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Stage Capsules 

A Black Nativity, Noh Christmas Carol '99, The Turn of the Screw

Wednesday, Dec 15 1999
A Black Nativity
After years of holding off (and trying not to compete with the Allen Temple in Oakland, which performs it every year), the Lorraine Hansberry Theater has assembled its own Black Nativity. Langston Hughes' musical version of the birth of Christ, told as a gospel rave-up, doesn't actually have a permanent musical score -- companies pay for the rights to the script, then come up with their own music -- so this show virtually belongs to Arvis Strickling Jones, who composed or arranged a good part of the songs. Standards like "Oh, Jerusalem in the Morning" and "What You Gonna Name Your Baby" have traditional, recognizable tunes, but "No Good Shepherd Boy" is now, partly, a rap.

Most of the music and singing is driven and tight, but the choreography needs work: Members of the choir aren't always together, and Shenelle Eaton-Foster, as Mary, over-dances. Still, the cast has a whole lot of infectious fun, and the first act climaxes in a beautiful rendition of "Sweet Little Jesus Boy," by Ms. Strickling Jones, which is worth the price of admission. After Christ's arrival, the Nativity stops being a play altogether and the second act becomes a gospel show, led by André C. Andrée as the lanky, enthusiastic, glasses-wearing preacher. This half is shapeless (no plot) but exciting. Like Mark Morris' Hard Nut, Hughes' show revives musty Christmas feelings by playing them in a modern key, so it's good to have the Nativity in town at last, especially with Ms. Strickling Jones leading the band.

--Michael Scott Moore

Noh Christmas Carol '99
If reprising Dickens in a Japanese setting sounds weird, well -- it is. Theater of Yugen has revamped its Noh Christmas Carol for the millennium's end, and the new version has nothing fresh to say. Sukurooji Ebisu, or "Ebenezer Scrooge," is a cruel tightwad landlord in 19th- century Japan, who mistreats his employees and resents his son for being poor. His representative line is not "Bah, humbug!" but "If I had my way, every idiot who says 'Merry Christmas' should be boiled in his miso soup!" No one explains why Sukurooji's town is even celebrating Christmas. Mikio Hirata does a good enough job evoking Scroogery in stern-faced, stylized noh movement, but the show as a whole fails to meld its two traditions -- Victorian London and "Victorian" Japan just get stirred around for the hell of it, like sake and gin. Some multimedia effects are miscued, and most of the acting lacks energy (besides Hirata only Anne-Liese Juge, as Mariko and others, makes her characters work). Dickens' story was a shriveled chestnut before Theater of Yugen got to it, and Far East accents don't improve its taste.

--Michael Scott Moore

The Turn of the Screw
Playwright Jeffrey Hatcher's ingenious adaptation of Henry James' ghost story reduces the cast to two actors (a man and a woman), dispenses with scenery and props, and relies on lighting, acting, and James' language for mood and setting. The Chameleon Theater Company and director Walter Niejadlik have modi- fied Hatcher's concept somewhat -- they use three actresses. This works well except in the initial sequence between the children's uncle (Sonia Whitney, who later plays the boy Miles) and the governess (Lee Kiszonas). Hatcher has already tarted the scene up some (including a stupid pun on "aversion" and "a virgin"), but Niejadlik mistakenly instructs his actresses to leer salaciously at each other. He also inserts too many stylized, choreographed bits, the ac- tions of a director who doesn't trust the text -- or his actors. (For example, when the housekeeper, Mrs. Grose [Sharon Huff], tells of the ghosts, she rises trancelike, while the governess acts as if she's still seated.) Kiszonas, a formidable presence who's scarier than the ghosts, is miscast, and speaks frenziedly from the beginning instead of building to a climax. Whitney, however, is very good as the disturbed Miles, and Huff, when not off on some piece of business concocted by Niejadlik or serving as the stentorian, portentous narrator, is terrific. She provides sanity and mystery, heightening the tale's horror. Mary Williams' subtle, atmospheric lighting also lends substance to the shadows. Despite the production's obvious flaws, it's still damn spooky.

--Joe Mader


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