I pondered letting this one pass without comment; one of the virtues of writing for a blog rather than a Paper of Record is that I’m not obligated to weigh in. In the end, though, I decided I’d weigh in, however briefly. In no small part because I’m so struck by the difference in reaction between Missy Frederick over at DCist and Peter Marks of the Washington Post.
With Frederick using words like “brilliant” and Marks questioning what story the playwright is actually trying to tell I can’t help but wonder if we all saw the same play. Perhaps the three of us are going to act out the stereotypical blogs vs. mainstream media routine. Frederick finds it satisfying and moving, Marks is calmly in the middle, saying he hopes this debut later shakes out into a more satisfying shape, and I don’t really think there’s anything really worthwhile in Antebellum for it to develop into.
All three of us thought there were some really ticklingly funny moments and good acting, but I question that something that wanders so far about could really be pulled together into a cohesive piece. There’s some neat stagecraft at work here, both in the way characters enter and exit the stage for their scenes and in how the set transforms, but that’s not enough to carry Antebellum or make us feel for the characters.
There’s a clever conceit that shows up in the second act, with players sometimes dawdling onstage during scene changes, apparently observing what’s going on in a different place and time. However the way it waits till then to show up somewhat diminishes its effectiveness; if this had been part of the play from the beginning we might have gotten to get some more connection and understanding of the characters by seeing what they see, and presumably being shown just just an explanation of what’s happened before but also a lesson about what was important to them and how they remembered it.
The play doesn’t opt for this, however, presumably because then we might have figured out the Big Reveal at the end of the first act before we get beaten over the head with it. Instead the play goes for the big boom and shock, the “woah!” moments that surprise without really informing. Having the cat jump out of the closet and scare the hero at a tense moment is something you expect in the horror movie, but you can’t build the whole piece around it.