Friday, November 26, 2010

A Free Man of Color

We went to see A Free Man of Color on Wednesday night. I had been warned off of it, both by Ben Brantley's Times review and an old friend ("I am not going to sit through another show George Wolfe messed up!").
John Guare is a messy playwright, which is something I have always admired about his work. He is a genius at juxtaposing elements that on the surface seem completely disparate, and wind up being unified when you least expect it. I have read several other review since we saw the play: Elizabeth Vincentelli in the Post (In 'A Free Man of Color,' all's well that ends well in overstuffed play -; David Cole in TimeOutNewYork; and Terry Teachout in the Wall Street Journal. In this case, my experience was much closer to Vincentelli and Cole's. A Free Man of Color is not a perfect play; there are places in the first act where it meanders towards boring.
That said, it is big, ambitious and about something important- race in America. It looks gorgeous, thanks to Ann Hould Ward's costumes and David Rockwell's sets. It features 26 (!) wonderful actors, like Veanne Cox (in three roles, including a madam and Robert Livingston);Paul Dano as an affecting Merriwether Lewis; Joseph Marcell as Cornet's ally, Dr. Toubib; John McMartin(Thomas Jefferson); Justina Machado, late of Six Feet Under; Reg Rogers (actually acting, for a change). The lion's share of the play is carried on the shoulders of Jeffrey Wright (Jacques Cornet), who never makes a false step and is rarely if ever off stage, and Mos (formerly Mos Def) as his slave Murmur. I can't imagine other actors in those two roles. The only character that I had trouble with (and it is in the writing and the direction, I believe) is Cornet's wife, played by Sara Gettelfinger. A pretty much thankless, one-note role.
In much of the play, Guare ransacks the plays of Wycherly, Jonson, Congreve, Etheredge and da Ponte (though it's been a long time since I read Jonson or Etheredge) to build his Restoration comedy world, mostly set in the Crescent City, with visits to Washington, France, Spain and San Domnique, during Toussaint Louverture's revolution. The final half hour of the play ventures out into other parts of the North American continent.
It is impossible (and I assume Guare's intent) to watch the play and not think of the present-day effects of colonialism in Haiti, and slavery there and in the US, and the still unique character of the city of New Orleans. I wouldn't have missed it.
Photo credit: Sara Krulwich, New York Times

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