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Theater Review:

"PLAYBOY OF THE WEST INDIES," Congo Square Theatre Company at Chicago Dramatists

BY LUCIA MAURO

A theme as universal as the fickle nature of society – prevalent in J.M. Synge’s Irish classic, "The Playboy of the Western World" – can translate to any place and time. So when Trinidad-born playwright Mustapha Matura re-located Synge’s tragicomedy to his native tropical locale in his 1984 "Playboy of the West Indies," it became clear how a timeless work could speak to all people while maintaining a distinct cultural voice. The lilting poetry of the language in both plays gives the experience a sensual musicality.

Congo Square Theatre Company approaches "Playboy of the West Indies" with conviction and respect in this production directed by Chuck Smith at Chicago Dramatists. Yet, while this staging is enjoyable and features a hefty dose of irascible charm, the unchanging tone tends to muffle Matura’s crescendo-like shifting of loyalties. The energy and eccentricity are here; what’s lacking is the underlying torment and irony needed to make us truly feel these characters’ anguished transformations.

Matura’s version faithfully mirrors Synge’s story. In "Playboy of the West Indies," a man – Ken -- believes he has killed his domineering father and runs off to a backward-thinking town, where he finds refuge in a rum shop. Ken immediately catches the eye of the fiercely independent Peggy, who runs the shop with her opportunistic father, Mikey, who in turn has betrothed her to the wealthy but decidedly unromantic British gentleman Stanley.

Once Ken announces that he has murdered his father, he receives a hero’s welcome. Peggy sees to it that he has a place to sleep and food to eat. The next day, the town gossip and alleged psychic force, Mama Benin, arrives to offer Ken free room and board at her home. Soon after, more young women honor him with baskets of fresh food. Some of the men harbor suspicion but, for the most part, Ken is rewarded for his heinous act. The fact that he did the deed instead of brood over his father’s bullying ways wins them over – until his dad unexpectedly arrives with only a head wound.

The tides change, and Peggy’s capacity for trust and unconditional love is tested. Despite the script’s farcical timbre, "Playboy of the West Indies" – and its Irish counterpart – addresses the convoluted and fleeting nature of hero worship, along with the achingly pointless separation of two people who belong together. It’s also really Peggy’s story. This strong-willed woman refuses to fall into the dreaded pattern of marrying for money, only to find that "true love" can be deceptive, too.

Part of the problem with the Congo Square production is the ensemble’s rather forced and off-kilter comic timing. The cast lingers too long in the script’s farcical elements, making those touchingly dramatic moments ring false. And their accents have a tendency to meander across Caribbean shores and beyond.

But there are instances when this production can merge tenderness with tears of laughter and grief – as when Ann Joseph’s softly impetuous Peggy shares an idyllic but short-lived encounter with Reginald Nelson’s quietly charismatic Ken talking about their overpowering, soulful connection. The all-too-brief scenes involving Ernest Perry, Jr. as Peggy’s delightfully self-interested father demonstrate a mastery of understated comedy needed throughout the production. TaRon Patton’s shamelessly seductive Mama Benin is a larger-than-life presence, but her character’s hidden tragic qualities could be more smoothly illuminated.

Some of the performances are too fussy to be believed. They include Derrick Sanders’ dandy-esque Stanley; Jaimie Turner and Tabitha Cross as Ken’s giggling admirers; and Charles Michael Moore as Ken’s overly cartoonish father.

Logan Shunmugam’s set and lighting design joyfully evokes the elegantly worn interior of a rum shop on a sun-drenched island. The tropical aura is carried through with costume designer Christine E. Pascual’s vibrantly accessorized island wear and Matt Ulm’s Calypso sound design.

Congo Square has properly set the stage for a culturally immersive and engaging theater experience. But more dramatic/comedic textures would enhance Matura’s play, which is so rich in provocative thematic variations and entwining moral dilemmas.

Congo Square Theatre Company’s production of "Playboy of the West Indies" runs through June 2 at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave. Tickets: $25. Call 773-913-5808 or log onto www.congosquaretheatre.org.

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