Comedy in need of direction
By John Angell GrantWhat is the value of a corpse? A stack of them on the battlefield generates thousands of dollars for two professional corpse processors in playwright Jon Bastian's dark comedy "Noah Johnson had a Whore." Renegade Theatre Experiment is running a production of the play at Historic Hoover Theater in San Jose.
In this business of corpse management, a white undertaker and his black assistant follow the battlefields. They pick through piles of body parts, pulling gold teeth from mouths, and taking watches and jewelry. The play is set during the American Civil War.
This is the Bay Area premiere of Bastian's play, which was first produced in 1992 by Orange County's South Coast Repertory, one of the country's most active and prestigious new play producing organizations.
South Coast's many world premieres have included shows by Bay Area playwrights Philip Kan Gotanda, David Henry Hwang, Stanford's Amy Freed and many others.
In producing such work on the new plays circuit, Renegade Theatre Experiment has been marketing itself in recent years as the South Bay's voice for alternative theater.
In Renegade's current production, scenic designer Jennifer Jigour's enormous pile of random body parts at center stage manages an appropriate balance between grim and comical. As the two undertakers talk, this play owes a nod to the seminal, existential dark comedies of Samuel Beckett.
"Noah Johnson Had a Whore" is a ghoulish story. As the two men (John Baldwin and Manfred B. Hayes) sort through their pile of body parts, one of them hopes happily for "a long, profitable war."
Soon a woman adventuress (Arcadia Conrad) appears on the scene, asking the two men to root through their pile of body parts and see if they can find her dead husband's corpse. Before long, the three start pulling scams on each other.
The numbing gruesomeness of "Noah Johnson Had a Whore" shows us how the pursuit of money can turn people dishonest, separating us from our deeper spiritual centers. Says one of the undertakers, "The truth gets you nothing. The appearance of truth gets you the world."
It's a ghoulish story, but an effective reminder of the ghoulish business world we sometimes live in, where we'd prefer not to look to closely at the economic skullduggery that takes place, because its truths are too horrifying and too painful.
On the downside, the script can be a didactic one that lectures on how war discriminates against the poor and disenfranchised. Further, the character and motivations of the woman adventuress seem contrived. The play's rickety moral melodrama builds to a denouement and wrap-up that are increasingly thin.
As far as the acting goes, the strongest moments occur when undertaker Bentonville (Baldwin) drifts off into his memories of the past. Director Jenn BeVard could have helped her actors find more of these kinds of moments.
The real Achilles' heel of this production lies in the directing. What beginner director BeVard seems to have contributed to the production rests mostly in the area of traffic control; moving the actors around the stage.
But directing a play is much more than that. Particularly with a play like "Noah Johnson Had a Whore," which is an actor's play, the performers need help from the director to discover their deeper motivational subtexts.
There's little of that texture in this production, making it often feel like unskillful community theater.
If Renegade and other local grass roots theaters want to be taken seriously as artistic enterprises, they must solve the community director problem and think carefully about whom they hire to direct their shows. A strong director can help actors play to their strengths and find their characters. No single person is more important than the director in these kinds of shows.
Rating: 2 1/2 stars
E-mail John Angell Grant at email@example.com.