THE UNMENTIONABLESby Bruce Norris
Directed by Rene Moreno
Set Design by Jason Domm
Costume Design by Michael Robinson/Dallas Costume Shoppe
Lighting Design by Michael O’Brien
Properties and Set Décor by Lynn Lovett
French Language Coaching and Dialects by Sheila Landahl
Assistant Director and Yoruba Language Coaching by Babakayode Ipayne
Etienne – Nicholas Holden
Dave – Jake Buchanan
Jane – Dana Schultes
Doctor – Brandon Burrell
Nancy – Wendy Welch
Don – Jim Covault
Auntie Mimi – Natalie Wilson King
Soldier 1 – Edwin Osaze
Reviewed Performance: 5/18/2014
Reviewed by Chris Jackson, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
In 2006 George W. Bush was President and torture was a hot topic, waterboarding in particular. Bruce Norris’ play, The Unmentionables, written and set in the same year, doesn’t shy away from bringing thorny issues of torture, U.S. intervention in foreign countries, and American persons or companies taking over their production of assets - along with other moral questions - in his darkly biting comedy now being given a first-rate production by Stage West. Certainly at this point, some may find the issues overworked and even strident, but in 2006 they were certainly in the news. (When are these things ever NOT in the news?!)
Perhaps the most familiar of Mr. Norris’ plays, Clybourne Park, recently produced at Dallas Theater Center, also tackles toxic and “unmentionable” subjects. Born in Houston, Mr. Norris is an American actor and playwright associated with Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago. His plays and performances as an actor have won numerous nominations and awards, including the Pulitzer Prize, Tony Award, and Olivier and Evening Standard Awards for Clybourne Park.
The Unmentionables has been summarized thusly: “Set in Western equatorial Africa, (it) opens with a pugnacious monologue warning the audience to get out while they still have a chance to do something really fun, like watch cable television. Those who resist…are treated to a biting satire featuring…a young Christian missionary and his fiancée (who is) a disenchanted Hollywood actress, an aging, wealthy businessman, and his desperately lonely wife. A fire…ignites a night of painful disillusionment as their notions of how to help the locals are exploded by the realities of money, power and politics. The stakes rise steadily until they are forced to confront the question of the value of a single life.”
This pugnacious opening monologue is delivered by Nicholas Holden in the role of Etienne, a student at the local missionary school. He throws himself into the role, bursting into the auditorium while the lights are still up and berating the audience with a profane and funny diatribe, speaking over and commenting on the recorded announcement about cell phones, etc., and warning that the story we are about to see isn’t pleasant. As the lights go down he tells us it’s too late, we had our chance to leave, and walks into the first scene. Wearing bright blue tennis shoes, which pay off beautifully later, he is a typical angry teenager, this time accused of setting a fire at the school. He embodies the sullen, truculent adolescent easily recognized by anyone who has spent time in an urban high school classroom. He speaks very quickly, his accent making the dialogue almost unintelligible at times. But in spite of this, the character is very clearly drawn and he shoots the play off to a rocketing start.
Playing Dave, the earnest and angry yet still vulnerable young missionary who runs the school, Jake Buchanan embodies the sincere dedication of the ever-optimistic do-gooder without making the character sappy and stupid. By using a direct gaze and body language, always focused on the person he is speaking too, Mr. Buchanan avoids falling into cliché, even when the character is written in a rather one dimensional manner. We never doubt Dave’s belief in what he feels he has been called to do nor the depth of his convictions, even when he is reluctantly forced to justify his celibacy. His righteous indignation over the treatment of the native population is justified in his eyes (and many of ours) and sets the groundwork for lots of the questions put forth by the playwright. In all, Buchanan’s is a confident and winning performance.
