Orestes Development

20. October, 2011 Theater No comments


Show #94: Clementine in the Lower 9, TheatreWorks, October 8.

Jack Koenig, Laiona Michelle and Matt Jones in Clementine in the Lower 9. Photo by Mark Kitaoka.

By Sam Hurwitt

At first things seem to be going so well in TheatreWorks’ world premiere of Dan Dietz’s play Clementine in the Lower 9. Not well for the characters in it, necessarily: Their house in New Orleans’s Ninth Ward has been nearly destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, and they’re waiting for the man of the house, a musician, to return from Houston, hoping that he made some money there and that he hasn’t gone back on drugs. No, it seems to be going well because the people holding down the home front are so compelling.

J.B. Wilson’s set of a wrecked wooden house is a knockout, with debris piled up all around the edges of the stage. Sound designer Jake Rodriguez whips up a loud heavy storm to open the show, and then a narrator emerges to tell a charming fable about how the sound of jazz wooed the gods down from Olympus to take up residence in New Orleans. Zeus, he says, “lives right down the road. His house is a little nicer than yours, but nobody ever accused life of being fair.”

Kenny Brawner has an infectious exuberance as the narrator, or the chorus if you will. When he’s injected into the story later on as a more bittersweet character, he makes you feel that too, even if as written his relation to the story feels tentative and underdeveloped.

Brawner also acts as pianist and vocalist in a four-piece band that plays swinging New Orleans jazz and blues numbers by composer, arranger, and musical director Justin Ellington. It’s not a musical per se, and characters don’t burst into song spontaneously, but there are songs strung throughout the show, between scenes and occasionally furthering the plot, especially when someone else sits down at the piano. The lyrics—I’m guessing by Dietz—are adequate, nothing special, but Ellington’s music is delightful.

When the story begins, Clementine and her 19-year-old son Reginald are watching and waiting on the roof for her husband Jaffy to come home. Flickering candles dot the roof to greet him—also because it’s night and they still have no electricity.

Laiona Michelle is formidable as Clementine, the sharp and strong matriarch of the family. Even before it’s clear that she’s Reginald’s mother (she doesn’t look much older), it’s very clear that Clementine’s in charge. The two of them have great, playful interactions where she says he knows what she’s going to say but she’s going to say it anyway, and they recite her oft-repeated spiel about being his mother (only said once in the play itself). Matt Jones nicely balances good humor and simmering resentment as Reginald, a good kid who dearly loves his family but has learned the hard way not to trust his father, and isn’t shy about letting him know it .

The trouble comes when dad comes home. It’s obvious the minute Jack Koenig’s Jaffy enters, wearing a dark red and gray suit of smudgy-looking stripes courtesy of costumer Cathleen Edwards, that this guy is a total cheeseball. He has an oily sort of charm, but all his joking around and singing just feels like a guy trying way too hard to please because he knows he doesn’t have much else going for him. It’s hard to fathom what Clementine sees in the guy, because the more he tries to be likeable the more obnoxious he seems, and not in an entertaining way.

The family is also haunted by the loss of Reginald’s baby sister, Iffy, whom Jaffy lost in the flood after she handed him up his trumpet. “It was the water, Jay, not you,” Clementine reassures him. “I’m saving my rage for the water.”

It turns out, though, that she has enough rage to go around, because Jaffy’s not through screwing up. He has money, but not because he ever found work; he just got lucky and won the lottery. But much, much worse, he’s brought along a teenage junkie called Cassy he picked up in an alley by a Houston convenience store and who he says is some kind of prophet; she’d told him that he’d win the lottery.

Clementine, Reginald and Jaffy may not ring a bell as names go, but Iffy and Cassy should. The play’s described as “a blues riff on Aeschlyus’ Agamemnon,” and as soon as it starts incorporating elements of the Oresteia it starts to go off the rails.

Cassy is played by Jayne Deely, and it’s no reflection on her that the play would be better if her character were not in it at all.  The crazed prophet Cassandra is a hard role to pull off at the best of times, and the way she’s written here it’s impossible.

Her name isn’t really Cassy; that’s just what Jaffy calls her because he doesn’t know her name and she doesn’t object. She doesn’t talk much—in fact, at first it seems like she’s mute because all she does is stand around twitching a lot. But soon enough all she’s doing is wailing “Apollo!” and vomiting a lot. She’s scared of Apollo, and by extension the sun, because he puts things in her head and makes her say things.              Nothing really comes of this mythological element. It’s just there to make the story more Oresteia-like, or perhaps Oresteia-lite. All that’s missing is another daughter named Elly. Also, as a prophetess Cassy leaves a lot to be desired.  She has no problem predicting the small stuff, but when there’s something big brewing around her, she’s totally oblivious to it.

Dietz’s script has some great lines, such as Jaffy’s lament, “Do you know what it’s like to pick up my horn every day, put it to my mouth and taste blood?” or Clementine’s angry wisecrack, “I’m sorry, I must have left my methadone clinic in my other pants.” She and Reginald are really the lifeblood of the play, so you don’t want to get on their bad side, because where they go, the audience is right there with them.

That’s why it’s a shame that this turns out to be less of a New Orleans story than a pastiche of an ancient Greek one—because ultimately it’s a watered-down version (and that is in no way intended as a flood pun), and the reasons given for important divergences from the original tale are hackneyed and unconvincing.   If you’re going to do this story at all, you may as well do it all the way.

Clementine in the Lower 9
Through October 30
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro St.
Mountain View, CA

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