Lynn Nottage

Taken to Tusk: Westport's Clunky Mlima's Tale

Review of Mlima’s Tale, Westport Country Playhouse

The best thing to say about Lynn Nottage’s Mlima’s Tale, at Westport Country Playhouse through October 19 directed by Mark Lamos, is that it’s well intentioned. A polemic against the cruel and devastating slaughter of elephants in order to harvest their tusks for the ivory trade, the play is less a satisfying night of theater than a protracted glimpse behind the scenes in the illegal market for ivory. The play is based on an article, “The Ivory Highway” by Damon Tabor, and the show feels like a dogged effort to amplify nonfiction with theatrical touches, most of which lack any particular bite—whether of satire or sentiment.

Mlima (Jermaine Rowe) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of  Mlima’s Tale , directed by Mark Lamos (Photos by Carol Rosegg)

Mlima (Jermaine Rowe) in Westport Country Playhouse’s production of Mlima’s Tale, directed by Mark Lamos (Photos by Carol Rosegg)

The gripping and memorable opening introduces us to the elephant, Mlima, an “old tusker” (indicating the age and size of his tusks) played with riveting presence by Jermaine Rowe, who speaks of his time-won integration into his environment, one that used to be free of “the acrid stench of men.” Now, though he lives on a protected reserve, he is a prime target for poachers. The brutal death of Mlima ends the first scene and is the last dramatic event to occur in this 90 minute display of short scenes, all comprised of dialogues between two characters, all complicit in the illegal trade for poor Mlima’s much valued tusks.

Most of the scenes play like dialogues of exposition in B-movies, an association that comes to mind because the three actors—Adit Dileep, Jennean Farmer, and Carl Hendrick Louis—affect a variety of accents that are at times more attention-drawing than smoothly natural. Rather than making the scenes feel more real, the effect is to make us aware of how staged it all is, an effect that might be used to create a certain satiric point—about how differences (of ethnicity, nationality, class status) are rather secondary to shared greed, perhaps—but that doesn’t seem the intention. In any case, the dialogue, as delivered, does little to open to us the worlds these people—a poacher, a game warden, a government official, a ship captain, a smuggler, a collector of objets d’art, and a master ivory carver, among others—actually inhabit. We may reflect on Hannah Arendt’s oft-cited line about the “banality of evil,” but scene after scene making the same point—for lack of any other—is dull indeed. And “evil” as such is remote as well. What we see instead is the ingenuity by which humans are able to capitalize on whatever or whomever invites exploitation while lacking in sufficient protection.

Mlima (Jermaine Rowe), Poacher (Jennean Farmer), Official (Carl Hendrick Louis)

Mlima (Jermaine Rowe), Poacher (Jennean Farmer), Official (Carl Hendrick Louis)

The further we get from the act of poaching that resulted in Mlima’s death, the more static the scenes become. Early on, the dialogue between the poacher (Farmer) and a corrupt official (Louis) might create the sense that we’re going to see how the killing of Mlima plays out within Kenya. But that would require staying with one or another set of characters. Instead, Nottage’s conceit is—as Mark Lamos points out in his introductory notes “From the Artistic Director”—to employ Arthur Schnitzler’s technique, in La Ronde, of presenting a series of scenes in which a character introduced in one scene—here, the poacher, for instance—is present in the next scene with a new character, who then has a scene with a new character, who then is in the subsequent scene, and so on. Throughout, Mlima appears as a baleful presence who, as a scene ends, walks up to the newly introduced character and smears them with the white paint which adorns his own body.

A customs officer (Carl Hendrick Louis), a ship captain (Adit Dileep), seated; Mlima (Jermaine Rowe), standing

A customs officer (Carl Hendrick Louis), a ship captain (Adit Dileep), seated; Mlima (Jermaine Rowe), standing

The set is mainly decorated by Yana Birykova’s projections, which include graphic photos of violence enacted upon an elephant carcass as well as sayings and titles that create a kind of folkloric subtext to the events, as if the drama were going to become a morality tale of sorts. Not all of the text can be seen from all seats, but it doesn’t matter much. Indeed, much of the tech is simply window-dressing, at times—as in a photo of a shop full of Chinese lanterns—distractions more than evocations.

Arguably, the play might do more than an article in a magazine can to get a rise of moral indignation from an audience. And yet the detachment we feel toward these characters only underlines how—once the breath has left Mlima’s body—what becomes of his tusks is immaterial, even if their material—ivory—is the whole point of their market interest. The park warden (Dileep) vows to keep the tusks in Kenya to honor Mlima but that is easier said than done. After that, it’s merely a case of what interest we find in how the tusks get to the carver and then to a collector. Once upon a time, such a play might’ve ended with the ivory gracing the keyboard of a piano upon which a musical genius attained to glory, but we can be said to be safely past those days.

The tragedy of the fate of such great elephants as Mlima is real. Mlima’s Tale, however, feels rather less than tragic. It’s depressing and infuriating, made more so by this uninspiring production.

Mlima’s Tale
By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Mark Lamos

Scenic Design: Claire DeLiso; Costume Design: Fabian Fidel Aguilar; Lighting Design: Isabella Byrd; Composer: Michael Keck; Projection: Yana Birykova; Choreographer: Jeffrey Page; Fight Director/Intimacy Coach: Michael Rossmy; Props Supervisor: Samantha Shoffner; Dialect Coach: Julie Foh; Dramaturg: Liam Lonegan; Production Stage Manager: Chris De Camillis

Cast: Adit Dileep, Jennean Farmer, Carl Hendrick Louis, Jermaine Rowe

Westport Country Playhouse
October 1-19, 2019

If the Corset Fits

Review of Intimate Apparel, Playhouse on Park

Intimate Apparel, by two-time Pulitzer-winning playwright Lynn Nottage, is a well-meaning play that's a bit unsatisfyingly stodgy. It plays to soap opera expectations about the tricky course of love, even as it strives to make more of the familiar types that inhabit its world. Its humor is low-key and its evocation of behaviors that might be deemed taboo rather tame. Nottage restricts her tone to the borderline gentility of a working African-American woman just after the turn of the century in lower Manhattan. The drama plays close to plausible reality, even as Nottage’s situations gesture, here and there, to more contemporary views of romance and empowerment.

