In the Blood (Professional Theatre Review)
Originally published in Theatre is Easy.
By Suzan Lori-Parks; Directed by Sarah Benson
Off Broadway, Play Revival Runs through 10.15.17 Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street
Ana Reeder, Russell G. Jones, Frank Wood, Jocelyn Bioh,
Saycon Sengbloh and Michael Braun in In the Blood. Photo by Joan Marcus.
BOTTOM LINE: This is not the Scarlet Letter you remember from your tenth-grade summer reading. This is Suzan Lori-Parks, and the "A" stands for her annihilation of apathy.
Cruelty and disdain drip from a modern Greek chorus as they surround and condemn Hester (Saycon Sengbloh), a young homeless woman delicately caring for her newborn babe. Their insults rain down upon Hester and her child with no sign of waning, and in fact this relentless toxicity never truly abates. Their vocal barbs assume the form of physical waste, which descends noisily from a garbage chute onto Hester’s home, an abandoned lower ramp beneath a bridge. Although it has been nearly two decades since the debut of In the Blood, the play has lost none of its relevance or bite.
Hester’s manic children are not distressed by the falling trash; they are delighted with it! Bits and pieces of waste make up their clothes, their toys and even their meager income of discarded soda cans. The appearance of Hester’s five children (from five different fathers) is jarring, and not just because they are developmentally disabled. They are shocking because they are played by five adult actors, many of whom are older than Hester. Although it takes some time to adjust to this spectacle of adults in clownish young clothing, their ages fall away as they argue and play on the steep slope of their bridge ramp home. Michael Braun and Russell G. Jones are particular standouts in their ability to fully embody the physicality and prattle of children with authenticity and humor.
Hester’s children do not remain children for long, however, as all of them double as the adults in Hester’s life. From streetwalkers to social workers, these adults do not aid or feed her children. Instead, they manipulate and abuse her through promises of money and love.
Suzan Lori-Parks’ distinctive wit and rhetoric soar spectacularly in this reimagining of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Parks has become well known for these historic reinterpretations, and rightfully so. She has the ability to present the entire spectrum of the human condition almost instantaneously. The character of Hester (played to perfection by Saycon Sengbloh) exudes all things maternal. No matter how deplorable their circumstances, the love between Hester and her children is palpable. Becoming emotionally invested in the characters is effortless, which is why their circumstances become particularly heartwrenching as the play goes on.
Sarah Benson’s direction is a perfect vehicle for Parks’ work, as she is able to bring out the most calculating and vulnerable moments of her actors. She is aided by a wonderful movement team (Elizabeth Streb and choreographer Annie-B Parson). However, scenic designer Louisa Thompson nearly steals the show. The actors are dwarfed by a large, steep ramp that is used as a shelter, a playground, and most importantly as the abyss encompassing Hester’s existence. The ramp is a Sisyphean mountain which Hester and her children can never rise out of, only slide down as refuse continues to rain upon them. It serves as the seventh cast member in this harrowing yet compelling production, where the noblest are not the highest, but the lowliest, peeking out from the deepest and darkest crevices beneath us.
(In the Blood plays at Signature Theatre, 480 West 42nd Street, through October 15, 2017. The running time is two hours with no intermission. Performances are Tuesdays at 7:30; Wednesdays at 2 and 7:30; Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 8; and Sundays at 2. Tickets are $30 through October 8, $75 beginning October 10 and are available at signaturetheatre.org or by calling 212-244-7529.)
In The Blood is by Suzan Lori-Parks. Directed by Sarah Benson. Scenic Design is by Louisa Thompson. Costume Design is by Montana Levi Blanco. Lighting Design is by Yi Zhao. Sound Design is by Matt Tierney. Original Song is by Suzan Lori-Parks. Choreography is by Annie-B Parson. Movement is by Elizabeth Streb/Streb Extremem Action. Production Stage Manager is Terri K. Kohler.
The cast is Jocelyn Bioh, Michael Braun, Russell G. Jones, Ana Reeder, Saycon Sengbloh, and Frank Wood.