At the Urban Theatre Company
By Dan Zeff
Chicago – Before discussing the Suzan-Lori Parks play at the Urban Theater Company, the title must be dealt with. The playwright uses the participle form of one of the more pungent four-letter words in the English language as part of the title. Some media outlets have used the full title and others have judiciously inserted asterisks to camouflage the word everyone will easily recognize. So this review will deal with a play to be identified as “F***king A.”
Parks claimed “F***king A” was inspired by Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel “The Scarlet Letter.” The Hawthorne work centers on a strong-willed Puritan woman named Hester who is forced to wear a scarlet letter by her community as a brand that proclaims her adultery. Parks writes about a woman named Hester who also is forced to wear the letter A (worn on her shoulder) to proclaim her as an abortionist. “F***king A” opened in 2000 and was preceded by the Parks drama “In the Blood,” which also featured a woman named Hester. Both plays bear only distant resemblances in narrative or theme to the Hawthorne novel.
Photo Credit: Anthony Aicardi
“F***king A” is a grim, violent play set in “A small town in a small country in the middle of nowhere.” The time is “A not too distant future.” Hester the abortionist is at the bottom of the social scale, a necessary evil tolerated by the town. Her dominant emotion is mother love for her son, a young man who was sent to prison as a boy for stealing food because he was hungry. The woman responsible for the son’s imprisonment is the wife of the tyrannical town mayor, a woman desperate to have a child but apparently barren. Hester hates the mayor’s wife and seeks revenge, which Hester gets at the end of the play, but at a huge personal cost.
That’s the general outline of the plot. There are a number of complementary characters, including Canary Mary, Hester’s friend and a prostitute in love with the mayor, who owns the sexual rights to the woman. There is a butcher who romances Hester, three sadistic “hunters,” the mayor and his wife, Hester’s son, and an escaped convict. From time to time women appear at Hester’s home, seeking her services.
Parks attempts to enliven the bleak atmosphere by occasional insertions of music, with characters singing to the accompaniment of an on-stage piano and saxophone mini band. The musical breaks try to give the play an edgy Brecht-Weill flavor but the songs aren’t particularly effective and the ensemble consists mostly of non-singers. Women characters lapse into a gibberish language called TALK when discussing intimate female matters, the translations flashed into a screen at the rear of the stage. Like the music, the TALK interludes are interesting without being relevant to the main narrative.
The first act is long and turgid as the bits and pieces of the plot are presented to the audience. The intensity picks up in the second act, climaxed by some look-away-from-the-stage moments of violence. At the final blackout, Hester has exacted her fearful revenge for the loss of her son to years of unjust imprisonment, but her triumph is hollow and she’s left, isolated, to continue her trade.
Photo Credit: Anthony Aicardi
Kelly Owens, an African American actress, plays Hester. Parks, who is black, apparently wrote the role for a black performer, though there is no racial element to the play. Owens does a fine job in the emotionally taxing role of Hester, the only fully developed character in the play. The most interesting supporting character is the butcher, who is marginal to the main plot except that he teaches Hester how to slit a throat efficiently, a skill she uses with gory results at the end of the evening. Madrid St. Angelo plays the butcher will a genial realism. Parks gives the character a long verbal cadenza in which he recites a litany of the crimes and misdemeanors the butcher’s troublesome daughter has committed in the eyes of the town law. The passage is worthy of the best of Gilbert and Sullivan and delivered with wonderful brio by St. Angelo.
The remainder of the large ensemble is variable in effectiveness. There is good work from Lindsay Rose Kane as Canary Mary and Lance Newton as Hester’s “monster” son. Kamal Hans and Amrita Dhaliwal play the mayor and his wife. Both are Asian. They may have been cast as the two best available performers for the show. If they were cast to make an ethnic statement, its significance eluded me. The three vicious hunters are played with chilling credibility by Greg Wenz, Robert Hope, and Michael Moran. Jeffrey Levin plays some mean ragtime as the on-stage pianist. Courtney Berne completes the instrumental duo on saxophone.
The play is supposed to run two hours with a 10-minute intermission but it lasted almost two and a quarter hours on opening night. Director Richard Perez could eliminate that extra 15 minutes with advantage to give the production more pace.
“F***king A” is a minor play by a major playwright. In spite of its Orwellian flavor, the play doesn’t make any importance social statement. Its narrative is disjointed and its dramatic impact relies mostly on shock (Hester is raped on stage and there is much blood-letting). The play may aspire to tragedy but it’s mired in gloominess to no particular purpose. The butcher’s marvelous cadenza and his song “A Meat Man Is a Good Man to Marry” provide the only bits of humor in the play, and are they ever welcome!
Production values are satisfactory, especially Freddie Rocha’s flavorful costumes and John Kelly’s dramatic lighting design. Jacob Watson is the set designer and Ross Hoppe is responsible for the video design.
“F***king A” runs through April 15 at the Pegasus Players Theatre, 4520 North Beacon Street. Performances are Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20. Call 312 239 8783 or visit www.UrbanTheaterChicago.org.
The show gets a rating of 2½ stars.
Contact Dan at email@example.com. March 2012
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