For their last production at the Atrium before moving into their new home, CVRep is presenting a dark comedy which is both laugh-out-loud funny and has much to say about the act of artistic creation, the many forms that racism and prejudice can take, as well as questions of identity and how we perceive ourselves versus how others see us. It’s a lot of ground to cover in a one-act but, for the most part, James Ijames’ play pulls it off.
The plot is set into motion when Gus (Paul David Story), an artist with a minor amount of success, asks his old school chum Jane (Charlotte Munson), who is now curator of the renowned Parnell museum, to include his paintings in the upcoming ‘New America’ exhibit. When he is told no because he is the wrong demographic, he is outraged. After all, he is a gay man and in his mind’s eye he is just as oppressed as every other minority and therefore deserves to be in that show. Staunchly determined to have his work displayed at the Parnell, he hires an actress by his partner Tanner (Anthony Saludares) named Vanessa (Franceli Chapman) to portray the Lesbian, African-American female artist Balkonaé Townsend, the pseudo-creator of all the paintings actually done by Gus. With all of Balkonaé’s backstory in place, she is introduced to Jane who naturally jumps at the chance to make Balkonaé a part of the new exhibit. Not wanting to give away too much, I will just say that the remainder of the play is a constantly shifting landscape of identities and entitlements making the line between reality and fiction blur more and more as the play approaches its shocker of an ending.
The cast, as always with CVREP, is first rate and Ron Celona’s astute direction and pacing gets the most out of everyone.
Ms. Munson as the curator Jane brings just the right amount of snobbish art-world attitude to the role without pushing her into a total caricature. As Tanner, Gus’ Asian-American boyfriend, Mr. Saludares creates a multi-layered character by allowing us to see his loving side at the same time as he is angered and even shocked by Gus’ sense of entitlement and his plan to get his work displayed at the museum. This keeps his character sympathetic and one with whom the audience can care about as opposed to simply being a nag and a nay-sayer.
Gus is not an easy character to like. He is often times self-centered and self-pitying and insensitive to the hardships others, notably in the context of this play African-Americans, face on a near daily basis. By equating the difficulties he has faced as a gay man (which apparently are not many) to those of African-Americans in this country, incites anger and rightfully so from those around him. Yet Mr. Story lets Gus project enough boyish charm as well as a deep-seated passion for his art to prevent Gus from becoming the villain, if you will, of the play. Despite some of the egotistical and ignorant statements that he makes, the audience is still rooting for him.
The strongest performance of the show is delivered by Ms. Chapman in the role of Vanessa/Balkonaé and a couple of genuinely funny appearances as the Goddess Diana, as in Miss Ross. The differentiation she creates between the actress and the character she is playing is so solid that you instantly know who she is at any moment. Each has laugh lines which, due to the extreme differences between them, have to be delivered in totally different styles yet must still land the laugh. No easy feat, I assure you, but one she pulls off flawlessly. Brava!
Though not a perfect play; some plot devices happen a bit too quickly and/or conveniently to really be believable, the playwright delivers enough genuine humor as well as covering some serious issues worthy of reflection in the days after seeing the play, that the end result is a most satisfying and provocative evening in the theatre.
WHITE is playing at The Atrium from now until Feb. 17. For further information go to www.CVREP.org.
The next production is Chess (I must confess, one of my favorite musicals) and will be a great choice as the inaugural production at the new location, the former IMAX Theatre in Cathedral City.