Dana Schultes is Dave’s fiancé Jane whom we first meet propped up in bed, being treated by the local doctor for her fibromyalgia that may well be psychosomatic. Perhaps the character taking the wildest ride in the production, Ms Schultes plays a TV actress on a popular show that she left ostensibly “because the show was s**t”, and reacts in conflicted ways upon being recognized by the locals. The considerable arc the actress is asked to present is commendably handled by Ms. Schultes. In a fully formed performance, she gives both strength and foolishness to Jane and reacts appropriately to the confused happenings around her. Ms Schultes goes from acting like an invalid needing attention and pity through real horror at the prospect of torture with stops in between at frustration mixed with affection for Dave’s beliefs and behavior. From her first stiff-necked and painful movements to her more fluid moments that become laced with tension and dread as the story progresses, Ms Schultes portrays a complex and multi-layered character.
The Doctor in the piece is portrayed by Brandon Burrell with a rather cynical and canny feyness and awareness. Using close-to-the-body gestures, his hands making airy, descriptive movements as he speaks, Mr. Burrell takes what might have been a somewhat uninteresting role and adds layers of intrigue and vocal cadences that speak volumes. At times the typical, take-charge physician, at others a somewhat sassy gossip filled with innuendo and sly looks, Mr. Burrell gives us an intriguing character with lots of possibilities and unknown, quirky attributes.
Having the time of her life on stage in a role worthy of her myriad talents is Wendy Welch as Nancy, the wife of the local businessman for whom the locals work. Talking non-stop, story after outrageous story pour from the mouth of this character, each one more terrible and hysterical than the last. Fluttering, posing, never still, the character reminding us of her intelligence at every opportunity, Ms. Welch’s facial expressions are as fluid as her movements and the character’s random thought process! As the play progresses, and events become more serious, thanks to Ms Welch’s skill, the self-centered, frightened and insecure woman is also revealed beneath the silliness. After all, in describing Lucille Ball she says, “It takes real talent and smarts to play dumb!” The audience couldn’t get enough!
Don, the wealthy owner of the local business, is portrayed by Jim Covault. Mr. Covault’s tall, commanding presence goes a long way in making him believable as the typical “Ugly American” who has come to a remote area to “give the natives work”, and in the process take advantage of the cheap labor and exploit whatever he can while under the auspices of doing good. His erect posture and confident non-extraneous movements support his characterization. In spite of appearing to do everything right from an external approach to the character, I never quite got the energy and “there-ness” that I got from the rest of the cast. I just didn’t see any inner life or nuance. Nevertheless, the role is in some ways the rock around which the river of other events swirls, and he performs that function well,
Natalie Wilson King, with her sass, her take-charge attitude, and yes, just plain attitude, makes her character Auntie Mimi, a formidable force to be dealt with. In full African costume, she is the embodiment of the corrupt, pragmatic, bureaucratic presence of the local government. Ms. King’s commanding voice and posture, with strong, efficient movement and a “take-no-prisoners” approach to any argument or situation, makes you believe every minute of her characterization. From her regal tilt of her headdress to her toes, there isn’t a false note in her performance. Her approach to getting the needed information from a prisoner later in the show is chilling and entirely believable.
Soldier 1 and Soldier 2, played by Edwin Osaze and Michael Antione respectively, are pictures of the scary and ever-present danger and horror of the always lurking violence. Using their dark sunglasses, guns and a military stance as they stand guard, Mr. Osaze and Mr. Antione create more than just stereotypes with their reactions and exchanged looks. They never draw focus, but provide a sustained and necessary background that doesn’t go away. Their one foray into asking for an autograph is unexpected and funny, and they take the moment and then return to their scary selves, giving layers that were not expected. Their manner in taking charge of the prisoner (and others!) is completely believable and go a long way to support the total picture being created.
The scenic design by Jason Domm, with props and set décor by Lynn Lovett, reflect an upstairs bedroom in the large plantation belonging to the American businessman and his wife. Done in warm tones with a distinctly African theme, it sets the stage for us, literally, from the moment we walk in for the story about to unfold. Bedrooms can be havens of refuge and comfort, but in this case it becomes the battleground for some serious confrontation, both physical and verbal. Perhaps a little too fresh looking, it still provides a multi-leveled, rather elegant playing field for these battles to take place.
