By Eric J. Grimm
After a smash run at their Walker Street location, SoHo Rep’s An Octoroon has found a new home at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ subversive comedy is again directed by Sarah Benson, who smoothly transitions the show to a bigger space. The venue is ideal for a show as big as An Octoroon. This tightly scripted and well-executed work has all of the grandness of the plantation dramas it sends up while acting as a nesting doll for unexpected set pieces and complex ideas about race and melodrama.
Jacobs-Jenkins employs a sparingly used framing device in which he (played by Austin Smith) and playwright Dion Boucicault (Haynes Thigpen) spar over interpretations of the latter’s 1859 play The Octoroon. Boucicault’s outdated melodrama concerns the uncertain future of a plantation after its owner passes away. BJJ, as he is referred to in the program, takes it upon himself to play the white roles as white actors refuse to take part in his reinterpretation of the play. This invites quite a bit of cross-racial performance, complete with white face, black face, and red face makeup. It’s one of the many bits that Jacobs-Jenkins introduces to hilarious and squirming effect without driving them into the ground in his postmodern reinterpretation. Other gags include a tomahawk dance to Azealia Banks, sprinklings of anachronistic dialogue, and an impeccably dressed bunny.
While the male performers dominate the stage for the first fifteen minutes, the show’s female performers are its most dynamic once they arrive. As house and field slaves, Maechi Aharanwa, Pascale Armand, and Danielle Davenport have some of the broadest comic dialogue, which they fully embrace as they propel the show forward with their quick tongues. As the show’s most subjugated characters, they are also the most practical and this shines through in their performances. As high camp southern belle Dora, Mary Wiseman so skillfully tackles her caricature that she never risks being annoying.
Amber Gray, playing the titular octoroon Zoe, delivers the most startling performance. Among sharp comic ensemble members, she has mostly sincere moments to play throughout the show and many of them are heart wrenching. Gray is terrific in those scenes and Jacobs-Jenkins and Benson wisely break from the satire to let these moments occur. The treatment of Zoe is a testament to the creators’ appreciation for melodrama, where more cynical writers and directors might have used the opportunity to merely eviscerate the genre. Instead, Zoe, like so many elements in the play, is fully formed and surprising throughout.
An Octoroon is playing at Theatre for a New Audience’s Polonsky Shakespeare Center ( 262 Ashland Pl, Brooklyn) extended through March 15.