review: denmark

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[originally published: http://aislesay.com/CHI-DENMARK.html]

DENMARK

by Charles Smith
Directed by Dennis Zaek
Victory Gardens Biograph Theater
2433 N. Lincoln Avenue / (773) 871-3000
www.victorygardens.org
Through November 12, 2006

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
October 15, 2006

The hum of anticipation is great. The space smells and feels new, fuzzy felt on walls (and seats) as yet unruffled by hands and feet and rear ends, and not a bad seat in this newly refurbished house. The historical and renewed Biograph Theater provides a shiny new performance space for the Chicago community and a fabulous new home for the Victory Gardens Theatre resident company. The world premiere of Denmark by Charles Smith, directed by Dennis Za_ek, and fabulously performed by a stalwart troop of actors provides a grand opening salvo.

Denmark Vesey (Anthony Fleming III) is haunted by his past as a slave serving Captain Vesey (Raoul Johnson), while imprisoned and convicted for inciting a rebellion. One of his first speeches, foreshadowing the great arc of the story of follow, contains the sentiment “unexpected windfalls are meant to be exploited”. This interpretation of the possible use and abuse of a sudden access to resources through a winning lottery ticket and the potential for changing his life provides the impetus for the morality tale, historical object lesson, and dream play that unfolds on the beautiful new Biograph stage.

The first moments of the play take place in 1822, behind a scrim which then opens to us as Denmark unveils to us his version of past events, his stories, the people in his life, and the decisions he has made. Direction by Zaek, lighting by Robert Shookand set by Mary Griswold strongly underscore this sense of the action as a dream play. Several platforms serve multiple purposes from the front stoop of a house to a podium from which a sermon is delivered to a prison cell. Characters move stiffly and one could initially blame direction for awkward staging. Yet this entire play is a flashback (think “Sunset Boulevard” and the initial scene of our narrator face down in pool providing the back story for two hours). This man’s story is full of angry dreams and memories of the evolution told in often luscious worlds. This is not a visual spectacle (though it is visually pleasing) but rather a staging that focuses delightful on the story and the words. The words and speeches resonate long after you have left the theatre.

The themes of the play run the gamut from the personal to the political, and all are successfully intertwined thematically, structurally, and in performance. The role of religion in American life in general and in the lives of Americans specifically in the 1800s is evoked by dueling Reverends: white Canker (Gregory Lush) who represents the establishment formal order, and African American Brown (A.C. Smith), who tries to negotiate a connection between the wants and needs of his African American constituency (freed and enslaved) and the established order. Market pressures and capital are addressed continually: we never forget for a moment that slavery was both a moral wrong and a capitalistic venture – without the market for human lives to labor in the fields and run the households of residents of the American South, the slave ships would and could not have sailed. Debates between Denmark and his compatriot Omar Sewell (Kenn E. Head) evoke the strains of emancipation philosophical debates that have endured for centuries: do we focus on the individual’s betterment (as argued by Sewell) or on the needs of the community and the group, and Denmark attempts to do by purchasing the freedom of as many slaves as he can rather than focus on the freedom of the woman he loves, alone. And resonantly and powerfully, in this context, we have a love story between two strong characters testing the parameters of their lives: the house slave Beck Monroe (the beautiful Velma Austin), who belongs to and serves Colonel Monroe (Joe Van Slyke) on all possible dimensions, and our hero Denmark, who struggles to free himself from his own bondage of slavery, then makes a series of personal and social choices that destroy his personal life.

The personal is the political. This story of one man’s struggle in a particular time in a particular place, as dramatized beautifully by Charles Smith and staged so lusciously by the team at Victory Gardens, is a lesson in history. At root for this viewer, this is perhaps most powerfully a lesson in love. The relationship between Beck and Denmark is the human road of this story, and some of the speeches can break your heart. At one point, Beck says to Denmark, “Your words get inside me, and leave a hole.” This is a love story in addition to all else. Lovely.

© Martha Wade Steketee (October 15, 2006)

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