"The Unmentionables" may be one of the best of the year
BY JAMES D. WATTS JR. World Scene Writer
Saturday, May 12, 2012
5/12/12 at 4:38 AM
One of the most famous lines from the film "The Rules of the Game" could easily apply to what goes on in Bruce Norris' play in "The Unmentionables" - "The awful thing about life is this: Everyone has his reasons."
The characters in "The Unmentionables" have reasons aplenty for the way they act - acts might seem at first to be benevolent, practical or merely expedient, but which lead to instances of savage humor and horrific savagery.
As reasons to attend Playhouse Tulsa's production of "The Unmentionables," which is presented this weekend at the Tulsa PAC, I can think of one - it will be one of the best shows you'll see this year.
It will also be one of the more disturbing shows you're likely to see, as Norris' story - set over the course of an evening at a luxurious plantation in an unnamed African country - plays mercy havoc with one's expectations and perceptions.
And you get warned right at the start that things are going to be a little out of the ordinary. Before the main action begins, one of the characters, a young African named Etienne (Rueben Wakefield), comes out to berate the audience for being there.
Why pay "big money" for a show, Etienne asks, when one could be at home watching TV where "you got the comedy channel, you got MTV, you got CNN, 24 hours a day."
In other words, ways of escaping from, or desensitizing oneself to, some of the terrible things that happen in places we think we understand - or at least can remake in our own image.
That's what the four Americans in this African villa are trying to do. Don (John Knippers) is a businessman, who owns some sort of factory that employs the locals as it poisons the environment. His talkative wife, Nancy, (Janet Rutland) lives in her own self-contained - and possibly self-medicated - world.
Dave (Chris Crawford) is a missionary, whose attempts to educate and indoctrinate the children of the area has been thwarted by someone setting the school on fire, forcing Dave and his fiancee, Joan (Courtneay Sanders), a former TV actress, to accept shelter from Don and Nancy.
Don's desire to find solutions that are "the best for everyone" might be as noble as Dave's efforts to convert people to Christianity. The head of the local government, Auntie Mimi (Britney Walker-Merritte), a stridently finger-snapping despot who demands respect from all, views Don as a necessary evil and Dave as a dangerous interloper.
Observing them all is the Doctor (Carl Collins), whose marijuana habit and sly sardonic humor in no way obscures his clear-eyed view of those around him.
Not long after Dave storms out of the villa in the middle of the night and the middle of a deluge, following his screed of righteous indignation at everyone in no uncertain terms, comes word that he was seen getting into a car - something the last missionary in town did, right before pieces of his body started showing up in various places.
"The Unmentionables" is unquestionably a show for adults: the language is occasionally profane, and the final 20 minutes or so ventures into some pretty dark places.
But Playhouse's production is so cleanly directed by Crawford, and graced by some sharply defined, totally committed performances that create characters that are so believably real as to be infuriating, that one is immediately caught up in this complex, ever-shifting story and carried along to its ironic, yet inevitable end.
The entire cast is strong, from Crawford's tightly wound missionary to Knippers' avuncular capitalist, from Sanders' Joan, who wants to do good even if she's not certain how or why, to Rutland's deceptively ditzy Nancy, whose rambling anecdotes mask some frightful depths.
Walker-Merritte's intensity as Auntie Mimi is perfectly balanced by Collins' laissez-faire facade as the Doctor, while Wakefield gives Etienne a blustery bravado that ultimately is his undoing.
The only weak links are Silas Tibbs and Sheldon Young as the Soldiers. At Thursday's performance, their lack of confidence with the French patois they had to speak undermined the menacing presence they should have evoked.
"The Unmentionables" is something to see, but it only runs through Sunday. Don't miss it.
"The Unmentionables" continues with performances 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Tulsa PAC, 110 E. Second St. For tickets: 918-596-7111, tulsaworld.com/mytix
Original Print Headline: 'Unmentionables' is must-see
James D. Watts Jr. 918-581-8478
Courtneay Sanders as Joan speaks with John Knippers who is playing Don in a scene from "The Unmentionables." KT KING/Tulsa World