A brilliant dramatization of a funny, yet shocking Flannery O’Connor short story.
By Joel Benjamin
The innovative theater company, Compagnia de’ Colombari, turned a Greenwich Village high school auditorium into a Southern town, circa 1950s via the words of Southern Gothic author Flannery O’Connor. They took her short story Everything That Rises Must Converge and gave O’Connor’s twisty, dark story an incredibly detailed and full-bodied interpretation. As is typical of her work, a Southern community is examined with wit, x-ray vision and a well-tuned ear for dialect. Those words lead the reader—or, in this case, the audience—on what at first is a well-observed, humorous journey, one that turns bizarrely violent in manner that is as shocking as it is swift.
In ETRMC, Julian’s mother is taking a bus trip into town from her slightly shabby white suburb with Julian. She is going to attend an exercise class for over-weight middle-aged women. She wears a rather ugly hat, an extravagance. Julian is grudgingly accompanying his mother whom he despises for her old-fashioned life style and beliefs. On the bus they encounter locals, at first only white locals, until a well-dressed black man enters, followed soon by a black woman and her young son. The little boy enchants Julian’s mom. The little boy and his mother (who unfortunately and inconveniently is wearing the exact same millinery nightmare as Julian’s mom!) leave the bus. Julian and his mother also get off. Julian’s mom offers the boy a coin against the angry advice of her son and is violently rebuffed by the black mother, a moment of viciousness that upends her self-satisfied, orderly life, destroying her completely.
There isn’t much plot, but plenty of keen observation and a deep understanding of the culture of the 1950s South. By dictate of Ms. O’Connor’s estate, any dramatization could not change a single word of the story, which turned out to be a blessing, giving this cast of nine actors, under Karin Coonrod’s painstakingly detailed direction, many opportunities not only to become finely etched characters, but also to fill in the gaps between lines with well-observed commentary. Helped by the period-perfect costumes of Oana Botez, including that awful hat, the cast members not only spoke their lines brilliantly but totally immersed themselves in the physical realities of these people. Lit mostly by two hand-held instruments, the play had the feel of an arch surreality, the exact tone that Ms. O’Connor uses in most of her stories, most of which have a violent twist.
The evening was short-circuited a bit by having one of the actors, Aye Je Feamster (who played the fulminating black mother), sing a Gospel tune, soon joined by the rest of the cast. Although exquisitely and movingly rendered, the song had absolutely nothing to do with the preceding drama, adding more than a faint and distracting hint of religious/spiritual ambience which jostled with the dry, unsentimental mood of Flannery O’Connor’s story.
This performance was the last in a tour that took the company to Washington, DC, Atlanta and Brunswick, Maine. Although based in New York City, the Compagnia de’ Colombari began in Italy where it will return this summer with a re-thinking of a Monteverdi opera. The absolute dedication of the entire troupe, from actors to technical staff, is extraordinary. Hopefully they will perform in their hometown soon in a longer season, perhaps bringing back this production of Everything That Rises Must Converge.
Everything That Rises Must Converge – April 16th, 2014
Little Red/Elisabeth Irwin High School
40 Charlton St. (between 6th Ave. and Varick St.)
New York, NY
Tickets and Information on Future Performances: www.colombari.org
Running Time: 50 minutes