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[Note: The review below was written for An Octoroon's 2014 premiere at Soho Rep. The play is returning for an encore engagement at Theater for a New Audience, with the same creative team but a mostly new cast. Amber Gray reprises the role of Zoe.]
An Octoroon: In brief
Provocative young playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins (Appropriate) adapts Dion Boucicault's 19th-century melodrama, injecting its old bones with a full-blooded investigation into race and cultural politics. Soho Rep honcho Sarah Benson directs a cast that includes Amber Gray, Marsha Stephanie Blake and Danny Wolohan.
An Octoroon: Theater review by Helen Shaw
At its wickedest (and best), An Octoroon can make you gasp—perhaps in shock at something funny or cruel, or in delight at the naughty, secret-filled set. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins's long-in-gestation adaptation of Irish playwright Dion Boucicault's once-popular 1859 melodrama feels brisk and angry; having whisked the cobwebs off his troubling source, Jacobs-Jenkins spanks us with the same broom. There's something about the audience's sudden intakes of breath that makes the project feel super oxygenating—despite moments of palpable fear and disquiet, we leave feeling somehow healthier, as though the theater has given us a violent shake and a pep talk.
The piece bears the stamp of a long development process by a peripatetic mind; sincerity has been jumbled with postmodern strategies, and the beginning in particular betrays writerly ambivalence and a tendency to wax defensive. But even this messiness can feel right, especially at Terrebonne, the play's Southern plantation, which drips and sweats quietly into the Louisiana swamps.
Boucicault's original broke ground: It painted heart-wrenching scenes between plantation owner George Peyton (Chris Myers) and his sweet, self-sacrificing cousin Zoe (gorgeous Amber Gray), the titular character whose race renders their love impossible. The villain M'Closky (Myers again) is considered dastardly as much for trying to steal the plantation as for keeping two obviously suited lovers apart. Onto this once-radical source, Jacobs-Jenkins embroiders new subversions, adding scenes and throwing in the metatextual equivalent of jazz hands: If we need razzle-dazzle, the playwrights “themselves” show up (both pissed about the crappy digs), ready to explain the deconstructed elements of 19th-century dramaturgy. Crazy-eyed Danny Wolohan plays Boucicault as a gently disappointed Irishman with occasional rages; Myers (doing triple duty) plays Jacobs-Jenkins as a bit sulky, a bit coy. These interventions work occasionally, but never as well as the series of sublimely comic scenes between Dido (Marsha Stephanie Blake) and Minnie (Jocelyn Bioh), two slave women observing the whole mishegas with disapproval and an aggressively modern idiom.
Soho Rep's Sarah Benson helms a tremendously exciting production, moving and chilling and surprising at once, that turns the slender Soho Rep black box over to its best steward and designer, Mimi Lien. Once again (as in Jackie Sibblies Drury's We Are Proud to Present a Presentation…) Lien uses the space against itself, finding a way to hide a set in plain sight. César Alvarez has composed achingly lovely music, played by a cellist who hangs out at the periphery, giggling at the funny bits. The cast (including Zoë Winters as a clueless white Southern lady whose cap is set for George) does stellar work. Ultimately, though, too much is asked of Myers. Smearing on whiteface to play both the hero and the villain of An Octoroon, he even has to fight to the death against himself. He's a strong actor, but we need a comic genius in the role, and you can feel the play fighting poor Myers to a standstill. Of course, maybe that’s intentional. Perhaps we're seeing the effect of a super-self-reflective playwright who, having written himself into the play, can't give up the chance to sabotage his own avatar again and again.—Theater review by Helen Shaw