Saturday, February 04, 2017

Gritty 'Fucking A' at Iron Crow

Jessica Bennett and Kaya Vision Photo: Rob Clatterbuck
Let’s get down to it: The title of this play is a vulgar, slang expression usually reflecting triumph or joy in response to a piece of unexpected positive news.  “I won $500 million the Power Ball drawing”…Fucking A!”  “Trump’s election was overturned…Fucking A!”  I’m not sure which is the more welcome development.  #hocoarts 

Nonetheless, there’s not much joy emanating from the plot of Fucking A, Suzan-Lori Parks’ expressionistic play being performed at the Baltimore Theatre Project as Iron Crow Theatre’s first main stage drama of the current season.  So, the title isn’t derived from any celebration.  In fact, the play, in keeping with Iron Crow’s dark play theme for the current season, is bleak with no happy ending to cheer.  

Where there is joy to behold, however, it is the stunningly performed version of the compelling play directed skillfully by Stephen Nunns.  The queerness that is a hallmark of Iron Crow productions is evidenced by the cross-gendering of several roles and is done so effectively.

The “A” is a riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 19th century novel The Scarlet Letter whereby the “A” was branded on those accused of adultery.  In this play, the ‘A’ denotes abortionist, which is stamped on the chest of the main character, Hester Smith (played brilliantly by Jessica Bennett).  Similar to The Scarlet Letter the main character of Fucking A is named Hester, a strong woman with an illegitimate child. 

Fucking A ambiguously takes place in “a small town in a small county in the middle of nowhere.” The set is emblematic of the dystopian view of society that Ms. Parks conveys in her work.

The story reveals a society dominated by class, power and corruption and how various members of these classes relate to the larger society. Hester, faced with a choice of going to prison or being an abortion provider, chose the latter.  Her son Boy Smith was taken at an early age to prison 20 years ago for stealing meat, which was instigated by a “rich bitch” who eventually became The First Lady of The Mayor. 

The core of the plot is Hester’s unending love for her son and her yearning to get Boy out of prison regardless of the cost, all the while she performs abortions on rich women.    Rather than divulge the twists and tragedies that transpire, I will leave it to the audience to experience. 

The play contains superbly executed dramatic scenes that are edgy and tense.  Such drama is interrupted by brief sardonic songs in which virtually all the main characters sing about themselves and provide a bit of comic relief.

One particular scene stands out. Hester believed it was Boy who had been granted a sought after and paid for furlough picnic.  The inmate taken to Hester by the guard is a character named Jailbait, played exceptionally by Kaya Vision.  Hester was ebullient over the prospect of this reunion, but that elation drops down an elevator shaft to utter despair when during the course of the picnic, she not only discovers that Jailbait isn’t actually her son, but that he admits to killing Boy (or so we think).

As Hester, who is involved in the majority of the scenes, Jessica Bennett turns in a tour-de-force performance. It gives the impression that the role was written for her in mind.

Ms. Bennett showcases her acting skills with her timing, voice inflections, facial expressions and body language.  When emotions run high, she delivers the requisite passion.  When the temperature is dialed back some, she gives the audience the needed softness in her persona.   And when called upon to sing, Ms. Bennett displays solid vocals.

Deirdre McAllister does well as Hester’s friend Canary Mary, a prostitute.  Her repartee with Ms. Bennett offers some comedic moments.

As the character Monster, an escaped convict who is being tracked down by bounty hunters, Javier Ogando’s performance is powerful and convincing.  He has a bright future in theatre if that is his path.

The three bounty hunters—Martha Robichaud, Kelly Hutchison and Caitlin Weaver (also plays Freedom Fund Lady who accepts payment from Hester so that Boy can attend Hester’s picnic)— are portrayed as males.  They do a great job as sadists on the prowl for Monster.
The Hunters Photo: Rob Clatterbuck

Another solid performance is given by Jared Swain as Butcher, a butcher no less, who takes a liking towards Hester.  The two enjoy warm moments together and Butcher, clad in a blood-stained apron, offers valuable butchering lessons to Hester (wink).

Rounding out the cast are Cricket Arrison as the First Lady, Hester’s antagonist; Jamil Johnson as The Mayor who cheats on The First Lady with Canary Mary; and Rebecca Dreyfuss playing the roles of the Guard and Scribe.

If there is any quibble, and it’s a minor one, it concerns the device of using alternate language when the women discuss sexuality and fertility.  This is part of the play, and projections onto the stage are normally used to translate the dialogue.  In this production, a voice over is used instead, but on a few occasions, the sound originating from off-stage collides with the verbiage on the stage rendering both incomprehensible.

Designed by Logan Lynch, the set is gritty and abstract in form with the main piece being a rustic wooden wall that holds lit candles with a ledge on top where as many as five cast members sit behind as if they are appellate judges.  There are also worn pieces of furniture located at different points around the stage, such as love seats, benches and a swing plus an assortment of tables and a bed that are moved around to accommodate the many scene changes.  

For the most part, the 11-member cast remains in view in separate areas of the stage throughout the play even if they are not featured in a particular scene.  The three musicians (Josh Eid-Reis, Percussion; Dave Engwall, Mandolin; and Kevin Krause, Guitar/Banjo) stay on the stage for the duration.

Iron Crow Theatre has found its niche with these edgy, queer and dark productions.  Fucking A is the latest entry in the catalogue of well-performed and directed plays and is highly recommended.

Running time. Two hours and 15 minutes with an intermission.

Advisory: Fucking A contains sexual situations, profanity and violence and is not suitable for children under age 18.

Fucking A plays weekends through February 12 (Thursday performance on February 9) at the Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., Baltimore, MD 21201.  For tickets, visit Iron Crow Theatre.   

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