Monday, September 29, 2014

theatre review THE BROTHERS SIZE, Stray Cat Theatre, Sept. 20

To read my Talkin' Broadway review of The Brothers Size click here.

Damon J. Bolling and Michael Thompson
The old adage that “you can pick your friends but not your family” is immediately inherent in The Brothers Size. In this intense play, Oshoosi, a young man recently released from prison, is torn between loyalties to his fairly strict, work focused brother and his more lax and charming former prison cell mate who offers him a means to escape. With the on-going struggle between responsibility and freedom, you aren’t quite sure until late in the play which is the better choice for Oshoosi to make. Stray Cat Theatre is presenting the Arizona premiere of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s 90 minute drama with three superb actors and direction so effective that they combine to overcome the few shortfalls of the play.

Playwright McCraney created quite a stir with his two part The Brothers/Sisters Plays, of which The Brothers Size is one half of the second part of the series. When the plays first premiered McCraney was proclaimed a new “voice” in the theatre, which was quite a statement since he was still in his 20’s. While the plays in the series aren’t always completely coherent, they do present vivid characters and situations. I saw the series of Brothers/Sisters plays shortly after they premiered and wasn’t as taken or moved by them as others were. To me the first part was a pretentious bore. But I always thought the fairly standalone The Brothers Size was the best of the pieces and though there are some parts that don’t work or are slightly unclear, it is still quite effective and results in a drama that is ultimately moving even if some questions aren’t answered and some confusion still exists. You also don’t need to have seen or even know anything about the two other Brothers/Sisters plays, or know that McCraney has used the Nigerian Yoruban mythology as an inspiration for his characters, to enjoy The Brothers Size.

Set in an imaginary city of the Louisiana bayou, the play follows Oshooshi Size, recently paroled and now living with and working for his brother Ogun in his car repair shop. Oshooshi’s friend and former cellmate Elegba, who also calls Oshooshi his “brother,” is always close by, making Oshooshi remember positive things that happened when they were in prison together and finding ways to entice him out of the house and away from his concerned brother. Full of conflict and emotion but also filled with plenty of humor, which make the more dramatic scenes pop even more, the play shows how Oshooshi is never quite free and actually somewhat trapped by both men. It also shows the sacrifices one makes for the people they love. While that is something that has been dramatized many times before, McCraney uses a combination of short scenes, poetry and music to find new engaging ways to bring this familiar struggle to life.

Director Ron May has found three skilled actors to portray these three very different men. Michael Thompson instills Oshoosi Size with a nervous uncertainty. Torn between his two “brothers” and still somewhat immature and irresponsible, Thompson effectively inhabits this confused man. Damon J. Bolling is equally as good as Oshooshi’s older brother Ogun. Ogun worries about his brother and Bolling masterfully shows the concern and anguish in his facial expressions and body movements. Both men experience dreams that haunt them as well as encounter difficult situations where they need to make some tough choices and Thompson and Bolling, under May’s sharp direction, are realistic and moving in bringing those moments to life. With a tilt of his head and a harsh look, Bolling also expertly shows the agitation he feels for Elegba. DeJean Brown is extremely good as Elegba. It must be a tough part to play since with Elegba you never quite know if he is being sincere or manipulative, which shows how well Brown is in the role. Brown also brings to life a confrontation that Elegba has with a police officer so effectively, easily portraying Elegba’s nervousness and the policeman’s cockiness with just the change of his voice and body posture.

Damon J. Bolling, DeJean Brown and Michael Thompson
With the use of rhythmic elements in both the stage movement and the musical segments, the tug of war between the three men is staged almost as a dance or ritual movement by May. There are also numerous moments in the play, from the scene of Oshooshi walking to work in the hot sun, the dreams the brothers are haunted by and an intense moment in a car, where May’s staging creates vivid, moving scene images. He also allows the tension in the play to reverberate with the vocal cadence of his actors’ speech and the pounding on various objects. Also, the final scene between the two Size brothers features the two men singing a bit of Otis Redding's "Try a Little Tenderness" that is sweet, touching and heartbreaking all at the same time. It is another winning directorial effort from May.

When you enter the Tempe Performing Arts Center and hear the nighttime sounds of crickets in the air and see the mossy branches cascading down from trees above, you immediately feel that you have been transported back to the Bayou. That’s how effective Eric Beeck’s set design and May’s sound design are. A simple raised wooden platform that functions as almost all of the locations in the play and the use of basic items like milk crates to serve as set pieces also show how creative the design is. And while there is an actual broken down car on the side of the stage that gets a lot of attention when you first enter, it is the fence that surrounds the set that once the play begins quickly hints at how all of the characters are somewhat trapped by their own difficulties. Ellen Bone’s lighting design is also quite stirring, especially in how she even uses the headlights of the car in one scene.

Some of those pretentious moments from the first part of the series are unfortunately part of The Brothers Size. This includes having the actors stating to the audience some stage direction or comments about where the characters are in a scene such as “Ogun goes back under the car” and “from outside.” Some of them are creative or funny which work in the plays favor but others like “Elegba enters, drifting like the moon,” and the fact that not all stage directions are spoken, make it seem like McCraney is saying “look at how clever and inventive I can be!” Fortunately the majority of these statements are in the beginning of the piece and become less intrusive once the emotional moments of the play come to light. And while McCraney’s use of the Nigerian mythology is also somewhat pretentious, it isn’t something that is ever brought up in the play and since the piece has a mystical feel to it, when you hear he based his characters on those mythical figures it makes some sense.

The Brothers Size is a haunting, powerful piece of drama but also a play with an element of pretention that could easily sideline the piece with a less talented cast or director. While it doesn’t all work and there are a few moments of confusion and clarity, those are faults of the play and not this production.The Brothers Size ultimately serves as a reminder of the struggles people go through and the obstacles they encounter along the way to become free and May and his actors keep the play churning along with heroic performances and riveting direction to its dramatic conclusion.

The Brothers Size at the Stray Cat Theatre runs through October 5th, 2014 with performances at the Tempe Performing Arts Center, 132 E. 6th Street in Tempe. Tickets can be ordered by calling 480 227-1766 or at

Photo: John Groseclose / Stray Cat Theatre 

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