Saturday, January 31, 2015

Mr. Joy - Terrific Acting with a Script to Match

Tangela Large stars in City Theatre's production of  "Mr. Joy" Photo Credit Kristi Jan Hoove

In her opening night performance in "Mr. Joy," now getting its world premier at Pittsburgh’s City Theatre, actress, Tangela Large, got one of the best possible reviews - an enthusiastic standing ovation by the sell-out audience. In my opinion, it was a well-deserved laudation.
While one-actor plays are nothing new to the theater, even those that require the solo performer to play multiple characters, their rarity underscores the challenges faced by such a daunting task.
In her valiant effort, Ms. Large, who I’d peg to be still in her 20s, played nine different characters, both male and female, old and young and everything in between with impressively remarkable skill and stamina that went on for 80 unbroken minutes. With scant props or costume changes, she transitioned from one character to another in the blink of an eye and relied on only changes in posture, movement, voice intonation and playwright Daniel Beaty’s narrative to flesh out the nonet of vastly different personalities - everything from a homeless man and grandmother to a transsexual, a young African-American girl and a blonde bombshell in the Marilyn Monroe mode.
Not only does she have to act out the different roles, but she’s also required to sing, recite poetry and utter some voice-rasping shrieks so strenuous they would probably  give me laryngitis for a week.
Ms. Large’s palate of requisite emotions are just as rainbow-hued as the characters she plays and encompass the tenderness and sweetness of a young girl, the wizened gravity of an elderly woman, the seductiveness of a Caucasian vamp and the enflamed brutality of a young gang wannabe looking to score big on his initiation rite of. passage.
Instead of an elaborate backdrop to suggest the Harlem locale of the play, set designer, Tony Ferrieri, opts for a simple, unadorned raised dais at the back of the stage, a sort of stage atop a stage from which Ms. Large pulls out the few props she uses in her performance. The real visual evocation of the ghetto neighborhood in which the action takes place is provided by Josh Lehrer’s huge projected images that cover the entire back wall of the stage.
Ironically, the title character, Mr. Joy, does not appear in the play, although he does serve as the focal point around which the others interact in a nexus of evolving relationships.
When the play opens, young Clarissa is puzzled to find that the usually reliable Chinese-American shoemaker is not in his shop. Others in the neighborhood have their own stories to tell of the benign shoemaker’s effect on their lives, even though some consider the long-time resident an interloper on the native turf. In the telling of those stories, their interconnected relationships unfold, showing the bonds that weave them together.
One difficulty I had with the play was keeping up with the transition of characters and knowing who was speaking at what time. (The playbill does list the characters in order of their appearance, but I was unable to follow it after the lights went down).This sometimes blurred my complete comprehension of the story line leaving small but bothersome holes in the tale.
The playwright, whose way with words sometimes reminded me of the style of August Wilson, uses the play as a polemic to show how negative ambient forces in a community, particularly an urban ghetto community, can combine to produce conflict, violence and a whole array of social ills that can trap its residents in a web of hopelessness and despair.
In retrospect, I now wish that I had a chance to read the script before attending the play to let me sit back and relax and watch Ms. Large do her theatrical magic instead of having to focus so intently on comprehending the story line. Still, "Mr. Joy" was an evening of sheer enjoyment, highlighted by an enthralling performance in a provocatively-conceived work of dramatic art directed by Lou Jacob.
"Mr. Joy" is at the City Theatre on Pittsburgh’s South Side through February 15. Phone 412-431-2489.

Tangela Large as Clarissa in City Theatre's production of "Mr. Joy" Photo Credit Kristi Jan Hoover

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