Two musicians, two stories: “Palindrome,” Rapid Lemon’s latest piece, is actually two one-acts, linked by themes of music and madness. Both pieces take their titles from the middle names of the main characters: Sphere follows Thelonious Sphere Monk as he examines his life in a fictional therapist’s office; Pentz visits Marvin Pentz Gaye both before and after his death in 1984.
In the hands of playwright Max Garner, both these troubled, talented men dissect their lives, their family relationships, and ultimately their bouts with both drugs and mental illness.
The first piece of the evening, Sphere, takes place in a therapist’s office, as Monk, beautifully played by
Martique Smith, agonizes over his past. The play takes overlong to get up a head of steam; there’s a lot of exposition, undoubtedly necessary for those unfamiliar with Monk’s history, yet Smith’s heartfelt portrayal is so watchable it little matters. He’s alternately manic and funny, despondent and delightful. Garner’s script gives us a glimpse of a musician living life at lightspeed.
In portraying Hannah, the therapist, Veronica T. Lockett had the actual script visible on stage (in the small Theatre Project stage one is close enough to see the yellow highlighter). She stumbled along, repeating herself, umm-ing though the evening, riffling through the pages of script on her desk. To pair someone so underprepared with an actor who so clearly has taken pains to not only know his lines but to fully explore his character ruined the rhythm of the play. And to add insult to injury, at times her therapist diagnoses are actually projected on a screen right behind her, so that we could tell, to a word, when she was off.
Yet for all that, it’s a fascinating glimpse into the early days of jazz, and the convoluted mind of a genius. Monk himself is such a unique fellow that the fictitious therapist, as a plot device, isn’t really needed, and the peculiar two man ‘chorus’ at the end is simply unnecessary. This would make a fine one man play; Smith’s Thelonious Sphere Monk doesn’t need any help commanding our attention.
Pentz, about singer Marvin Pentz Gaye, is the better of the two pieces. A thoughtful exploration about childhood abuse by his Pentecostal minister father, who murdered his son at the height of his fame. The word “palindrome” means a phrase that reads the same backward as forward, and it’s particularly chilling when speaking of a parent murdering his own son, for no matter how high Marvin Gaye soared, his own beginning was also his own ending.
Justin Johnson as Gaye does a good job at portraying the son a father never loved; he tries to numb himself with ever-increasing amounts of drugs and alcohol, yet underneath he’s a decent man. Married twice, divorced twice, he tries to please everyone around him and ends up running in circles. We’ll never know if his story could have had a happy ending; plenty of celebrities survived the cocaine-riddled parties of the 1980s, and for all we know, Gaye could have been one of them.
As Marvin Gay Sr, Mike Smith is a perfect storm as the angry tornado that was Marvin Gaye’s father. Religious and righteous, he believed that to spare the rod was to spoil the child, and Marvin and his siblings were never spoiled. As the hypocritical bully who beat his children and intimidated his wife, Smith is mesmerizing, an angry presence that’s felt even before he speaks.
Palindrome: Sphere and Pentz
closes May 20, 2018
Details and tickets
Though the story itself is a tragedy, there’s much-needed comedy written into the script, and Ime Essien sparkles as the inept reporter who opens the play with a reporter-on-the-street standup after Gaye has been shot. Mia Robinson as Anna, Gaye’s first wife and the sister of record producer Berry Gordy, is adept at portraying a powerful woman who falls for a younger man’s charms.
Scene changes within this piece were far too long, with whole stanzas of music “What’s Going On?” played as actors moved just a chair or two. Undoubtedly this was meant to showcase Gaye’s music. Costumes by Deana Fisher Brill were nicely evocative of the period, with elegant silhouettes.
Mention must be made of the superb projections for both plays by Bob Denton- with little by way of set in either play, we were instead treated to cascading ribbons of beautifully chosen backdrop scenes. Lovely.
Oh, and one more mention: while you’re there, look at the walls before you enter the theater. The Theatre Project always takes great pains to pair the art in the small lobby to reflect the current production, and this time around it’s rather wonderful- bright, swirling Afrocentric pieces evoke the urban swing of the past and the present.
Palindrome, two plays by Max Garner
Martique Smith as Thelonious Sphere Monk; Veronica T Lockett as Hannah; Ime Eissien and Mia Robinson as Chorus
Jusine Johnson as Marvin Pentz Gaye; Ime Eissien as Reporter, Jan, Tammi; Mia Robinson as Anna, Mother; Mike Smith as Medic, Berry, Father
Production Team: “Sphere” directed by David D. Mitchell; “Pentz”, directed by Lance Bankerd & Lee Conderacci; Artistic Director: Lance Bankard; Managing Director: Max Garner; Projection Designer: Bob Denton; Lighting Designer: Allen Sean Weeks; Costume Designer: Deana Fisher Brill; Makeup Designer: Hannah Brill; Stage Manager: Amanda J. Halcott . Produced by Rapid Lemon Productions . Reviewed by Jill Kyle-Keith.