Taking In Acts of Faith
Now is the time of year when Richmond theaters participate in the Acts of Faith festival which is held annually and encourages its participants to produce shows that examine faith and its place in our lives. Recently I have had the pleasure of seeing three of this year’s productions which approach the topic from various angles with varying degrees of success.
At first glance Shakespeare’s “Othello” might seem an odd choice for this series, but upon further examination the play reveals itself to be an excellent lens through which one may examine faith. At its core “Othello” is about the destruction of faith. The play’s villain, Iago, is pure evil and he single-handedly manages the destruction of a hero, an innocent, and a marriage. As played by Jeff Cole in Richmond Shakespeare’s production (in tandem with African-American Repertory Theater) Iago is seductively manipulative. Cole’s performance is commendable for its wickedness although Cole himself is almost too young and appealing to appear truly villainous.
While Iago is undeniably the star of the play- aren’t bad guys always the intriguing ones? the title character Othello needs to appeal to the audience and make us lament his fall. Unfortunately Iman Shabazz delivers a performance so overly mannered and off-key that it proves a constant distraction. Sounding vaguely like he wandered away from a production of “Lady Windemere’s Fan” Shabazz declaims and preaches as if he were talking to a congregation or perhaps a classroom.
Rebecca Muhleman’s Desdemona isn’t quite as grating but she never quite captures the innocence and guilessness that Desdemona needs to display. Katrinah Lewis has some great moments as Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s lady in waiting Emilia, showing strong emotion and real passion. Occasionally she nibbles on the scenery- especially in her death scene, but she does offer the most heart-felt performance in the show. The rest of the cast acquits itself well enough with David Janosik provided some needed comic relief.
Janosik is unfortunately saddled with one of the production’s more egregious costuming miss-steps which serves up a pastiche of 20th century styles that range from flapper to “Solid Gold” dancer. The minimalist set is functional albeit a bit amateurish. Decent acoustics made up for the actors’ penchant for facing the back of the stage while speaking but the lighting folks really need to focus on what’s happening on the stage. The new Gottwald Playhouse at Richmond’s Center Stage is a nice size and really doesn’t have a bad seat- not even if you’re on the last row.
“Jar the Floor”, playing at Sycamore Rouge in historic downtown Petersburg is about building faith within a family. Focusing on four generations of African-American women, it examines how mistrust and enmity can build up when relatives don’t actively communicate with each other. Cheryl West’s script rings true and delivers some belly laughs along with its body blows.
Kellita A. Wooten is hilarious as the ninety-year old Madear and Diana Carver gets some great lines as her daughter Lola although Carver did occasionally find herself a little tongue-tied by the script.
“Jar…” benefits from straight-forward direction and good technical performances from the folks doing the lighting, sound, and costumes. As always, Sycamore Rouge provides audiences with a unique space and gracious hospitality.
Speaking of performance spaces, Richmond Triangle Players inaugurates its new digs in Scott’s Addition with a searingly powerful production of Carol Lynn Pearson’s “Facing East” which tackles the subject of faith head-on with its indictment of Mormonism.
“Facing East” is set in a cemetery at the grave of a young man who has taken his own life because he believes his parent’s faith precludes them from wanting him in their lives due to his homosexuality. The ensuing self-incriminations, denial, and soul-searching will bring all but the hardest-hearted to tears. All three actors in the production turn in strong performances: Daniel Moore is the guilt-ridden patriarch, Peter O’Shanick is the devastated lover, and Melissa Johnston Price walks away with the show as a mother so conflicted in her feelings, thoughts, and motives that she doen’t know which way to turn.
Director Julie Fulcher-Davis shows a sure hand and the Triangle Players’ intimate new space is put to fantastic use. This show is deserving of packed houses as long as it runs.
For a complete list of theater companies participating in Acts of Faith, visit http://www.theactsoffaith.org/
T.K. Slonaker III is a local free-lance writer who received his BA in English from VCU and concentrated his studies in British Drama.
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