Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling: Poetry-Soaked World

Local Arts Reviews

Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling: Poetry-Soaked World

Hyde Park Theatre, Through December 4. Running Time: 2 hrs, 5 min

The poetry slam is a forum by turns beloved and detestable. Slams can be posturing, beatniky, and self-indulgent, but they can also, when the planets line up just right, unite poet and audience like nothing else. They can also act as a kind of language therapy wherein, after sitting through hours of deliberately disoriented, over-emphasized, and oddly conjoined words, you are torn, however unpleasantly (or unwillingly), out of language ruts. "I'm fine" in answer to "How are you?" becomes a less plausible response than "Sitting skyward I sleep." Frontera@Hyde Park Theatre's production of Heavenly Shades of Night Are Falling, with its stream-of-consciousness script (written by Erik Ehn for stage legend Laurie Carlos) and polymorphous rendering (as passionately directed by Daniel Alexander Jones), could be a poetry slam's offspring, with church revivals and interpretive dance its first cousins.

Billed as a "mystical romp through the meteoric landscape of a determined heart," this play clearly discourages the question "What is it about?" -- but that's not to say the question can't be answered. What it's about is a girl named L'ash who spins out fantasy after fantasy regarding her absent father's life, death, and present whereabouts (Mars?). And from within this dense dreamworld (whose characters' base of truth is further muddied by some combination of youth, alcohol, poison, profound wordplay, and use of the first person), we're able to glean certain biographical details -- the most important being a race riot that left L'ash's siblings dead and scattered, and landed her in a Minnesota nunnery (and is a colder place conceivable?).

As L'ash, scholar and artist Joni L. Jones radiates all the energy and pain of a young girl trying to make poetic sense of her longing and hard luck. Florinda Bryant, listed in the playbill as a "songbird actress with a poet's heart," is a tremendous singer and does well with each of her characters, including L'ash's bitter mother, though she seems most at home with her final character, a contemporary figure who sings in five bands, works at Radio Shack, and has much of L'ash's intense longing. Zell Miller III is impeccably suave as L'ash's idealized version of her eccentric, ladies'-man father. Sarah Richardson is engaging, and provides the occasional comic relief with professional understatement. Raul Castillo, making his out-of-school debut, is steady and appealing both as L'ash's sister and as the ghost of their father's killer.

This performance is, for good and for ill, dramatized poetry or poeticized drama. The five actors could be giving a reading, except they also sing, dance, walk in circles, fall down, light lights, and use at times a kind of stylized sign language. It gets wearying at times (with lines such as "You are in a desert place -- new hatchets new double hoop swords," and transitions such as "Reunion of voice"/"Estrangement from voice"), and it gets hokey at times (for example, with papier-mâché planet puppets). But there are moments of "smoke and starlight," as when L'ash is discovering "new points of the night." And with the convincing moral that suffering brings joy and the side effect that you emerge from the theatre talking like you're on acid, there is much to be said for L'ash's poetry-soaked nonlinear world.

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