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The River Crosses Rivers: Series B – Off Broadway Theater Review




The River Crosses Rivers: Series BTheater Review

by Cindy Pierre

published September 25, 2009


The River Crosses Rivers:  Series B

now playing Off Broadway at the Ensemble Studio Theater

through September 27


If a river is considered an all-encompassing, wayward entity that contains but is not easily contained, then when this river crosses other rivers, the meeting of these bodies should be all that more substantial.  Unfortunately, that is not the case with The River Crosses Rivers: Series B, a presentation of seven shorts by female playwrights of color by Ensemble Studio Theatre’s Going to the River program (there is also a Series A playing in repertory).  This production is so divided in quality and flow that in 20-minute or so intervals, you'll feel like you've signed up for white-water rafting, then still-lake canoeing, and then back and forth over and over in two and a half hours.  And although this juxtaposition in speed and tempo may seem like a wonderful variance in adrenaline, it makes for an uneven night of theater.


The production rows you in with J.e. Franklin's “Hot Methuselah”, a fast-paced comedy about a black cuckquean (woman with adulterous husband) and her son that plays more like a sitcom than theater.  Alice (Vinie Burrows) and Charles (Glenn Gordon) respectively are occasionally funny, but you'll be laughing more at the flamboyant performances than any actual funny lines. The acting is so over the top that all emotions rooted in Alice's mournful circumstances seem fabricated until her husband Richard (Norman Matlock) draws out the only real sign of her pain.  In a single moment where money and pity are exchanged between man and wife, a flash of hurt washes across Burrows' face to remind us why she is a Broadway veteran.  Unfortunately, it's not enough to keep the piece afloat.


The journey continues downward in mood and impact with Melody Cooper's “Truth Be Told.”  While this educational play about the peril and death that political journalists face could have been poignant, the meaty subject matter is eclipsed by the consistently angry performance by Beverley Prentice as Tanya.  Despite a compelling start with hostage Raeda (Shetal Shah), a mother, wife, and journalist extraordinaire, “Truth Be Told” is much more a political treatise and protest than a theatrical event. Cooper has good intentions and ambition, but the performance ultimately suffers from intensity without deviation.


On the other hand, Desi Moreno-Penson's “Spirit Sex: A Paranormal Romance,” has no problem deviating.  From reality.  This X-Files meets Fringe tale about a man who's both spooked and aroused by the ghost of a female satyr (Fulvia Vergel, playing part human, part goat) is the most bizarre of this lineup, but there is some good comedic chemistry between Martin (Jeb Kreager), the ghost whisperer, and Avy (Chris Wight), the ghostbuster. Still, “Spirit Sex” is the equivalent of going over a waterfall...without paddles....or a boat.


You'll be climbing back into the boat and keeping a steady pace upriver for the next two performances with P.J. Gibson's “Jesse.” The producers have saved the best material and executions for the second half, starting with an unpredictable and satisfying relationship drama.  As a married couple that has it all, Maya Lynne Robinson and Christopher Burris sizzle onstage with witty banter and an effortless chemistry.


Though “Jesse” is followed by the much more heavy-hearted “His Daddy” by Cori Thomas, the quality remains high.  This compelling drama about an interracial male couple's loss of a son is easily the best of the lineup.  Although the theme is not readily decipherable in the beginning, Lindsay Smiling and Matthew Montelongo's performances grip you immediately.  You'll want to know everything you can about this couple, and by the time the play draws to a close, you'll get a story to remember.


You might not remember anything about Mrinalini Kamath's “Sloppy Second Chances,” but you'll be entertained while you're there.  The play poses and answers the question: “What if our real selves showed up on a first date rather than our more polished representatives?”  Strategic dater Amita (Nandita Shenoy) is put to the test when her unkempt date Nikhil (Veant Gokhale) shows up to Starbucks in holey sweats and a five o'clock shadow.  “Sloppy Second Chances” may not be breaking any new ground, but it's lighthearted, fun, and very familiar in this dating age.


The lineup ends on rocky waters with Kia Corthron's “Dialectic”, a pro-choice/pro-life debate hidden under the guise of a discussion of what is considered sin.  The play has a promising beginning, but once the theme and its resolution are revealed, it goes downriver fast as a political platform issue without theatrical merit.  Much like “Truth Be Told,” the subject matter is important, but the performance and the script don't serve it well.


Rather than follow a steady path upriver, The River Crosses Rivers: Series B thrashes about, having no clear direction or cohesion.  There are some solid efforts, but they're not enough to save the evening.  While it's true that a river flows in diverging and converging channels, Series B barely flows at all. 


cindypierre @


read Cindy Pierre's review of The River Crosses Rivers: Series A



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