Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


In the talk back I attended after Dutchman, director LoriGoe Nowak told the audience that the Magenta Giraffe Theatre's production was intended to be abstract. I was actually surprised to hear this, as it had escaped my notice during the 60-minute play. Some choices became clearer in retrospect, but at first, most of the elements of this version did not seem much different from a classic staging.

The setting, especially, revealed details — from the set to the costumes to the passengers' movements suggesting a train in motion — that precisely evoked a 1960s subway car. The cohesive set design by Kevin Beltz lent intimacy and a sense of voyeurism that were well suited for this challenging piece. Lighting design by Gwen Lindsay and music by Chuk Nowak (mixed live from the conductor's booth onstage, an undercurrent of music blended with the constant sound of the train) added additional layers of vérité, so much so that the actors had to raise their voices over the din. The four nonspeaking passengers were unremarkable upon first glance, in nondescript costumes suggestive of decades ago. Perhaps the abstract point of view was a bit too well concealed.

On the surface, Dutchman is simple and in real time. While riding the subway, a young black man and a white woman strike up a mutual flirtation, but the encounter turns out to be more than simply taboo, as the characters unearth unexpected rage and even violence in each other. Edmund Jones played it cool and natural as Clay, the ambitious young man, building slowly to a boil by the play's end. As the devilish Lula, Frannie Shepherd-Bates is brazen, almost garish. Her stark contrast with the other production elements, in everything from the color of her clothes to her mannerisms, gave the impression that she belonged in another play altogether. Shepherd-Bates's take on Lula was bold and certainly filled with raw energy, which manifested itself carelessly instead of with control. Regrettably, although the actors were confident in their own strengths, they almost never connected.

The passengers are alluded to in the program as Lula's doomed "crew," and she appears to be their ringmaster. However, the care with which A. Mikel Allan, Daniel Burrell, Anthony Kisner, and Ramona Lucius attacked their individual and collective roles made them the highlight of the production. At turns subservient to Lula, disapproving of the interracial encounter, and hollowly pleading with Clay to save himself (although by what means was intentionally left unanswered), these four individuals were mesmerizing.

Some of the risky choices in this production of Dutchman paid off, but on the whole, the play required further departure from the original to make the distinctions clear, and the fleeting coda came too late to work as a framing device. The 45-minute talk back (one follows each performance) helped to edify me about the director and actors' process, and I recommend staying after to attend. This is the second venture into groundbreaking-but-older theater by Magenta Giraffe, the other being last year's No Exit, and the arresting and fearless approach leaves me curious to see how the company takes on more modern fare.


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