Mud, River, Stone
An example of Nottage before hitting her stride
|Eclipse Theatre presents|
|Mud, River, Stone|
Review by Catey Sullivan
There’s no denying the extraordinary intensity and power of playwright Lynn Nottage’s writing. Eclipse Theatre’s staging of her Pulitzer-prize winning drama Ruined, as well as Intimate Apparel earlier this season were riveting examples of urgently compelling storytelling rife with fascinating characters.
Unfortunately the final piece in the season, Mud, River, Stone falls into another category entirely. The plot borders on preposterous, and director Andrea J. Dymond doesn’t get much in the way of nuanced performances from her 7-member cast. In all, the play is an example of Nottage well before she hit her stride. It’s a curiosity that might intrigue those making an immersive study of the playwright. But for those in search of a satisfying evening of theater, it’s a disappointment.
The evening begins on a rather wooden note as music journalist David Bradley (Robert Hardaway) and his wife Sarah (AnJi White) are sipping cocktails with friends at a bar, recounting a vacation gone very wrong. Nottage then slides into flashback, showing the Bradleys in an unnamed African country, staggering through the doors of an out-of-the-way hotel after losing their way and their car in a rainstorm.
The extremely sparsely populated hotel is also hosting Blake (Zach Bloomfield), a middle-aged white man with a nasty streak of race-based entitlement, Ama (Elana Elyce) an aid worker, and Neibert (Matt Thinnes) a loopy Scandinavian dressed for some reason in the saffron robes of a Nepalese monk. The sole employee of the hotel is Joaquim (Anthony Conway), a stone-faced bellhop whose constant calls for “the missus” (apparently the proprietor of the hotel) go unanswered.
It’s the sort of semi-contrived set-up that wouldn’t be out of place in a sitcom, and indeed for a while, Nottage seems to be going for laughs as the fish-out-of-water upscale Bradleys struggle to adjust to their rustic surroundings. But things take a turn for the serious (and the preposterous) when Joaquim wrests Blake’s gun away from him, and announces he’s holding everyone hostage.
It’s here that the plot starts to go off the rails. Midway through, we started wondering why in the world the six ‘hostages’ don’t simply overpower Joaquim. Didn’t he ever need to use the bathroom? Sleep? Moreover, he’s drinking whiskey throughout the entire show, enough of it so that he’d surely be drunk and sloppily incapacitated in short order. Matters go from off the rails to over the shark with the arrival of a crisis negotiator (Delia Baseman) whose airplane full of coworkers promptly abandons her, leaving her stranded along with the hostages.
The balance of the show is a rather monotonous depiction of Joaquim bullying his captives, making them do calisthenics while simultaneously demanding a blanket and some grain in exchange for their release. The tone here is jerkily discordant. One moment Nottage seems to be going for broad comedy, the next dire seriousness. Neither mood enhances the story. Together, they create an uneven show that feels like two different plays uneasily mushed together.
Matters aren’t helped by the amateurish performances Dymond elicits from her actors. There’s an overall sense of stiltedness here, a feeling that these are indeed actors speaking proscribed lines rather than organic characters working their way through a realistic situation. Nobody delivers more than the most superficial rendering of their character, with Thinnes’ monkish European coming across as downright cartoonish.
Nottage’s title refers to the building blocks of life, elements that can be used for destruction as well as creation. Her story seems to aspire to shine a light on the unfairly desperate straits endured by Africans struggling to navigate a racist, classist societal structure that’s both toxic and all but intractable. But she doesn’t succeed in effectively exploring either the fundamental power and symbolism of the title or the plight of impoverished Africans. In the end, Mud, River, Stone is more apt to elicit little more than eye rolls and shrugs from its audience.
Mud, River, Stone continues through December 14th at Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $18-$28, and are available by phone (773-935-6875) or online through OvationTix.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at EclipseTheatre.com. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)
Photos by Tim Knight
behind the scenes
Andrea J. Dymond (director), Kathleen Dickinson (stage manager), Sarah Moeller (dramatur), JP Pierson (casting director), Kevin Scott (co-producer, set design), Nathaniel Swift (co-producer), Claire Chrzan (lighting design), Shellie DiSalvo (assistant stage manager), Michael Kunc (sound design), Rachel Lambert (props design), Frances Maggio (costume design), Michael Pogue, Maggie Rogers (assistant directors), Diane Robinson (dialect coach), Tim Knight (photos)