Monday, Jan. 17, 2011

Strength and Vulnerability With Marti Gobel and Ensemble

Uprooted/Renaissance's CRUMBS FROM THE TABLE OF JOY

By Russ Bickerstaff
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There simply are NOT enough decent  stage roles for African-Americans in Milwaukee theatre. With solidly impressive performances of a competent contemporary script, Uprooted/Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Crumbs From The Table of Joy is a quietly dazzling illustration of this.

Uprooted Theatre Managing Director/co-founder Marti Gobel is joined by a cast of regional actors in a story rendered from the early embers of the Civil Rights Movement as present in Brooklyn in 1950. An emotionally rugged Morocco Omari plays Godfrey—a man who moves with his two teen daughters from the south to New York. What at first is an attempt to follow charismatic preacher and early civil rights proponent Father Divine gradually twists into something more in an engrossing comic drama.

While considerably talented at framing a believable story with emotionally affecting characters, Lynn Nottage lacks some finesse with actual dialogue. So much of what we learn about the characters in Crumbs comes from fairly straightforward, expository monologue and dialogue. While it does a good job of setting-up provocative questions about race relations that are as relevant today as ever, the simple, straightforward nature of this exposition limits an exploration of some of the complexity of its subject matter.

Director Dennis F. Johnson weaves together a talented ensemble with enough raw emotional power and comic talent to transcend any limitations in the dialogue. The characters become very real people very quickly. Tiffany Yvonne Cox is plays 17 year-old Ernestine—a girl who dreams of being a Hollywood actress. The story is told through her dramatic perspective—occasionally she embellishes her memories with comic bits of late ‘40’s Hollywood sparkle. The gravity of Cox’s energy draws an audience in and holds together the emotional center of the play quite well. Ahleigh LaThrop plays her sister—very affecting as a southern girl trying to fit-in in a new place.

Marti Gobel plays the two girls’ Aunt Lily—an elegant hipster Communist intellectual. This is easily Gobel’s best performance in an ensemble . . . possibly ever. The character has a bewitchingly confident dynamic. A chain-smoking alcoholic, Lilly seems to gain a kind of strength from her vices that rides a razor’s edge between vulnerability and invulnerability. (It’s kind of breathtaking.)

Chicago-based Cassandra Bissell rounds out the cast as a white German woman Godfrey meets on the bus and promptly marries. Bissell is endearingly complex. She’s a very compassionate woman who has suffered much in post-war Germany. Bissell shows strength beyond a kind of simple elegance that occasionally has a chance to build into something more. In a brilliantly comic moment at the dinner table, she transforms into Marlene Dietrich in a beautiful dress singing Falling In Love Again . . .  Bissell does a brilliant Dietrich . . . dreamy and powerful . . . and it would’ve been really nice if it was anything more than a fantasy by narrator Ernestine.   

Uprooted/Renaissance Theaterworks’ production of Crumbs From The Table of Joy runs through February 6th at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. Reservations can be made by calling the box office at 414-291-7800.

 

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