nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
October 23, 2011
An adaptation that was better than the original—that’s what I saw in Williamsburg the other night. The Obie Award-winning theater group Hoi Polloi is staging the John Cassavetes independent film Shadows (1959) in a very cool converted garage space, with jazz band (who also act and hand out beers and snacks). My recollection of the original film is that it jumps around a lot, and features some non-actors doing just that. In the hands of director Alec Duffy and the talented cast, the accidental flashes of genius in the movie become striking tableaux. The audience is seated on benches and sofas all around the space, which makes it understandable that two actors could be doing a scene next to you on your couch, or having a fist fight which spills out into the street. The space is also perfect for roving spotlights and shadows.
The story takes place within the beatnik world of 1950s New York. Two musical brothers (Mikéah Ernest Jennings and Julian Rozzell, Jr) are trying to get respect on the nightclub circuit, but find that the crowds would rather see cheesy dancing girl numbers. In the film, the African American brothers were very protective of their light-skinned sister, keeping a white suitor away from her. Racism feels even more hollow on this stage. In a memorable scene, they visit the Metropolitan Museum of Art and are amused at what passes for culture. The play can be as spontaneous and visceral as the film, but when the screaming jazz cuts in and the place starts shaking, it is a primal experience.
Stephen Arnold’s lighting makes use of a sliding spotlight on a cord, which does the cinematic job of isolating the characters. If some of the film’s shots where the performers are obscured were intentional, you get some clever recreations here. Becky Lasky’s costumes are very much of the times, minus the stupidity of '50s sitcoms; these feel like clothes worn by real people. Andrea Minicic’s sets make the spectators part of the show and really make it possible to keep the pace without scene changes. Rick Burkhardt as musical director with Ken Zwerin on bass and Steven Leffue on sax bring in the key element of “improvisation” that you would expect in Shadows.