Lighting by Michael O’Brien is fairly simple with mostly general illumination, the addition of practical lamps as the play progresses and lightning effects outside the window. There was a glitch in the lighting at the beginning of the second scene in the performance I saw, but it happened quickly and did no lasting damage to the illusion. There is no listing for sound design, but from the pre-show nature/jungle sounds to the loud thunder and spot-on cell phone rings and other sounds, it works well in supporting the play. Shelia Landahl is the French language and dialect coach and Babakayode Ipaye is Assistant Director and Yoruba Language Coach, and they do an outstanding job assisting the actors make the native characters sound authentic, if sometime almost too authentic to be easily understood.
The costumes, in bright colors surrounded by earth tones, military camouflage and the African dress of Auntie Mimi, are provided by Michael Robinson and the Dallas Costume Shoppe. In some instances, there are identical colors on characters I would not have expected to be linked in this way and I find it distracting, since the colors used are so strong and the obvious repetition for two characters seem to be making a statement of connection that the story doesn’t seem to support. Other than that, the costumes are appropriate to the characters and help them establish a persona consistent with their characterization.
Rene Moreno’s direction is always strong and insightful. Using Stage West’s wide, rather shallow stage, he shows considerable skill in painting a stage picture that not only is esthetically balanced and pleasing to the eye, but correctly shifts plot focus to where it is needed. Perhaps because of the relative shallowness of the set and the number of players, from where I was sitting characters were at times hidden by other downstage actors. This happens several times but, by having the actors who move to those downstage position stand with their backs to us, it somehow seems natural if not ideal. He paces his actors in a rapid-fire production, often with overlapping dialogue that contributes to the believability of the tension in the situation. The overall thrust and story are clear and well thought out, and from the rather light-hearted opening to the nail-biting tension of the second act, Moreno’s direction results in a confident and professional theatrical experience.
The script itself deals with many “unmentionable” topics that we normally try to avoid. From the opening admonition to “leave now and go home to watch TV” to the closing “I told you so”, the whole idea of closing our eyes and ears to what we find distasteful and don’t want to know about are vividly presented. Torture? Yes, it happens, but is torture worth it to get information that might save lives and is its use reliable? Most people won’t speak of it while still holding strong feelings about it, both pro and con. American intervention? Yes, it happens, but does it work and are we the policemen for the world, morally bound to better the lives of “those less fortunate?” Can we sit idly by and watch injustice and horror run rampant without interfering? Take Jesus Christ to the savages? Again, yes, it happens. And while we all have strong opinions, it’s easier to ignore the situations with the mindless pap of silly sitcoms and the worship of celebrity than to deal with it. After all, disadvantaged – i.e. non-Western – peoples often have poor hygiene and inadequate social skills that can make us very uncomfortable, as the ex-TV star character comes to discover. Easier to get caught up in the intrigue of Homeland, Game of Thrones and The Real Housewives of (name your city) than to confront reality But at what cost and are we willing to pay that cost at some future point?
All of these questions and more, dear playgoer, are waiting for you at Stage West and in The Unmentionables, all wrapped up in a very dark comedy well worth the time. Sure, it’s easier to stay home and watch cable or online TV, but sometime it’s much more beneficial to have those concerns placed neatly before you even if it’s all theatrical smoke and mirrors. Best of all you don’t have to travel halfway around the world to confront it or figure it out - it’s live and in living color, on a stage right before your eyes!
821/823 West Vickery Blvd.
Fort Worth, TX 76104
Runs through June 15th
Thursdays at 7:30pm, Friday and Saturday at 8:00pm and Sunday at 3:00pm
Tickets prices are $28.00 Thursday and Sunday, and $32.00 Friday – Saturday.
Information and tickets are available at www.stagewest.org or by calling 817-784-9378.