Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Review: Tribal Instincts

To some, life is a game. A sport, perhaps. But we all have our limits. But pushing someone else to their limits? That’s a whole different game. Finding inspiration from the Ota Benga story, Steve Romagnoli’s Skip to My Lou follows a young interracial couple that find themselves at the home of an old friend and his African bride. Through conversations of love, life, humanity, and everything in between, Skip to My Lou is a smartly written drama that tests the limits of humanity and our individual sanity.
Presented at Theater for the New City, Skip to My Lou follows couple Thomas, a white man, and Chavonne, a black woman, as they meander into the home of Simon, a cynic and sociopath. After a trip through Africa, Simon has adorned his home with artifacts, art, and bride who is not entirely mentally stable. Yo-Yo, as she is now called, is trapped in this unknown world, controlled by Simon, a master manipulator. And by the end of the night, Thomas and Chavonne find that they too are manipulated by Simon. What ends up being a twisted game of revenge, Skip to My Lou captures the lengths one will go to get what they want. Ota Benga was a Congolese man who was put on display at the Bronx Zoo in 1906. Like Ota Benga, Yo-Yo is put on display to Simon’s guests. Though her conditions are slightly different, playing a role of bride, Simon views her more as a prize than a human. With this central theme playing a strong part in the play, Romagnoli explores what we may view as an absurd situation to examine the human psyche. Broken up into two acts, Romagnoli’s script could desperately use some streamlining. While the momentum of the play suffers due to the intermission, dwindling down Simon’s long-winded monologues would allow the play to live in a singular and strong act. The majority of these monologues showcase Romagnoli’s brilliance, offering some strong stances on various themes. That being said, these monologues don’t seem to further the plot, or the development of Thomas or Chavonne, as best they could. Romagnoli has gone to great lengths to create an incredible character in Simon. By the end of the play, you can’t help but liken the master manipulator and his tragic downfall to Othello’s Iago. Simon is such a well-crafted character that the others pale in comparison. Finding a way to bring the remaining trio to Simon’s level can elevate the script. There is a natural battle of wills built into the story so a victory from anyone but Simon seems unnatural.
The proper blend of personalities can lift a play from page to stage. Skip to My Lou’s quartet was simply perfect. Inherently, this was the Simon show. Brad and Janet played second fiddle to Dr. Frank-n-Futer and his creature in The Rocky Horror Show, the same was true for the couple and their host. Thomas and Chavonne may have been the catalysts to the evening’s events, the focus shifted to Simon, and subsequently Yo-Yo. Controlling the spin master was the domineering Nicholas Tucci. Tucci wrapped his way around Romagnoli’s text and managed to make you consider every single word he was spewing, whether the character believed it or not. He owns the philosophical douchbagery that came with the character. Tucci, who bears a striking resemblance to a combination of Cheyenne Jackson and Robert Torti, captures the epitome of villain you love to hate. You know he is up to no good yet you want to see what else he has up his sleeve. The dry, poker face demeanor Tucci gives Simon allows him to easily control the situation. It’s possible no one will ever be able to grasp Simon quite like Nicholas Tucci. As the now straight-laced boyfriend Thomas, Frank J. Monteleone was solid. He provided a charm through Thomas’ naivety. Marguerite Genard was a wonderful advisory to Tucci’s Simon and companion for Monteleone’s Thomas. Genard’s Chavonne was more reserved in comparison but she was firmly grounded in the character. Isi Laborde may have had the most difficult character in Yo-Yo. Laborde needed to balance truth with character and she did just that. Whether it was her performance or voyeuristic intrigue, you found yourself peering over in Yo-Yo’s direction when she was not the focal character of the moment just to see Laborde maintain her commitment to character.
Director S.C. Lucier highlighted the necessary elements that defined Skip to My Lou. She found ways to make the living room drama have life even if the action was few and far between. There is something to be said about the introduction of drugs and alcohol into a story. It’s a device many writers use as a means to allow inhibitions to lower and the truths to come out. Steve Romagnoli maximized the alcohol usage in his script. But you have to wonder what the narrative could have been had Lucier instructed Nicholas Tucci to avoid consuming any alcoholic beverage as way to fully gain the upper hand on Chavonne and Thomas. While believability of drunkenness was instantly diminished as Chavonne and Thomas seem to have come fully to their senses by the end, Lucier did a fine job tracking the characters’ coherence throughout. The set by Duane Pagano featured an array of African artwork and artifacts. Though creating a luxurious apartment was out of the question, Pagano’s limited elements did work well together well.
Skip to My Lou is an intriguing script with one of the most fascinating characters. With some work, Romagnoli’s text could be a hit. But if Romagnoli choses to do some work, perhaps a title change could benefit the piece as the title pay off within the script is minimal and does not sell the show as best as it could.