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Theater Review:

"DROWNING CROW" at Goodman Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

Regina Taylor’s "Drowning Crow" – receiving its world premiere at the Goodman Theatre – takes such obvious and laborious efforts to stretch the boundaries of performance that it made me crave the full-bodied clarity and unobtrusive profundity of a classic, well-crafted play. Yet, ironically, Taylor (known for her multitiered linguistic/rhythmic experiments) has followed the traditional formula to the letter in relation to her source.

Her relentless drive to rip open the seams of conventional dramatic structure, however, becomes as tedious and disappointing as her main character’s meandering quest to find his artistic voice in shallow avant-garde musings.

In her African-American reimagining of Anton Chekhov’s "The Seagull," Taylor has devised relevant character and thematic parallels. It’s when she entwines elements of Shakespeare, O’Neill, conceptual art and the endangered Gullah culture of South Carolina’s Sea islands within this tragic story of an artist struggling for his voice to be heard in a self-absorbed society that her work loses its focus. And, most distressing, Taylor succumbs to the same sort of art-for-art’s sake babble that causes her protagonist (Constantine Trip, a.k.a. C-Trip) to be so misunderstood by his family and friends.

The play’s overriding theme is that, in the process of creating new modes of expression, the artist must always be conscious of a purpose – of having something meaningful to say. But that point, together with C-Trip’s impending suicide, get so thunderously hammered into audience’s heads, one soon realizes "Drowning Crow" comes up with a lot of fancy ways to say the same thing over and over again. Each scene either begins or ends with a gunshot. A handgun is projected onto the stage. And the crow imagery threatens to become a parody of the original "Seagull" – from C-Trip’s now-incongruous shooting of the injured bird to the actors circling the stage in black trench coats and flapping their arms.

In Taylor’s version of "The Seagull," C-Trip is a tortured "multimedia conceptual artist" at odds with his glamorous classical actress-mother, Josephine Nicholas Ark, and her popular TV writer-lover, Robert Alexander Trigor. C-Trip’s despair plummets when his actress-girlfriend Hannah Jordan, with Hollywood dreams, has an affair with Trigor – a move that flings the aging Josephine into a painful obsession with holding on to her man at all costs.

Surrounding the brooding Hamlet-esque C-Trip on the family’s Sea Island estate are Josephine’s dying retired-judge brother, Peter Nicholas, and a clairvoyant maid, Jackie, who fears for C-Trip’s dismal fate. A sub-plot centers on the troubled Bow family --Sammy, the bombastic and irritable manager of the estate; Paula, his unfulfilled wife having an affair with the local obstetrician; and their substance-abusing daughter, Mary, who loves C-Trip but unwillingly marries Simon, an earnest but un-hip schoolteacher.

Director Kate Whoriskey has worked closely with choreographer Randy Duncan to foster a metaphoric sense of movement – one of the more successful aspects of this production. Chester Gregory and Paul Oakley Stovall portray servants who take on a variety of abstract dance roles, ranging from the softly revelatory to the wildly farcical. For the most part, they subtly advance -- and hover over -- the action. But the scene where they schlepp around Josephine’s designer luggage seemed like a remnant from the Goodman’s production of "The Visit" starring Chita Rivera.

Without a doubt, the whole staging is gorgeous to look at – especially Birgit Rattenborg Wise’s crisp and sensuously sunlit island attire. Robert Perry’s Greek-inspired set, with its tottering columns, is juxtaposed against the stirring elements and his imposing African mask designs. Robert Perry’s lush yet ominous lighting; and Rob Milburn’s and Michael Bodeen’s Caribbean/urban-tinged sound design evoke natural disaster boiling beneath the breezily idyllic sea aura. One of the more evocative visuals has the cast pulling stacks of suitcases out of a wall they adorned in a previous scene.

The actors also boldly tear into their roles. Suzzanne Douglas’ self-centered but fretfully aging celebrity Josephine breathlessly navigates the perils of theatrical triumph and impending mortality. Shané Williams as the starry-eyed Hannah delivers an achingly heartfelt transformation scene; and Jason Delane injects into C-Trip a quietly simmering torment.

Nevertheless, the flat, pop culture- and sociology-riddled script tends to undermine their humanity. It’s as if the characters are also part of a self-important multimedia installation. And Taylor often gets tangled in her copious references to and dissections of African-American cliches – including "a mind is a terrible thing to waste" and Josephine’s haughty gibes at "Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ‘Da Funk."

What gets lost in this hodgepodge of images and ideas is the dire state of the Gullah culture, which forms the basis of Taylor’s adaptation. That subject deserves its own play. In fact, the playwright seems hampered by her retrofitted parallels.

The overall experience, while constantly awash in Taylor’s call for purposeful stretching of theatrical forms, did not spark any urgent revelations. Instead, the production mirrors the gratingly self-aware pretensions of C-Trip’s benign Afro-hip-hop multimedia performance piece that so enrages his high-minded mother.•

"Drowning Crow" runs through February 10 at the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. Tickets: $35-$50. Call 312-443-3800 or log onto www.goodman-theatre.org.

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