Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Sizing up "Brothers Size," at the Magic

Last Friday, kind of on the spur of the moment, I went to see The Brothers Size at the Magic Theater. It was a night full of "I love my town, I love my life" moments. My friend Marisela posted on Facebook that the Magic was offering half-price tickets to that night's performance of The Brothers Size; at 6:30 PM, I called the box office to take advantage of it. The MUNI buses worked smoothly and efficiently to take me to Fort Mason, where the Magic is located. In the parking lot outside, the Off-the-Grid street food festival was taking place, so I got some yummy paella for just $5. Inside the theater, a friend of mine was working concessions, and let me have a glass of wine for free after discovering that she was unable to make change for my $20 bill. Taylor Mac was in town for initial rehearsals of The Lily's Revenge (SO excited about that--though it's still 6 months away!) and I sat in the same row as him during the post-show talk-back!

But, most important and most thrilling was that I got introduced to the work--and the world--of playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney. This young man (turning 30 this month) is already considered one of the most important playwrights in the country--and with The Brothers Size, it was easy to see why.

This fall, three Bay Area theaters are each presenting one of the plays in McCraney's trilogy, The Brother/Sister Plays. After seeing Brothers Size, I scrambled to find someone with whom to travel to Marin and see In the Red and Brown Water at Marin Theatre Co., before it closed on October 10. Fortunately, I was able to attend Red and Brown Water last night. (The third play, Marcus, or the Secret of Sweet opens at the end of the month at ACT.)

So now I have a LOT to say about McCraney, his work, the plays considered individually and in comparison with one another, the productions I saw... and I think I'll have to split my thoughts into multiple blog posts. First up: The Brothers Size. Though it's the middle play of the trilogy, it's the one I saw first (and the one McCraney wrote first, actually), so I want to begin there.

The Brothers Size. Eighty minutes, three actors. It feels like a very tight, streamlined play--yet at the same time it allows for bursts of lyricism and dream sequences. The intensity of the characters' emotions is what keeps the play pushing relentlessly forward until its powerful conclusion.

In a nutshell, The Brothers Size is about two brothers who are very different from one another, who hate each other fiercely and love each other fiercely. It's certainly not the only play to ever tackle this subject, but that's because this love-hate clash is a strong basis for drama. Ogun Size is a hardworking auto mechanic in a poor African-American community in Louisiana. His ne'er-do-well younger brother, Oshoosi, has just been released from jail and has come to live with him. The third character in the play is Elegba, a young man who grew up with the brothers and became Oshoosi's partner in crime (and in prison).

The relationship between the brothers is very well-written and, at the Magic, perfectly performed by Joshua Elijah Reese (Ogun) and Tobie Windham (Oshoosi). I was surprised to read in Reese's playbill bio that he had studied dance in college; not that he was clumsy or ungraceful, but he was so grounded as Ogun, such a solid, steady presence in his heavy work boots. Meanwhile, Windham plays Oshoosi as a charming scamp who flirts shamelessly with the audience (I was in the front row and he made eye contact with me on three separate occasions). He wears thin-soled sneakers and is constantly in motion, shifting his weight from foot to foot.

I wasn't quite as impressed by the character of Elegba. He is supposed to be a mysterious, dangerous, trickster figure. But I felt that in this play he was less mysterious than nebulous.

One of the most distinctive features of McCraney's writing is that he has his characters speak their stage directions in the third person: "Ogun enters," "Oshoosi smiles impishly." I am not usually a fan of this device (cf. one of my old posts about its use in a play called Doris to Darlene) and had worried that I would dislike McCraney's plays because of it. But, I have to say that in The Brothers Size, it worked about half the time--more than I was expecting it would! It can indeed add an extra dimension to the play, calling your attention to something you might not have noticed otherwise. But it can also feel slow and redundant. There's a scene early in the play where Oshoosi hangs around the garage and annoys Ogun, who is fixing a car (see photo at top of post). Ogun keeps sliding out from under the car and then sliding back under it, and every time he does this, he narrates it. Meanwhile Oshoosi is narrating his own actions too. The effect of this is to make the scene take twice as long as it would otherwise, which therefore blunts its force.

Thus, my favorite parts of the play did not involve showy theatrical devices--but rather good, solid dramatic writing. Highlights include a grimly funny scene where the three men talk about what it's like, as a black man, to be pulled over by the police; and Ogun's monologue when he finally explodes and gives Oshoosi a "do you know how hard it is for me to be your brother?" speech.

The Brothers Size is a powerful drama and the Magic Theater gives it a production that makes it easy to understand why the theatre world is buzzing about Tarell Alvin McCraney. I highly recommend it--it plays through October 17.

Image: Tobie Windham and Joshua Elijah Reese as Oshoosi and Ogun Size at Magic Theatre. Photo by Jennifer Reiley.

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