What makes it special?: Co-world premiere of a play by Marcus Gardley.
First impressions?: It takes a bit to get into the rhythms, language and music of this stylized production set in steamy 1836 New Orleans when free women of color had a measure of power due to the French custom of placage, where common law relationships with white men were recognized. But since the Louisiana Purchase, the times are changing —- and not for the better for this aristocratic household of black women, ruled by a formidable doyenne.
But once you get in the show's groove, it's got you good. Everything is heightened in this bigger-than-life production, from the riveting ensemble acting (with plenty of star turns), to the bold staging of Patricia McGregor to Gardley's plot and theme-heavy desire-under-the fronds narrative that has echoes of Federico Garcia Lorca's "The House of Bernarda Alba."
It all adds up to a mighty tasty gumbo, full of flavor and spice and all very satisfying. (There's actually a delicious scene where that Creole dish is made on stage. And did I mention there's some voodoo, too?) It's a well-seasoned show greatly benefitting from a run with Yale's co-production partner (Berkeley Repertory Theatre) with performances that are among the sharpest and strongest of the season.
What's it about?: The white wealthy Lazare (Ray Reinhardt) has just died under questionable circumstances and his black lover Beartrice (Lizan Mitchell) is planning to use the expected inheritance and —- after a period of long mourning —- take her three daughters to Paris where life is better for women of color since the Louisiana Purchase changed the societal status in New Orleans.
But afraid of being a spinster, oldest daughter Agnes (Tiffany Rachelle Stewart) seeks an immediate local placage arrangement of her own and enlists her younger sister Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt) to help her escape from the house, attend a ball for potential placées, pretend to be her mother and seal her deal for Agnes. Sister Maude Lynn (Flor De Liz Perez), a religious enthusiast, sees it as an ungodly plot but is restrained from spilling the beans.
There's a lot going on: Wait, there's more. Beatrice's nemesis La Veuve (Petronia Paley) suspects that Beatrice poisoned Lazare, just as she may have done to her first husband. When things don't go quite as planned with the will, Beatrice re-strategizes to go after Lazare's estranged white wife.
And there's the madwoman in the attic, Beatrice's sister Marie Josephine (Paley again) with a inter-related man-past of her own. Ever pushing the plot forward and supplying much of the back-stories is Beatrice's spirited household slave Makeda (Harriet D. Foy) —- yes, it's a complicated caste system. Makeda must await her freedom until Beatrice secures her daughters' future.
But here freedom is something that is hard-won and only achieved for a few.
How so?: This theme of freedom gives depth and dimension to Gardley's storytelling. These women are all desperately making their way in a white man's world through sex, bribes, conjuring and some special sweet potato pie. But despite the grand homes and gowns (Antie Ellerman's magnificent "House" and Katherine O'Neill's stunning costumes) they are are all imprisoned, too, in some way.
Gardley wondrously weaves into his play's fabric strands of magic realism (Reinhardt's Lazare comes back from the dead), poetry (the playwright's language is both naturally exquisite and down-and-dirty funny) and music and rhythm (percussionist Jocelyn Pleasant supplies the show's drumming drive).
It also helps that everyone is performing on the same page with actors who fill the stage with grand passion and high comedy and yet we see the human hopes and fears beneath their extreme facades. None more so than Mitchell's Beartrice, a fierce jaguar of a woman who can purr and pounce in a flash (think Eartha Kitt times 10) and Foy's terrifically complex Makeda who says the secret to great gumbo is the same as sex. "Always use both hands and don't be afraid to try something new." Foy follows that recipe, too.
Stewart's Agnes nicely reflects a sisterly bag of complicated feelings; Perez makes Maude Lynn so much more than a religious fanatic; and Abbott-Pratt, as the dark-skinned sister, is romantic, sensual and in the end, empowered by loss. Paley is transformative in her dual roles as the fragile aunt and Beatrice's bitchy foe.
Who will like it?: Those who like their dramas played big; the ever growing number of Gardley fans.
Who won't?: The grand comic style may be off-putting to those who like their tragedies without laughs.
For the kids?: Sex talk, though euphemistic, is not for kiddies but sophisticated teens should respond to the big portrayals, the dynamic of parental power and may even learn something about American history.
Twitter review in 140 characters or less: Powerful subject, writing and acting will cast a spell on you.
Thoughts on leaving the parking lot: It's bracing to see a new play rich with fully-realized, dynamic female characters. And it's inevitable that Makeda's killer second-act speech will now be de rigueur for African-American actors in scene classes.
The basics: The show plays at the Yale Repertory Theatre at 1120 Chapel St., New Haven, through May 10. The running time is 2 hours and 10 minutes, including one intermission.The show plays Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. There are 2 p.m. matinees on Saturdays and on Wednesday, April 30. Information at 203-432-1234 and www.yalerep.org.
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