THE BASICS: AN OCTOROON, a 2014 play by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, directed by Peter Hinton starring André Sills, Patrick McManus, Ryan Cunningham, Vanessa Sears, et. al. runs through October 14 at the Royal George Theatre, 85 Queen Street, Niagara-on-the-Lake. www.shawfest.com or 1-800-511-7429. Theater opens ½ hour before curtain, full service cozy bar in the downstairs lounge, great coffee, snacks. Runtime: a little over 2 hours and 30 minutes including one intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: In this play within a play, we first meet playwright “BJJ” (Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, get it?) as played by André Sills, in his underwear, at a makeup table, explaining that he wanted to revive an 1859 melodrama called “The Octoroon” which takes place on a slave plantation called “Terrebone,” but he couldn’t get any of his “white guy” friends to play the overtly racist characters, so he’s going to do that himself, as he slathers on white face makeup. Sills then takes on the roles of both the kindly George, who has returned from England to inherit a plantation, and also the role of the evil M’Closky who has designs on the place and on the innocent Zoe, who is 1/8 black (an “octoroon”) and who may be a slave (and therefore M’Closky’s property along with the plantation) or might be free to marry George depending on a plot device. And, along the way, we have white actors applying blackface and redface to play the various roles required. We go back and forth between pre-American Civil War theatrics and post-Obama racial analysis. This is what theater is supposed to be. Thank you Artistic Director Tim Carroll for including AN OCTOROON in the lineup.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: AN OCTOROON provides the big breakout role for André Sills, in his third year with The Shaw Festival, having been in last season’s two race oriented plays: Athol Fugard’s “MASTER HAROLD”…AND THE BOYS as well as Shaw’s THE ADVENTURES OF THE BLACK GIRL IN SEARCH OF GOD. And Sills is also currently in THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III, also at The Royal George. He’s a busy guy, but never more so than in this production, where, towards the end, he plays George and M’Closky simultaneously, wearing a suit that is half one character and half the other.
With his immense talent, and playing the three “lead” roles of playwright BJJ, George, and M’Closky, this could have been all about Sills, but thanks to the Shaw’s deep pool of talent (including Gillian Gallow, Bonnie Beecher, and Ryan de Souza who provided design, lighting, and music) and a fine ensemble cast, the evening feels balanced but very powerful.
The playwright George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), for whom The Shaw Festival is named, consistently explored themes of imperialism, domination, and economic disadvantage. And we are still dealing with those problems today, if not military imperialism, then cultural imperialism, cultural domination, and systematic economic oppression. So, this play honors the legacy of Shaw, is true to the mission of The Shaw Festival, and is about as current as you can get.
In general, I do not like “metatheater” where the play is aware of itself as a product of a culture. I think that’s our job as audience to see that. But while AN OCTOROON is a play about putting on a play, the writing, the production values, the acting are at such a high level that it’s not distracting at all.
The Shaw Festival (www.shawfest.com) continues to offer plays into October. While MIDDLETOWN ends on September 10; WILDE TALES and Shaw’s ANDROCLES AND THE LION run through October 7; and 1837: THE FARMER’S REVOLT ends on October 8 (note that Thanksgiving Day in Canada and Columbus Day in the U.S. are celebrated on Monday, October 9). Looking at the final weekend, DRACULA; 1979 (about Prime Minister Joe Clark); and AN OCTOROON end on October 14; while Shaw’s SAINT JOAN, the musical ME AND MY GIRL; THE MADNESS OF GEORGE III; and DANCING AT LUGHNASA close the Festival’s offerings on Sunday, October 15, 2017. Also note that Sunday performances are now “an hour early” at both 1:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m.
Rating: Four and half Buffalos
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!