Theatre Review: ‘Cry Old Kingdom’ at the Humana Festival

Jonathan Majors as Henri and Andy Lucien as Edwin. Photo by Alan Simons

[The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays runs through April 7 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.]

“Cry Old Kingdom” by Jeff Augustin
Directed by Tom Dugdale
The Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville
Through April 7, 2012

View Chuck’s video blog review with Leslie Wobbe

Synopsis: “Haiti, 1964.  Beneath the watchful eyes of François ’Papa Doc‘ Duvalier’s government, revolution is brewing.  Words of rebellion against his repressive regime flood the nation’s radio waves, even as the Tonton Macoutes death squads prowl the villages, killing or imprisoning anyone who speaks ill of the dictator.  The people of Haiti face a stark choice: to join the fight or to flee.”

Edwin, a painter, is a kind of self-made zombie.  Years ago he faked his own death and now works, appropriately, out of an underground studio.  Or he tries to work, anyway.  Since his bogus death his inspiration has suffered a real death.  Worse yet his wife Judith is witnessing the slow death of her own former vivacity and love of dancing at Carnival, killed by the need to work in an open market all day to sustain her and Edwin.

When Edwin stumbles across Henri Marx, “a scarred but beautiful young man” (to quote the program notes) gathering wood to build the boat he hopes will take him to America, he’s fascinated by the young man’s lust for life.  Edwin offers a bargain: Henri can build his boat safely in Edwin’s studio if Edwin can paint him.  As the two men get to know each other, Edwin finds his inspiration returning, but the estrangement from Judith increasing.  When Judith announces her intention to join the rebels, Edwin faces difficult choices—with tragic results.

“Cry Old Kingdom” is profound on so many levels that it’s hard to articulate them.  From a purely polemic perspective, it’s a dramatic illustration of the way political repression undermines and corrupts human relationships.  It’s also a forceful illustration of both the futility of attempting to remain apart from life and the cost of doing so.  Edwin’s self-inflicted burial doesn’t insulate him from having to make choices because, as Henri Marx observes, “Being alive is having to choose.”

Andy Lucien brings the repressed Edwin to vivid life.  He’s nicely matched by Jonathan Majors as Henri, still optimistic despite horrific persecution from the regime.  Natalie Paul’s Judith is a masterpiece of body language, forcefully illustrating the gradual revival of her character’s spirit as the revolution seems to bring her hope—however briefly.  The Haitian accents of the cast are (at times) a bit too heavy, though.  When actors were facing away from me, I often lost lines—a pity with a script this literate.

Scenic designer Daniel Zimmerman smartly conjures up the beach, Edwin’s studio, and Edwin and Judith’s home with only a few set pieces and some piles of sand.  The lights, sound, Tom Dugdale’s direction, and the fine work of the actors do the rest.

“Cry Old Kingdom” was one of the best things I saw at Humana this year.  Its illustration of the horrors faced by so much of the world on a regular basis is so vivid, though, that it makes the angst of some of the characters in the other four plays I saw feel trivial by comparison.  Not being able to find yourself, for example, looks like pretty small beer compared to not being able to prevent the Tonton Macoutes from finding you.  That’s an invidious comparison, perhaps, but it’s hard to avoid those thoughts when you see five plays in three days.