Friendship, love, art, obsession, addiction, betrayal, sex, abduction, and murder, sprinkled with hints of incest and family fun-loving cannibalism for good measure. Playwright Jacqueline E. Lawton covers a bucket load of bases in this world premiere, and although the topics swirl and topple all over each other fighting for space and attention, and some of the moments are as wacky as all get up, aspects of the gut wrenching passion between the characters actually find their way through the hodgepodge of the sordid layers and feel real. Director Danielle Drakes maintains a sure and steady hand gently pacing the action and creative tension among the sordid players. But it’s the actors who steal the show and make us care about the characters all while they sink deeper into the mire of degradation.
Anastasia Wilson’s Anna Lee is a delightfully willful charmer in a flowing full-length summer dress, revealing assets galore with her womanly charms. No wonder all the men fall for her – but she only has eyes for one, her drunken and disorderly artist husband of six years, who spews words of affection and attrition between violent drunken sprees and who has been openly living with another woman for the last five. Why does she take it? Who’s zooming who? Lawton teases us with hints of a “special connection” that has bonded the two and even includes a mutual friend, a third party whose mere presence mysteriously maintains an equilibrium for this precarious balancing act. However, it doesn’t take much for this house of cards to crash into bits mainly because we’re so uncertain what structural elements kept it aloft in the first place.
Anna Lee goes through the most intense transformation of all the characters. She successfully portrays the dutiful and doting wife for most of the first act, taking his abuse, caring for him solicitously, listening patiently to his tirades, trying to tend to her own artistic endeavors as a sculptress while encouraging his artistry, even serving as his muse. Tony Bullock as her conflicted and tormented husband Luke is the other shining star in this full cast, with eyes that gleam with artistic appreciation for the lines and colors he sees in his head, that stay stuck up there when he’s stuck and can’t create, who self-medicates with a ready drink in hand. Jodi Niehoff as his agent/lover appreciates his genius, and initially thinks she can tolerate his artistic temperament and get some incredible art work on the side, but little does she know that she is no match for the deeply rooted craziness that awaits her. There’s even a sister element in the story with Rosie Sowa as Carmen who struts and sings and commands attention as the finds her way through the mess.
The ties that bind the characters shift and turn uneasily. Anna who seemed harmlessly docile in Act 1 slowly becomes a menacing threat with pathological tendencies. Anastasia plays the character with drop-dead gorgeous control and a cool that is chilling to the bone. The characters wrestle with each other, mounting and thrusting with hot abandon, satisfying primal urges without a drop of real affection. Don’t even get me started about the sharing of flesh among family and friends. More like a homegrown family stew than Mrs. Lovett’s meat pies, the cannibalism element comes out of left field and doesn’t settle very well before it wants to come right back up.
Lawton’s prolific outpouring over the last several years has been noteworthy. She has a tendency to write like a stew, with tasty ingredients chopped and swirling in a bubbly cauldron. Her moments between characters are real and intense and scalding hot. She pierces into interior emotional spaces, including ugly crevices, and displays the results for all to see. It’s quite intriguing to watch the unfolding in poetic language and lyrical passages. Still, for this particular piece, the question is, what is the story’s intention, its purpose, its reason for being? With so many threads to keep up with, along with the unsettling twists, there’s a need for some kind of purposeful direction, not as much Rules for the Road, as some indication that we’re at least on a road, or within sight of something that might be a road even if it is leads to perdition.
This is the debut season for theHegira, whose purpose is to showcase the artistry of women of color, encourage dialogue between artists and audiences through stories of struggle, survival and triumph. Works like Deep Belly Beautiful push the envelope, thrust beyond glass ceilings, walls and stairways, and into fascinating territory with bizarre characters and twists. And that’s a good thing – if nothing else, to assuage our own bizarre deep belly longings.
Deep Belly Beautiful
Written by Jacqueline E. Lawton
Directed by Danielle A. Drakes
Produced by theHegira
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
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