Muddied waters

By Jeremy Walsh
ArtsPost staff writer

Driven by the momentum of a recently extended run, The Studio Theatre’s rendition of “In the Red and Brown Water” continues to entertain audiences with its heart-wrenching story and intimate performance style.

The theater’s performance last Wednesday night was no certainly exception, as production had the crowd hanging emotionally by a shoestring, ready to erupt in laughter or jointly gasp in shock and sorrow when the moment called for it.

Though the performance entertained most of the crowd for the evening, Studio’s adaptation deviated too greatly from the original version, as written by 29-year-old sensation Tarell Alvin McCraney, losing some of the work’s true potential, thus leaving the show simply an evening’s entertainment instead of emotionally lasting experience.

McCraney’s play tells the story of Oya, an excellent runner who turns down the opportunity to run track at college to care for her ailing mother.  When her mother dies, Oya enters a destructive, though sexually fulfilling relationship with the neighborhood’s cocky hotshot, Shango.

As the second act begins, Oya finds herself trapped in her neighborhood projects in Louisiana, without any foreseeable future now that her position on the college track team has been filled and stuck in an unfulfilling relationship with another man, Ogun, now that her beloved Shango has gone off to war.

Making matters worse for Oya is the fact all the other women in the neighborhood, also fresh out of high school, have children or are pregnant, but she finds herself consistently without child, convincing herself that she isn’t conceiving because it isn’t the right time.  Oya soon spirals out of control, after being continually mocked as a childless outcast and after being unable to snatch up Shango upon his return.

McCraney’s story hinges on the audience’s personal connection to Oya, her disillusionment, and her agonizingly unalterable situation.  Studio director Serge Seiden made an important adjustment to the script increasing the intimacy of the performance, choosing to use theater-in-the-round as the presentation style.

In some respects, using theatre-in-the-round was a powerful and inventive decision, especially considering the extremely close quarters of Studio’s Milton Theatre, which seats no more than 200 patrons with front-row viewers sitting no more than a foot from the stage.

As a result, the actors are so close to viewers that their characters’ emotions are on full display for every viewer to clearly see.  Additionally, the nature of the adaptation forced the actors to run on and off the stage quickly, continuously passing patrons at the ends of rows.

While these proximity characteristics eased the audience’s connection to the characters, theatre-in-the-round in close quarters does present the problem that actors can block other actors, causing some audience members to miss important expressions or lines, as happened occasionally during Wednesday’s performance.

Seiden’s other adaptive was far less impressive.  The actors spoke all stage directions aloud, which worked positively in some instances as many actors played the stage direction for laughs.  Yaegel T. Welch, who played Shango, excelled most at using the stage directions in his favor because almost every “enter Shango” got a rousing laugh.

Still, the laughs were not consistent because not every stage direction is important enough to point out to the audience.  Some verbalized stage directions distracted from the importance of the character’s actual lines, and thus, the overall use of stage directions detracted from the performance’s fluidity and emotionality.

However, where the play was most distracting were the actors.  That’s not to say the performances of the actors because many actors were brilliant in their roles.  Raushanah Simmons was particularly noteworthy as Oya; Simmons brought clearly conveyed the torment of young Oya, struggling to fight through her suffocating life in the projects.   Simmons brilliantly balanced the joy and optimism of Oya early in the play with the utter sorrow of the latter act.

Simmons is clearly a seasoned actress, perhaps a little too seasoned, as were her fellow actors portraying characters just out of high school.  The characters clearly in their late teens and early twenties were portrayed by performers in their late twenties and early thirties.  And while the actors brought powerful, utterly moving performances, their older appearances were confounding, turning an important story about characters only entering adulthood into one seemingly focused on highly immature young adults.

In the end, Studio Theatre presented an interesting twist on McCraney’s play that was, for the most part, engaging.  However, this non-traditional adaptation misplaced the story’s depth as a result of unnecessary alterations and misguided casting choices.  The result was an entertaining show that could have been so much more.