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Dead Men's Tales

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Lorca in a Green Dress and A Shroud for Lazarus Halcyon Theatre

You'd think dying would bring an end to your troubles. But in the two plays currently running in repertory at Halcyon Theatre, death only leads to more aggravation. It's not hard to see why the company has paired Nilo Cruz's Lorca in a Green Dress with A Shroud for Lazarus by Nigerian playwright Rotimi Babatunde. Both plays center on a protagonist who stands out like a sore thumb in an oppressed society, and both begin with the hero's death. But while Babatunde's script is primarily a satire, Cruz's is a eulogy verging on a mash note. Neither quite comes off.

One of the 20th century's preeminent poets, Federico García Lorca also became one of its many martyrs when, in 1936, the 38-year-old Spaniard was executed by the Franco regime. Cruz sends him to a kind of nonreligious purgatory, which in Juan Castañeda's production consists of an unadorned stage flanked by benches. Shades are tasked with enacting scenes from Lorca's life and embodying bits of his psyche. Lorca in a Green Dress, for example, is in charge of the poet's dark desires. Lorca in Bicycle Pants represents childhood and dreams. A flamenco dancer stands for the traditions of his beloved Andalusia, and so on.

Lorca is supposed to contemplate his life and adjust to its having ended, two mental processes damn near impossible to dramatize. Carlos Rogelio Diaz tries to bring an agitated intensity to Lorca's reflections, but I couldn't escape the feeling that the play had started about five minutes after the story was over.

That leaves us with some pretty lines taken from Lorca's work, a little self-mourning from Lorca himself, evocations of a few of his favorite motifs (the moon, Gypsies, water), and a lot of people telling him how great he is. What's missing, despite Castañeda's well-orchestrated and empathetic production, is the mix of the elemental, the elegiac, and the ineffable in Lorca's poetry—verse full of desire and always grounded in the senses. Where is the writer whose Blood Wedding describes a jealousy like "silver pins . . . making my blood turn black" and "filling my flesh with bitter, choking weeds"?

The death that kicks off Babatunde's folkloric satire, on the other hand, is a fake. Hounded by creditors and cursed by his village's spiritual leader (a preening charlatan played with demented glee by Arch Harmon), wily, rascally Ajala stages his own death in order to buy himself some time and a little peace and quiet. He then resurrects himself, hoping to frighten off the creditors and discredit the holy man. He's successful, but soon a couple of powerful, predatory merchants come calling, determined to exploit Ajala and his fake miracle for their own ends. It's a sharp, bleak little story about the collusion of God and capitalism in the oppression of the weak.

Director Jenn Adams complements her story theater approach to the script with shadow tableaux, stylized movement, and incantatory speech. These are nice touches, but the effort is doomed thanks to a miscast and ill-prepared Will Davis as Ajala. Davis's Lou Rawls voice and doleful, lived-in face suit the part well, but he lacks focus and comic timing and seems rattled throughout—possibly because he has to struggle with a good three-quarters of his lines. Without a solid core, chaos reigns. The long scene in which Ajala's creditors descend on him like jackals, for instance, is an incoherent mess.

Thank God for Mary Jo Bolduc and Riso Straley, demons ex machina who manage to restore a little order and precision as the greedy, grasping businesspeople. Bolduc in particular gives a performance at once coarse, shrewd, and menacing, her swift, controlled movements calling to mind a bird of prey. Unfortunately, successful villains aren't enough to redeem a production that too often feels out of hand, and most of Babatunde's insights get lost in the confusion.   v

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