Saturday August 19th 2017

“An Octoroon”

Recommended *** Victory Gardens has added a new “resident Company” to its stable. The company is Definition Theatre Company (they print it as “def-i-ni-tion”), and they are committed to bringing high quality work to the Chicago community that examines what it means to be American today!”. The production is also a Chicago premiere written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins titled “An Octoroon”, which is a modern look at an 1859 classic melodrama by Dion Boucicacault. To add even more to this recipe for quality theater, the production is directed by Chuck Smith in association with The Goodman Theatre. How’s that for a special event in the world of Chicago Theater!

The play is a satire that follows a plantation owner who is left with his family’s estate, most of which is debt. He is in love with a young lady, who was supposedly set free, but as we later learn, the papers were never finalized. Oh, my! The play is filled with every cliché one might think of when dealing with America during those turbulent times. There is the evil overseer who is planning to take everything, the slaves figuring out how to escape, but the planner, who is very pregnant, overslept, there are the Indians, the sea-faring Captain and of great importance “Br’er Rabbit ” ( a very physical and comical Tyrone Phillips) who starts the play , ends act one and starts Act two as well.. He is not our actual story-teller, but comes pretty darn close!

Our hero, who begins the play by advising us that he has written a play (Breon Arzell is an amazing actor who has the ability to express every emotion without even saying a word. He is perfect for “melodrama”). He is an African-American who will be playing a White character and so, he does “white-face”. His assistant Pete (a delicious performance by the very funny Danielle Davis, who is “African-American and yet does “black-face”). Zoe, the lady that our hero loves is played by Ariel Richardson, and Dora  the White woman who loves our hero played to perfection by Carley Cornelius (she is a true stereo-type of the wealth spinster that no one would want except for her wealth).

There are also three “house” slaves, who represent the comic relief while at the same time illustrate the struggles of the period (and in reality hit on some of the things in our world even today-that is what satire is all about). They are Minnie (Sydney Charles is adorable), Dido ( Maya Vinice Prentiss is hysterical) and Grace ( Tiffany Oglesby funny as all get-out). The other two members of the cast are what one might call the “white ensemble”, two men who play Ratts ( Kelson McAuliffe)  and playing a multitude of roles, Christopher Sheard ( a very agile young man).

If one asks me what I think about this play, I would have to say that I was not in love with the script itself, or the set (Andrew Boyce, who keeps it very simple), but was very impressed by the performers that made this 2 hours-30-minutes (with an intermission) a fun theatrical experience. It certainly was different and in the very intimate space at Victory Gardens , upstairs (The Richard Christiansen Theatre) it works. It might have several places where you think it is over, but you would be wrong. When it ends, it truly ends. This cast is hard -working and the story they tell will make you think about what was, regarding racial situations, but not just then, even now!

On the tech side, the costumes by Kristy Hall were well done ( I loved the Br’er Rabbit ), the lighting by Jared Gooding was enchanting, the sound by Aaron Stephenson quite audible and the fight choreography by Matt Hawkins , as always, a delight. A tip of the hat to Jenna Meyers for the props (never easy to assemble).

“An Octoroon” will continue at Victory Gardens (upstairs) thru August 20th with performances as follows:

Thursdays  8 p.m.

Fridays  8 p.m.

Saturdays  2:30 p.m.  and 8 p.m.

Sundays  2:30 p.m.

Tickets range from $15-$40 and are available at the box office located at 2433 N. Lincoln Avenue, by calling 773-871-3000 or online at www.victorygardens.org

Street parking is zoned and metered. There is valet parking at the theater and the old Children’s Hospital Garage still has space available.

To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “An Octoroon”

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