The Brothers Size
nytheatre.com review by Tomi Tsunoda
January 18, 2007
The Brothers Size, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney, takes characters from West African myth and crafts a contemporary yet classic story about two brothers struggling to reunite. Oshoosi Size (Brian Tyree Henry) returns to the home of his brother Ogun (Gilbert Owuor) after more than two years in prison. Ogun spends the play trying to help his brother walk a safer path, as Oshoosi is repeatedly distracted by his loyalty to a friend from prison. The story seems to focus on the contradictions of familial responsibility, and the pain of knowing that the only way to truly be there for one another may be to stay apart.
The physical production, created by director Tea Alagic and production designer Zane Pihlstrom, keeps the production grounded in its mythological roots. The actors are mostly barefoot, and the staging uses little more than the bodies of the actors and a few props. Musician Vincent Olivieri's drumbeats drive the time passage between scenes, and are the constant heartbeat of the show. The soundtracking is reminiscent of the chorus in Noh theatre, and gives the production the quality of a fairy tale.
The stage space is delineated by a circle of sand, created at the top of the show by Elegba (Elliot Villar), the prison friend and source of distraction and temptation. The image itself is breathtaking and drew me immediately into the world of the play. However, aside from delineating onstage versus offstage space and emphasizing a ritualistic mode of storytelling, the boundary, or the transgression of it, never plays as active a role in the narrative as it could. This issue is also present with the only other physical set element: a pile of white gravel at the center of the circle. While the gravel is a beautiful image, delineating another space for a bed or under a car, and contributing deliciously visceral elements of sound and white powder on the actors bodies, I kept waiting for it to play a more active or significant role in the storytelling.
McCraney and Alagic seem to make a variety of choices intent on keeping the story grounded in traditional myth, that—while enticing and successful on that level—sometimes get in the way of the storytelling. Recalling the Greeks, large sections of the text are monologues that relay events that happened either offstage or in the past. This presents a challenge to keep the scenes grounded in the story of the people who are actually on stage. While all three actors succeed in bringing these unseen stories to life, Alagic's staging remains stagnant through them, and does little to help us understand how they further the relationships among the characters.
Similarly, the characters often speak the stage directions out loud, adding to the play's mythological landscape, reminding us of its iconic nature and enforcing the fairy-tale world. However, while this device often landed a solid laugh, there were scenes where the stage directions undercut the connection between the actors and dropped the momentum of the story unfolding between them. As a result, it was difficult for me to stay invested in the play's climax and ultimate resolution.
All that said, McCraney's text offers significant insight into the timelessness of our own culture and stories through rich images and often heartbreaking realities. Both Henry and Owuor do a masterful job of playing through their final moments, the culmination of two very grounded, open performances. The stage imagery is poetic and arresting. But the production can trust both the writing and the audience a little more to be able to draw the mythological connections themselves, and allow the more immediate and contemporary story to take its space on the stage.