Thursday, May 13, 2010

Jacob's House

(Again, I'm good pals with most folks involved with this production, wrote a piece for their ForePlay series leading up to this show, and have worked with one of the actors—Zack Calhoon—in Nosedive a couple of times. So, grain of salt, all that. Plus, I paid a discounted price on my ticket.)

Flux Theatre Ensemble's latest production, Jacob's House, is an Americanized retelling of the Old Testament story of Jacob. It's at times fun, confusing, thought-provoking, frustrating, touching, muddled, and cathartic. Do you need to know the original story to follow and understand the play? No. Would it help to know it? I would imagine so. As I am unfamiliar with the original story, I did find myself getting lost on more than one occasion in the first act. But more on that later.

First, a little bit of background on this show for those of you who don't already know: Flux was originally set to mount a production of JB, Archibald MacLeish's modern retelling of the story of Job. However, the company was denied the rights at the 11th hour. Rather than cancel their spring production, Flux's artistic director August Schulenburg wrote a new script over the course of a weekend for the already-assembled cast based not on Job, but on Jacob wrestling the angel. (There is however a winking nod to JB, or at least the story of Job, in the script.)

To harp on some minor structural flaws in a script written under duress in mere days—a stunningly impressive feat—seems horrifically unfair and petty, especially considering how impressive the end result is. So, lest I seem like a crank, let me get all of my criticisms out of the way up front, since this is a show I ultimately liked and recommend.

The play centers around the offspring of Jacob, who recently died. They’ve just come from the funeral and are at his house, waiting to see who inherits it (and all its contents). Joe and Dinah believe they should get it, much to the dismay of Tamar, who became part of the family through marriage. Joe and Dinah—particularly Dinah—doesn’t believe Tamar should be entitled to anything of their father’s, but Tamar obviously disagrees, claiming she knew a side of dear old (and I do mean old) dad that Joe and Dinah never did.

So, through flashbacks and recreations, the siblings air out dirty laundry and revisit tales from their—and Jacob’s—past. And here’s where I can offer my two major criticisms and get on with the show.

The first act centers around stories that deal with Jacob’s childhood, his upbringing, how he became prosperous, how he met the love of his life, his wife, and how he became—depending on your viewpoint—blessed or cursed. The first act is very much all over the map, with sometimes achronological flashbacks that go off on tangents of their own.

For example, the scene where Jacob meets his true love’s father, although offering crucial information for the second act and is in and of itself fun, due in part to Bianca LaVerne Jones’s marvelous portrayal of the father, it derails the primary thrust of the flashback, which is the story of how Jacob fell in love with Rachel but married her sister instead.

All of this is a long roundabout way of stating that I often wondered where the show was going in act one, and sometimes had difficulty finding my bearings or locking onto the main narrative thread. I kept forgetting about Jacob’s exceedingly long life and couldn’t pinpoint when he got this gift or acknowledged it.

Also (and this is a minor thing that didn’t cause too much confusion), during the flashbacks, sometimes the actors playing Joe, Dinah and Tamar would step in and play younger versions of themselves, and sometimes other actors would step in to play them. Although it’s not too confusing, I’m not 100% sure why this inconsistent device was used.

Which isn't to say the first act isn't fun or interesting. There are many tales about the recently departed father that are compelling. It's just that in the first half of the show, I sometimes had trouble figuring out what these stories were all adding up to.

Aside from this, my confusion dissipated in the second act, where the narrative threads tighten and we’re presented with some very compelling stories that make up the Big Picture. (And really, if an audience member stops being confused before curtain call, the playwright’s done their job.) Specifically, there are two tales—where Dinah’s parents (unwittingly?) destroy her fiancé’s life (and in turn, Dinah’s chance of marrying the love of her life), and where Jacob bargains bits and pieces of himself with an angel for just a little more life during an extended chess game with Tamar—that are touching, heartbreaking and utterly absorbing. Thanks to the writing, directing and performances, theses scenes are almost worth the price of admission alone.

In the second act, we learn more about the "gifts" Jacob has been given by a nameless angel, and how said gifts have affected him, his offspring and really, everyone around him.

The actors are all great in this, particularly Matthew Archambault as Jacob and Isaiah Tanenbaum as the nameless angel who shows up from time to time to either bless or taunt Jacob. They inhabit their roles as if they were made to play them. Zack Calhoon, Jane Lincoln Taylor and Jessica Angleskahn are perfectly cast as the squabbling heirs, Tiffany Clementi and Kelli Holsopple play of each other well as the two sisters vying for Jacob’s love, and hell; they look like they could practically be sisters in real life. Johnna Adams, the aforementioned Jones, and Anthony Wills, Jr. deftly play multiple roles throughout (I particularly liked one bit where Johnna Adams, playing a young Tamar, tricks one of Jacob’s dim-witted sons to do her toilet-cleaning work for her).

And the previously-mentioned quibble aside, Kelly O'Donnell's direction is excellent. She seamlessly blends scenes from the past with those of the present in a way that's not cluttered or confusing.

Jason Paradine’s set is also astounding. Seriously, I didn’t think you could make the Access Gallery look like that. His set makes the space, which is really just one large dance studio look like the interior of an old cluttered with lifetimes of knickknacks and belongings.

Despite my reservations—and hey, maybe those more familiar with the original Biblical tale won’t be as sporadically lost as this ignoramus was—Jacob’s House makes for a night of compelling and fascinating theatre. It deals with a man blessed with fortune and long life, and shows the after-effects and consequences those gifts have on him and his family.

Wanting to learn to play chess,

James "Agnostic Moron" Comtois

Jacob’s House is running until May 22 at the Access Gallery on 380 Broadway. For tickets go here.

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