Trickster at the Gate
nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
March 15, 2009
Trickster at the Gate is an exuberant, enjoyable production inspired by the work of Zora Neale Hurston and presented by At Hand Theatre Company. Originally written as a festival production to encourage reading, the play stands fairly well on its own merit and is certainly well served here by an energetic, talented production. John Patrick Bray has written a piece that only indirectly addresses Hurston, interweaving two storylines, one inspired by elements in the life of Hurston via a character named Nell and the other about a young woman who had befriended her. While I am not entirely convinced that the text is not ultimately compromised by its devices, this production of Trickster at the Gate has significant virtues of its own.
Nell is a woman of many years who lived in New York during the Harlem Renaissance. Like Hurston, she romanced a jazz musician and moved back to the Deep South where she fell in love with and (unlike Hurston) married a sharecropper. In her later life Nell lives with a heartbroken young woman, Jennifer, whose marriage is flying apart. Ultimately Jennifer flees their town but Nell stays.
When Nell passes, Jennifer is called back to identify the body. The man in charge of the body, Donald, turns out to be an old friend who talks Jennifer though the identification, and in that process, Jennifer begins to tell some of Nell's stories. Played with appropriate spunk by Amanda Bailey, Nell is a woman of charm and a force of nature. Her poor husband (beautifully played by Tyson Jennette) may not have a chance against her will, but he manages to quietly get her to provide a way for them to be together on his terms. All of the flashback scenes for Nell and her men are tightly written and strongly played.
The same conciseness in writing informs the conversations between Donald and Jennifer, as there is in retrospect an incredible amount of back story relayed in an interesting enough way that it did not bother me during the play at all. Jennifer is well-played by Renee Threatte, making a character who seems to be grabbing her pain with both hands overcome that hurdle with some of Nell's spirit to carry her through. The narrative moves through Jennifer and Donald's conversation, flashing to memories Nell told to Jennifer and allowing Jennifer to catch the obviously smitten Donald up on her life. Much of this progression flows smoothly, but a final (and significantly longer) conversation between Jennifer and Nell has simply too many big moments to be accountable for, and yet it fails to answer why Jennifer ultimately leaves Nell to her own devices. It comes up and is dismissed in a way that nothing else in the piece justifies.
Throughout the production, two dancers are utilized to shift the scenic elements and at times become part of the story. Both Sarita Louise Moore and Valencia King have grace and skill enough to make their work both integral and supportive of the production's sense of wholeness. When during a thunderstorm, they "become" sugar cane, their work has a poetic integrity that goes beyond the confines of space. As At Hand Theatre Company asserts that part of their "green" ethic is an increased emphasis on story and performance over the many production elements that are afterward discarded, the effective choreography of Sarita Louise Moore clearly supports the argument. A full on Lincoln-Center-level-of-funding lush green field with real rain isn't necessary; it can be created in other ways. Where that ethos is less successful—and this is very minor—is with Donald's costume. He needs to be wearing something more appropriate to an undertaker; the lab coat he was in gave me the impression they were at a hospital morgue. While it absolutely did not derail the story, it would have been better to be on the same page as the author.
Yet that caveat does not change that this is a committed production with solid acting, grace, and humor; and if at times it seemed bigger than its space, it was a space I wanted to be in with them.