Lush, Untranslated, and Disorienting: THE WEDDING GIFT at CATF

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Lush, Untranslated, and Disorienting: THE WEDDING GIFT at CATF

The Wedding Gift

Posted on BroadwayWorld.com July 18, 2016

It seems to be customary at the Contemporary American Theater Festival, held each July in Shepherdstown, West Virginia, for there to be one technically big show, a “shoot the works” production at the Frank Center Stage in which the scenery, costumes, and cast size call for more effort (and I assume expense) than do any of the four other shows presented. This year the “big deal” show is undoubtedly Chisa Hutchinson‘s The Wedding Gift, a parable about race and other forms of Otherness placed in a context that one might call science fiction or fantasy.

Like the astronaut in Planet of the Apes, Doug (Jason Babinsky) finds himself transported to a world which bears great similarities to ours, but which has a fundamentally altered civilization. In this world, blacks comprise not merely the dominant race, but indeed apparently the exclusive one, speaking a language which bears no resemblance to ours.

This is awkward for white-skinned, English-speaking Doug. As quickly becomes apparent, Doug’s difference in language and looks from the dominant populace results in his being enslaved and/or treated as a pet (take your pick), and made a wedding gift to Nahlis (Margaret Ivey) and Beshrum (Damian Thompson). That’s where the audience first encounters him, after we witness the ceremony.

It is no accident that the ceremony comes first; it gives us a chance to take in the resplendence of the scene. The costumes, the makeup, the music and sound effects, and especially the scenery are magnificent; the photo above will give a sense of it. This is a highly developed society, if one that is in certain ways barbaric, and its usages are of the utmost importance.

It is only after this lesson has been subliminally administered that we encounter Doug, brought on in a cage as the biggest and presumably most expensive wedding present. There is dialogue which accompanies his appearance that unfortunately is translated only in the script, in which Nahlis’ mother explains quietly to Nahlis that Beshrum is a “sissy” and won’t know what to do with a woman, and that Doug is really a gift to Nahlis (presumably to remedy Beshrum’s deficits).

But that soon becomes apparent in any event. We see the wedding night, which is not a success. To get out of having sex with her, after Nahlis turns up in some sumptuous and provocative sleepwear, Beshrum belittles Nahlis’ breasts as surprisingly small, and, in consequence, as the script demurely puts it, “nobody’s getting laid tonight.” Nahlis will be wanting what the slave/pet has to offer.

Obviously, we are being set up for Doug to disrupt this highly developed but barbaric society, and the only question is how. I do not intend to spoil the fun or the drama by imparting too many details as to how the question is answered. It will involve sex, love, death and a good deal of violence. Also neat futuristic gizmos, many accompanied by intriguing sound effects (by Nathan A. Roberts and Charles Coes), and interesting tricks with the set (by David M. Barber).

It might be slightly inaccurate to call the play “space opera,” but that is probably the branch of science fiction it most comfortably fits inside. In common with the best space opera, it has certain timeless mythic qualities, speaks as well to issues of our time, and into the bargain has its own narrative drive and logic. Playwright Hutchinson, whose work Dead and Breathing I applauded at the Festival two years ago, can justly claim to have checked off all these boxes. Doug, for all his bathetic cusswords which establish his status as a modern regular guy, finds himself growing in Promethean directions.

We watch as he takes stock of his situation, recognizes the failure of vision on the part of his captors, their inability to see him as a fellow-human, and recognizes what this means in terms of his power and his lack of power. It is a humbling lesson, but one he needs to learn to survive.

At the same time, Nahlis is not simply a sexually-frustrated bride; she is also a spoiled and somewhat narrow-minded product of her civilization challenged to expand her horizons. Ivey does a great job conveying Nahlis’ initial limitations and her gradual overcoming of them.

The challenge of Doug and Nahlis’ mutual incomprehension is underlined by the language gap. And here is a significant part of playwright Hutchinson’s achievement. Though creation of new languages for narrative works is hardly unheard of (Tolkien did it, and so did the Star Trek folks), I cannot think of another stage play where it has been done, doubtless because the amount of creative effort required is seldom viewed as justified in the context of a two-hour play. Yet Hutchinson has done the work, and actually includes with her script a lengthy glossary. Of course the audience is not going to see the glossary, but the actors will; the actors will know they are talking a real language, and it will inform their delivery of the lines. The payoff comes when the audience is struggling along with Doug, the audience’s surrogate, to make sense of what seems like babble, knowing that bits of comprehension may make the difference between life and death, while the characters speaking the made-up language are obviously communicating just fine.

The potential pitfall, naturally, is that the audience may understand too little, even as it inevitably begins to master small pieces of the overlords’ speech. Hutchinson has tried to offset this problem by giving us two characters who can translate a little: Onjah, a priestess (Nafeesa Monroe) and Translating Attendant (Edward O’Blenis). Their shaky mastery of English poses nearly as much of a barrier to mutual comprehension as would a complete unfamiliarity with English. But that reinforces how great the barriers to mutual comprehension generally are when persons who regard themselves as fully human encounter people whom they think of as being otherwise.

I cannot say that the made-up language is always a “game worth the candle.” But I can say it’s a considerable achievement, and probably one the play is better off with than without.

Overall, the Festival chose wisely in making this play the season’s big deal. The lush production pays off handsomely, making us all vividly aware of the personal drama the characters must endure, and the larger issues the audience is asked to consider. May Adrales, who was also entrusted with last year’s “tentpole” show, Everything You Touch, a farrago about the fashion industry, featuring lots of over-the-top fashion, was also a fine choice to helm this big production. This is the one not to miss in this year’s Festival.

Copyright (c) Jack L. B. Gohn, except for production photo (photo credit Seth Freeman)

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