Nothing’s quite as refreshing as the bizarre: a temperamental spring layer of sprung March snow, the tailored heart of a deceased superstar, the thwarted shots at Toads. And behind the haunches of this threatened frog, the cooled, warbling veins of “Wise Blood,” slinking through the cold.
Don’t get it twisted: This is not musical theater for the thick, nor the restless, nor the drunken. There may be a bare stage, a space pronounced and resolvedly metamorphic — but far from empty. There yawns the exposed brick upstage; there chat the bright, shaven chairs. And, there, practically alone, ache the actors.
When walking into the Off Broadway Theater, leave your souls at the door. Leave your sin on your breath, though, and your eyes set deep behind your brows. Playwright Matthew George ’11, composer Steven Feigenbaum ’12 and director Maya Seidler ’11 have not toiled over just petty Play-Doh, but throbbing, reddened clay, markedly Woodruffian, centered in Flannery O’Connor’s first novel of the same name. They’ve revived a glistening, thickened, bloody stew of wisdom, a stew stirred so spasmodically, but so surely.
You can’t expect; you can’t believe. Like most of O’Connor’s morality tales, our only saving grace lies in our general acceptance of the failures of language and the fervid vagaries of human relationship. You can at first only watch: Watch yourself laugh at the coy cravings of Sabbath Hawks (Emma Barash ’11), cheer on the cameos of an underrepresented Yael Zinkow ’12, or dabble in the (fr)antics of Enoch Emery (Peter Lewis ’13). The three, like momentary musketeers, and the opening number, save this narrative from its otherwise persistent and disconcerting grimace, the one painted tactfully on protagonist Hazel Motes’ (Raphael Shapiro ’12) face.
Upon first glance, following a sensational orchestral opening on an island of strings (led by pianist Keiji Ishiguri ’11), Motes’ first Southern twangs shadowed by his ostensibly pious cap appear stereotyped. A preacher’s grandson, all-black everything; a groggy discontent bubbling from his face; a grimace as wide as the Bible Belt: We’ve seen it, cast against sepia and bales of hay, at the very least in the mind’s eye. One more look, though, as he ascends atop his rusted car’s hood to hail the dawn of a “New Jesus,” and we see in Motes a young, unpasteurized Oedipus, seeking redemptive answers to sylphlike spiritual riddles.
Behind him, footlights sprawl their shouts across a brick wall; beneath him, a simple wooden chair; and the spectator is left both alienated and palliated by the seductively expanded space in an Off Broadway Theatre without curtains, without hidden entrances, without physical secrecy. In other words, “Wise Blood’s” mechanics crank only in the flesh of the cast of eight. We engorge on this naked stage, as Motes does with his guilty prostitute pleasure (Amy Rosenblum ’12), whose voice, in further ensemble roles, we sink effortlessly into like blindness into the old — or the crooked, as embodied by the dissonantly drastic role of Asa Hawks (Jerry Lieblich ’11).
So where buzzes the bizarre? You won’t know for now, because, as Motes growls, “You haven’t seen.” And when you have seen, make sure that you don’t just see nothin’.