In its World Premiere, Erik Ehn’s SHAPE is given a powerful, heartbreaking, funny, moving, invigorating, emotional, and visually gorgeous production by force/collison. With a powerhouse of a cast – SHAPE is a theatrical experience you won’t forget!
Erik Ehn contacted Director John Moletress while visiting DC and asked him to read SHAPE. John was so impressed that he knew he had to produce it. And I can see why.
SHAPE begins at ‘Black America’ in Ambrose Park in Brooklyn (NYC) where 500 Black American performers attempted to teach the Northerners about their ‘wonderfully happy life’ on the Southern Plantation. And it’s a story of Billy (Frank Britton) and Cordelia McClain (Dane Figueroa Edidi) – two vaudevillians – whose songs and dances portrayed their toe-tapping happy life down South – a Stepin Fetchit existence.
Who were Billy and Cordelia McClain and why don’t we know more about these famous entertainers? I won’t give it away, but suffice to say we learn a lot about them as Ehn’s play unfolds – and it’s a fascinating story filled with love, loyalty, deceit, great singing and dancing, and illuminating design. It’s a fascinating 70 minutes. The first thing I did when I came home to write this review was to go on the internet to find as much as I could about these two ‘unknowns.’ And by the time I finished my search, it was five in the morning.
I can’t remember the last time a production inspired me to sit glued to my computer screen and become a detective!
Ehn’s script utilizes the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921 to show that history repeats itself over and over again and that exploitation of Black performers continues to this day. (I know many African American actors and actress in the theatre who would say “Amen!” to this). And as you burrow through the historical references in this thought-provoking production, Ehn reminds you that SHAPE’s core is the love story of these two performers who were loved for their talent on the stage, while still being treated with little dignity and respect because of the color of their skin.
I can’t say enough about the performances of this great group of actors: Dexter Hamlett (Survivor);(Josh Sticklin (Journalist);S. Lewis Feemster (Maid); Manu H. Kumasi (Butler);Karin Rosnizeck (French Journalist) and Ensemble members Luci Murphy, Julia Smith, and Alex Witherow. They all work so well together and contribute to the success of this production and telling the story.
And now to Bill and Cordelia. Frank Brittion and Dane Figueroa Edidi’s give stunning performances as the talented, complex, and loyal couple. Their performance ooze with passion and fire. And when they each perform extended soliloquies they raise the roof in the intimate Sprenger Theatre. And when they perform and shuffle through some of their ‘act’ it’s hysterical and pathetic all at the same time. You have to see it to believe it!
Much of the success of the ‘storytelling’ of SHAPE is due to the brilliant direction of John Moletess and his design team. Moletress utilizes evey inch of the Sprenger’s performing space to slowly unveil Cordelia and Billy’s story, and what a jaw-dropping story it is! Collin Ranney’s simple but thought-provoking set design and costumes bring an elegance to the production and a whole new meaning to shredded newspapers and miniature houses. [This is a difficult review to write because the fascination with the McCLains’ story is told through the surprises of the set design, so I do not want to give it all away). Ariel J. Benjamin’s colorful lighting turns the set and props into beautiful images and helps to illuminate the story and emotions of the characters and the events that unfold in front of our eyes. Her lighting works beautifully with Derek V. Knoderer’s sound design which adds ‘oomph’ to SHAPE. Dane Figueroa Edidi and Ilana Faye Silverstein provide the energetic choreography.
With its brilliant production of Shape this young theatre company will be a force in our rich theatre community for years to come. I can’t wait to see what they do next. In the meantime, I will make another trip to see Shape again. Don’t miss it!
Note: After Frank Brittion delivered his tour de force soliloquoy last night – a fire alarm (a false one, of course) forced evacuation of the theatre. Still reeling from the emotional wallop of Frank’s performance, I walked out into the street in a daze with the cast and audience members awaiting the fire engines and fire chief. All the time I prayed that they would let us back in so I could watch the final 30 minutes of the show. I wanted badly to know what happened to Billy and Cordelia. Luckily for all of us in the audience the show continued as if nothing had happened. What a group of troupers this cast was!)
“If dreams were told the way recipes were, and one were forced to dream only the repeated, edited, and cleaned-up versions, one would go mad.” (Cordelia)
Running Time: Approximately 70 minutes.
SHAPE plays in New York City from November 10-18, 2012 at La Mama ETC – 74 East 4th Street, in New York, NY.
Read the series ‘Taking Shape’ on DC Theater Arts:
Part One: John Moletress Introduces us to force/collision’s ‘SHAPE.’
Part Two: Frank Britton and Dane Figueroa Edidi on Billy and Cordelia McClain.
Here are soundbites and videos from SHAPE: