If you like your theater provocative and your actors disrobed, then know this: The Yale Cabaret can deliver on both counts.
The Cabaret has a tradition of staging works with a level of innovation unparalleled by other University theaters. This week’s production of “Run, Mourner, Run” continues that tradition. By shattering the barriers of the literary medium, the Cabaret delivers a gripping performance of a skillfully adapted work.
[ydn-legacy-photo-inline id=”993″ ]
Based on a short story by Randall Kenan and adapted for the stage by Tarell McCraney DRA ’07, “Run, Mourner, Run” is a tale of betrayal and forbidden lust set in a small southern town. The story centers around Dean Williams (Tom E. Russell DRA ’07), who becomes a pawn in the power struggle between a prominent black businessman (Gilbert Owuor DRA ’07) and a loathsome white neo-aristocrat (Brad Love DRA ’07).
The Southern Gothic antecedents are obvious. Themes of transient liberation and fearful skirting of social taboos are well-established in the genre; echoes of Faulkner, O’Connor, Williams and the like are readily detected. But Kenan’s story is far from hackneyed; in fact, its simple, iconic nature is its greatest strength. The plot elements are recognizable to the point of being predictable. However, Kenan exploits the conventions of his genre by artfully twisting them to fit a contemporary setting.
In keeping with the story’s origin, the Cabaret’s production consists of characters alternately speaking sections of the story — description, dialogue and all. While having the potential to be confusing or jarring, this device is used in surprising (and surprisingly effective) ways. The three lead characters intersperse their dialogue with narration and spoken stage directions. The other actors move seamlessly between serving in a traditional chorus and representing a host of minor characters.
The smooth execution of this unconventional production owes much to McCraney, who adapted the work for stage. Most of the characters’ self-narration is already present in Kenan’s original story, and McCraney employs it to great effect. The device of self-narration virtually forces the characters to prophesy their own doom. Characters openly pontificate on the possibilities open to them and the potential consequences of their actions.
But this is not a play about the power of choice. The show’s forte is the sense of inevitability it evokes. At one point, the chorus imitates, for one appropriately stirring moment, the fates of legend; touches like this indicate that McCraney has not merely transferred words from the pages of Kenan to the mouths of his actors. The themes and allusions of the original work are manifest in the Cabaret production in all of their subtlety and power.
The performances themselves are nothing short of uncanny. The constant shifting between the roles of character and narrator is nearly always fluid and convincing. Despite a lack of established dramatic conventions for McCraney’s storytelling method, the actors never let their self-awareness devolve into camp. Love deserves special recognition for a dead-on portrayal of an eternal Southern archetype. His performance as Percy Terrell — a deceitful white landowner — is alternately endearing and chilling.
“Run, Mourner, Run” is a stellar adaptation of an excellent work. Anyone looking to see rules broken and genres fused would be well advised to give it a try.