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Off Broadway Review: Suzan-Lori Parks’ ‘The Red Letter Plays’

With:
"In the Blood": Jocelyn Bioh, Michael Braun, Russell G. Jones, Ana Reeder, Saycon Sengbloh, Frank Wood. "F---ing A": Cameron Barnett, Brandon Victor Dixon, Ben Horner, Joaquina Kalukango, Marc Kudisch, Christine Lahti, Ruibo Qian, Elizabeth Stanley, Raphael Nash Thompson.

Signature Theater keeps finding new ways to support and nurture worthy playwrights and to showcase their work with true (i.e., non-commercial) integrity. This season, artistic director Paige Evans and departing executive director Erika Mallin have made it possible for Suzan-Lori Parks, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer of “Topdog/Underdog” and other highly original and consistently provocative plays, to revive two of her older dramas for separate simultaneous productions.

That’s a first for Signature. In another first for audiences, the dual productions present the rare opportunity to see in tandem the playwright’s distinctive responses to themes raised by Nathanial Hawthorne in “The Scarlet Letter.” In that classic novel, set in Puritan New England, Hester Prynne bears an illegitimate lovechild and is made to wear the scarlet letter “A” over her breast, so that decent people will recognize her as an adulteress and shun her company.  Although both her vengeful husband and her lily-livered lover add to Hester’s wretchedness, she outlasts them both.

When she got the idea for these two plays, Parks says she hadn’t even read “The Scarlet Letter.” Which only goes to prove that certain symbols are so powerful they become programmed in our DNA.  A yellow star will always bring to mind the branding of European Jews in wartime; a scarlet “A” will always identify the adulteress in a society. In the same way, almost 20 years after she wrote these two plays, the festering wound of the abortionist in “F—ing A” and the hateful name that drove an earth mother to violence in “In the Blood” — and more than 150 years after Hawthorne wrote “The Scarlet Letter: A Romance” — the same words, the same symbols, the same damning letter can still make women weep with shame and rage.

“In the Blood,” originally produced by the Public Theater and a finalist for the 2000 Pulitzer Prize, is set in the present day. Saycon Sengbloh (“Eclipsed”) gives a remarkable performance as Hester, an illiterate homeless woman who lives under a bridge with her five beloved children (“My treasures! My joy!”), each fathered by a different man. Like the heroine in Hawthorne’s novel, Hester is used and abused by people – her lovers, her social worker, her pastor, her best friend — who hypocritically profess to care for her. Unlike Hawthorne’s heroine, this Hester allows herself to be exploited, unwisely trusting that her carnal generosity will be rewarded.

“F—ing A” is set in some nameless lawless country in some long-ago (or possibly futuristic) era. Director Jo Bonney runs with the play’s sense of menace, working with designers Rachel Hauck (sets), Jeff Croiter (lighting), and Darron L. West (sound) to create an eerie landscape not unlike Brecht’s surreal American cities where evil runs rampant and anything goes. It’s a savage world where only the strong survive. Christine Lahti’s fiercely drawn Hester is a survivor, but so consumed with equally balanced passions of love and hate you can’t tear your eyes away from her.

Like Hawthorne’s Hester and the Hester of “In the Blood,” this Hester is a devoted mother, saving every coin she makes as an abortionist to buy her boy’s freedom from prison – or at least a precious afternoon where she might bring him a picnic lunch. Although sunk in misery, Hester is not without human resources. The neighborhood butcher (a wonderfully warm Raphael Nash Thompson) is in love with her and the Mayor’s saucy mistress, Canary Mary (Joaquina Kalukango, full of life), is a kindred soul and a true friend.  “Like me, you perform one of those disrespectable but most necessary services,” she consoles Hester.

But this Hester is hell-bent on vengeance, full of blinding rage for the Mayor’s wife (Elizabeth Stanley), who had Hester’s son sent to prison for stealing food from her household. Hester’s curses would make the Devil faint, and Lahti chews them with gritted teeth before spitting them out. With her wild hair and blood-soaked apron, she’s a maddened avenging angel.

Parks is ultimately much tougher on her Hesters than Hawthorne is on Hester Prynne. While no jury would ever convict these women for revenging themselves on their tormentors, their passions drive them to unspeakable violent acts that cost them what they love most. Hester Prynne would be horrified.

Off Broadway Review: Suzan-Lori Parks' 'The Red Letter Plays'

Signature Theater Center; “In the Blood” (199 seats) “F---ing A” (199 seats); $30 top.  "In the Blood": Opened Sept. 17, 2016; reviewed Sept. 13. Running time: ONE HOUR, 55 MIN. "F---ing A": Opened Sept. 11, 2017; reviewed Sept. 7. Running time: TWO HOURS, 20 MIN.

Production: A Signature Theater production of two plays in one act ("In the Blood") and two acts ("F---ing A") by Suzan-Lori Parks.

Creative: "In the Blood": Directed by Sarah Benson. Sets, Louisa Thompson; costumes, Montana Levi Blanco; lighting, Yi Zhao; sound, Matt Tierney; original song, Suzan-Lori Parks; choreographer, Annie-B Parson; fight director, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Terri K. Kohler. "F---ing A": Directed by Jo Bonney. Sets, Rachel Hauck; costumes, Emilio Sosa; lighting, Jeff Croiter; sound, Darron L. West; projections, Rocco Disanti; original songs, Suzan-Lori Parks; music direction, Todd Almond; choreographer, Tanya Birl; fight director, Thomas Schall; production stage manager, Evangeline Rose Whitlock.

Cast: "In the Blood": Jocelyn Bioh, Michael Braun, Russell G. Jones, Ana Reeder, Saycon Sengbloh, Frank Wood. "F---ing A": Cameron Barnett, Brandon Victor Dixon, Ben Horner, Joaquina Kalukango, Marc Kudisch, Christine Lahti, Ruibo Qian, Elizabeth Stanley, Raphael Nash Thompson.

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