people in a believable way, and turning their utterances into stunning displays, be they elegant or crude, rough or precious. Even regular bloke talk sings with poetry, and Shane's final address is a formal recitation. With Raw Boys' heavy familial themes, occasional humor, and high-flying poetic expression, it's as if Eugene O'Neill smashed headlong into a William Jennings Bryan oration. Or, alternately, it is like painstakingly photographed shots of individual family members who are never brought together for a family portrait.

One wants to see these characters interact dramatically and be more intimately connected on stage. This work, however, is refreshing in that it has actual depths that can be plumbed. It's not all hanging out on the surface. Yet, however stunningly written, Raw Boys is more a recital or nonstop lyric poem than it is a play, and at the end you are dazzled, but not touched.
Raw Boys
Playwright, Dael Orlandersmith
Directed by Blanka Zizka
Cast: John Keating, Jamie Harris, James Gale, Nancy Boykin, Mateo Gomez, January LaVoy
Set Design: Klara Zieglerova
Lighting Design: Russell H. Champa
Costume Design: Anita Yavich
Composer and Sound Design: Elliott Sharp Running time approx 2 hours including one 15 min intermission From 03/02/05 to 04/10/05
Reviewed by Kathryn Osenlund based on 03/15/05 performance
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