No doubt, the final installment of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s brilliant Brother/Sister trilogy is sweet. While it doesn’t quite reach the lofty heights of parts one (In the Red and Brown Water) and two (The Brothers Size), we’re left in awe of the foreboding storm and the young playwright’s talent. In Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet now playing at A.C.T. in San Francisco, we also witness the potential for the next generation of theater, and it doesn’t look one iota like Hello, Dolly.
Set in the bayous of Louisiana, days before Hurricane Katrina strikes, Marcus is haunted by dreams of a man adorned in white. The coming of age story has Marcus (A.C.T. Master of Fine Arts Program student Richard Prioleau) piecing together his past — who was his father? — and searching for his own identity, amidst the struggles of life in the housing projects.
Are you sweet, Marcus?
In place of plot, characters drive the story. Marcus’ relationship with Osha (Shinelle Azoroh) and Shaunta (Omozé Idehenre) may or may not be about more than just friendship. Shua (Tobie L. Windham), a young man from the Bronx, yearns to have some alone time with Marcus deep in the moonlit bayous. Meanwhile Aunt Elegua (Margo Hall) suspects Marcus might not be like the other boys, and cheekily confronts him in one of the best scenes of the play.
Once again, A.C.T. gives the production an Architectural Digest aesthetic.
Lines on the expansive set are modern, never cluttered. A horizontal projection screen at the rear serves as the prophecy of weather channels; sunny with clear, blue skies! rain and dark clouds ahead! a storm brewing! It’s beautifully integrated. Simple sliding pieces serve as small homes, and a riser acts as a park bench, and a bed.
The acting is solid, though, at times, the actors appear dwarfed by the size of the majestic hall; the dream sequences, however, work extremely well as the sense of mystery and fear are heightened by the large dark spaces, and dramatic white and blue lighting and effects.
Have you ever wished it would just all get washed away?
In the lead Richard Prioleau is the perfect proof point for the efficacy of the A.C.T. acting school. He carries the production with equal parts charisma and consternation — albeit, at times, somewhat restrained and stiff.
Bay Area favorite Margo Hall, who I last saw in a superb performance in Trouble in Mind at Aurora Theatre in Berkeley, once again excels in several roles; she has a gift for making dialog crackle, and her body language, especially as Aunt Elegua, is a delight, just this side of over-the-top.
However, Marcus is not McCraney’s best example. The pop culture references — Jamie Lee Curtis, Usher, among others — work against the poetic, cutting edge delivery exemplified in the previous installments. The musical “sunshine” number feels oddly out of place, with an awkward backing track.
And, overall, this production feels soft, despite some edgy, sexual overtones.
Whereas In the Red and Brown Water showcased dialog and song, and The Brothers Size showcased testosterone and street sensibility, Marcus achieves neither, nor does it have a memorable style of its own. Instead it feels somewhat ordinary, by comparison; the confused teen, the sexual ambiguity, the search for identity are familiar elements.
Nevertheless, the bayou, Katrina foreshadowing, and savvy dialog occasionally boil over and remind us why this is such an exciting event for Bay Area theater.
Just as the San Francisco Giants achieved the pinnacle of success with a World Series pennant, the three-theater (Marin Theatre Company, Magic Theatre, A.C.T.) presentation of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s work is, by all accounts, a championship-worthy project.
Marcus; or The Secret of Sweet
By Tarell Alvin McCraney
American Conservatory Theater (A.C.T.), San Francisco
3.5 out of 5 stars
Directed by Mark Rucker
Starring Shinelle Azoroh, Margo Hall, Omozé Idehenre, Jared McNeill, Richard Prioleau, Gregory Wallace
Through November 21, 2010