Monday, March 23, 2015

The Liquid Plain

Ito Aghayere, Michael Izquierdo, and Kristolyn Lloyd
Photo: Joan Marcus
As with her previous offering earlier this season, And I and Silence (which Wendy reviewed), Naomi Wallace's The Liquid Plain is daring, messy, serious-minded, and unapologetically poetic. It's also quite possibly the most interesting and invigorating play I've seen all year. Working from the true story of a smallpox-infected female slave who was thrown into the Atlantic Ocean, Wallace constructs an admirably complex narrative that encompasses the history of slavery in America, the fluidity of love and gender, and the overwhelming familial bonds that even profound indignity cannot weaken. In the first act, Adjua and Dembi (Kristolyn Lloyd and Ito Aghayere, respectively), two runaway slaves, toil on the docks of a Rhode Island port town to earn enough money for passage to Africa. They are deeply in love and long to start a family, a fact complicated by the fact that Dembi is biologically female. One day, an amnesiac sailor (Michael Izquierdo) washes onto their docks, sitting in motion a series of mystical events that threaten the two lovers best laid plans. Act Two takes place forty-six years later, when Adjua's daughter, Bristol (the extraordinary LisaGay Hamilton), a free black woman raised in England, arrives stateside to enact a long-dreamed revenge plot. However, it doesn't take her long to realize that the history she believes she's been sent to avenge is far more complicated than she could imagine.

Wallace uses language in a decorous, ornamental manner; her characters speak so beautifully, almost hypnotically, that it's sometimes possible to lose sight of what they're actually trying to say. There are also aspects that announce themselves a bit too conspicuously. Each scene is titled, for example, and the titles (example: "The Passage of Clay") are projected on the stage's back wall during scene changes. It's heavy-handed, and the production certainly would improve with its deletion, but it doesn't take away from the play's striking lyrical center.

Adjua and Dembi's relationship could perhaps be more finely-etched, but both Lloyd and especially Aghayere are spectacular. Aghayere is convincingly masculine, though Wallace might have done well to spend more time defining Dembi's journey to his gender identity. The marvel, however, is Hamilton, who captivates the audience from her first entrance on. Her Bristol is a proud, sad, independent, and fearsome woman who could easily merit her own play, should Wallace feel inclined to write it.

Izquierdo effortlessly traverses fifty years in the life of his character, and briefly plays William Blake in an amusing (if unnecessary) aside. (Not just poetic, the play is also driven by poetry; the title comes from a line by the revolution-era African American poet Phillis Wheatley). The supporting cast, which includes Karl Miller, Johnny Ramey, Robert Hogan, is just right. In a wordless but pivotal role, Tara A. Nicholas is beguiling.

The Liquid Plain runs through Sunday at the Signature Center. It's well-worth the effort.

[Second row mezzanine for act one, front row for act two. $25.]

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