Esther (Darlene Hope) (photos: Curt Henderson)

Esther (Darlene Hope) (photos: Curt Henderson)

Esther, played by Darlene Hope with winning simplicity, is plain-spoken and plain-looking, with talented hands as a seamstress and designer of clothes, and a vision of herself as the future owner of a beauty parlor. Her tribulations stem from loneliness and the dream of a man to share her life. George Armstrong (Beethovan Oden) is a wild card from out of nowhere. A worker on the Panama Canal who hears of Esther through a fellow worker who had been a congregant at Esther’s church, George addresses himself to Esther through letters for the entire first Act. He seems a steady man looking for a church-going woman stateside, but is he sincere?

As directed by Dawn Loveland Navarro at Playhouse on Park, the play’s episodic structure—the two Acts are comprised of scenes each named after an article of clothing—becomes more problematic due to the production’s drawn-out pacing. There’s a lot of putting on and off of clothes and that tends to slow things down, as does the spread-out staging. We follow Esther through a series of interactions with a small-town’s worth of acquaintances, moving from one setting to another: the room in the boarding-house that she rents from Mrs. Dickson (Xenia Gray); the boudoir of the upper-class white woman, Mrs. Van Buren (Anna Laura Strider), who buys stylish corsets Esther custom-makes; the piano lounge of a prostitute, Mayme (Zuri Eshun), who also buys lingerie Esther designs; and the fabric shop of an Orthodox Jew, Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin). Esther, played with a shy savvy that makes her an interesting and interested interlocutor, brings a certain level of pining to each space and meets with persons who are generally more experienced, or refined, or opinionated, or established.

As with a Chekhov play, there’s a lot of time spent establishing the tone and outlook of each character, if only so that there can be a plot development on each front in Act Two, after George in the flesh ceases to be a romantic fantasy and Esther must cope with a role that gives her more grief than status or satisfaction. The play is better in Act Two if only because Esther starts to have misgivings and regrets and even finds herself to be a romantic interest on more than one front and in a triangle on another.

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin)

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mr. Marks (Ben MacLaughlin)

Nottage plays with the plotting of sentimental fiction, where any character introduced is either a romantic interest or a rival to the heroine, and there’s a certain amount of wry awareness to make that work. Yet Esther’s reactions tend to be all-too predictable, even if we share her viewpoint enough to accept them as—to use a word with a certain relevance, both as dated expression and thematic pun—“fitting.” We might find ourselves wishing that Esther would expressly not don a corset in an effort to spark the lukewarm ardor of her husband, or that she might step across lines of class, race, and hetero-normativity to fire it up with Mrs. Van Buren, but such acts would be even more unlikely than some of the things that do happen here. The facet of the play that must maintain our engagement is the meandering arc of Esther’s sentimental education.

We might like to imagine what a high caliber cast would do with these roles—which all call for a kind of consummate character-acting that isn’t so easily achieved. At Playhouse, certain key elements seem lacking. As Mr. Marks, Ben MacLaughlin seems more like a fond shop assistant rather than a man who might be of interest to Esther. There’s little to make us feel the gravitas of an attraction to or from Esther. Her interest in him seems to stem from the fact that Marks, who has a prospective arranged bride he has never seen, is the only sympathetic man in Esther’s environs (Manhattan is a rather sparsely populated area, apparently). As the other lonely character who might find a soul-mate in Esther, Mrs. Van Buren is a typical desperate housewife, wineglass in hand, and it’s unlikely anyone will find her very sympathetic.

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mayme (Zuri Eshun)

Esther (Darlene Hope), Mayme (Zuri Eshun)

As Mrs. Dickson, Xenia Gray has a certain cheery, if nosy, wisdom, but her disbelief in the dream version of George falls, of course, on deaf ears. As the prostitute who could’ve been a pianist or at least a showgirl, Zuri Eshun plays well to type: she’s forthright, unromantic, genuinely fond of Esther and able to toss out lines about not being on speaking terms with God. Through no fault of her own—other than her beauty and availability—she comes between Esther and George.

Esther (Darlene Hope), George (Beethovan Oden)

Esther (Darlene Hope), George (Beethovan Oden)

In having to run a gamut from fantasy figure, to awkward reality, to surly heel, Beethovan Oden underplays the unpleasantness of George, which helps us accept one of the more subtle ambiguities of Nottage’s script. George might be a mean-spirited opportunist, but he might also simply be the kind of man of his time who sees a woman as a means to an end. It’s to the play’s credit that George’s failings, immense from Esther’s view, are not such a big deal in his view of his self-interest. And the tension between his world and our contemporary sensibility helps us find in Esther an inspiring resilience, even if the compromises and dreams and temptations she foregoes seem, as drama, a bit pro forma.

Intimate Apparel
By Lynn Nottage
Directed by Dawn Loveland Navarro

Sound Designer: Joel Abbott; Scenic Designer: Marcus Abbott; Lighting Designer: Marcus Abbott; Costume Designer: Kate Bunce; Stage Manager: Corin Killins; Properties & Set Dressing: Pamela Lang, Eileen O’Connor

Cast: Zuri Eshun, Xenia Gray, Darlene Hope, Ben MacLaughlin, Beethovan Oden, Anna Laura Strider

Playhouse on Park
February 14-March 4, 2018