IF YOU GO
What: Jewish Confederate soldier and two slaves confront the end of the Civil War
When: 8 p.m. through Saturday, March. 30. Additional 3 p.m. matinée showings on March 17, 23, 24 & 30.
Where: Norris Community Center, 755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples
Cost: $33-$45, $15 for students
Information: 866-811-4111 or gulfshoreplayhouse.org
On the Web: Sign up to receive more theater news from the Stage Door blog via email.
755 Eighth Ave. S., Naples, FL
NAPLES — Stomp. Slap. Crack. Wince.
Stomp. Slap. Crack. Wince.
Stomp. Slap. Crack. Wince.
"The Whipping Man took off my shirt. He attached my hands to two leather straps. And I was whipped."
Biko Eisen-Martin stomps on the stage. His character John hits his fist into his hand; it makes a popping sound. John winces. John notices blood seeping through the bandage there. .
Stomp. Slap. Crack. Wince.
Gulfshore Playhouse explores the Civil War in frightening, fascinating, thrilling, daresay even extraordinary fashion in this Matthew Lopez show. "The Whipping Man" covers a few days after Lee's surrender at Appomattox. A Jewish soldier returns home to find his house in ruins, just two former slaves left and his family gone. As the starving, uneasy trio celebrates Passover with a makeshift Seder, bitter truths come out.
Kristen Coury discovered the play at Philadelphia's Arden Theatre, where eventual Gulfshore Playhouse artistic associate Cody Nickell was playing the part of Caleb DeLeon, the broken, injured Confederate soldier.
Nickell, director Matt Pfeiffer and longtime Philadelphia actor Johnnie Hobbs, Jr. as Simon return. Biko Eisen-Martin (John) joins after having just closed "Whipping Man" at the Actors Theatre of Louisville. The show also uses the costumes (Alison Roberts) and sound (Christopher Colucci) from the Arden production.
Don't be put off by the fact that this show is about slaves, the Civil War, Jews, (black Jews no less!) or even an incredibly traumatic scene in the first half where Nickell's character exposes a gangrenous leg. "The Whipping Man" delivers a stunning, captivating evening of theater that seizes you, holds you transfixed, rattles your brain and rearranges the way you look at the world.
Playwright Matthew Lopez roots the play in fact; there were slave-owning Jewish families in the South. Passover, the end of the war and the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln did coincide in mid-April 1865. The characters though - with their Biblical names - are entirely fiction.
Three distinct themes run through the play: faith, freedom and family. Pfeiffer grabs the play's signature idea - "what does it mean to be free" - turns it over, shakes it up and down, pummels it and dumps it back out on stage. The defining scene, a tossed-together Seder using stolen wine, "discovered" eggs, a brick instead of bread and the shank bone of Caleb's dead calvalry mount might be the most powerful, transformative, few minutes of theater you witness this year.
Staged to feel (and sound) like nothing so much as a Bible-thumping, clapping, hymn-singing, feet-stomping, tent revival with a preacher up front jumping and screaming and begging for souls, this was the definition of a scene. I half-expected someone to jump up and yell "Hallelujah." Except we were in a theatre. And these actors were reading from the Haggadah.
But as Johnnie Hobbs, Jr. recites passages about slaves escaping from Egypt, sings "Go Down Moses" or speaks of bitter herbs being a reminder of slavery, the scene takes on a life of its own. This is theatre - bold, assertive, visionary. Just twice before I've felt the transformative power of theatre, when you realize that the performance on stage has gone beyond mere acting into something that can shift your soul, move your heart and change your life. "The Whipping Man" joins that select group.
Pfeiffer proves able to resist the urge to run his actors around the stage like they're in a track meet. In taking another crack at the material, in a new space, with top-notch actors, he finds levels, layers and nuances tucked into the smallest corners of the script.
The economy of movement Pfeiffer builds into his show brings a ripple effect. It heightens tension and makes what movement there is all the more important. Eisen-Martin's rangy, uneasy in his own skin, John seems even more jumpy, while injured Captain DeLeon's screams reverberate. Tension in the room - both on stage and in the theatre - feels strained to a breaking point, so tight the audience can barely breathe - even when there are just three men in makeshift seats debating.
Hobbs brings a soft-spoken servility to his Simon, giving audiences a glimpse of the ultra-polite, bowing, scraping manner forced on slaves as a survival tactic. As the play rolls on, he allows Simon's fire to burn through the walls the character had built, casting off the servant to reveal the free man within. A raging scene where Simon discovers he is a better man than Caleb or John unleashes his fury and lays bare the final secrets. Catch the beautiful scene where he delicately broaches the subject of his newfound freedom with Captain DeLeon.
Eisen-Martin delivers a delicate, subtle, layered acting job that contains every hint of John's enormous rage at being an educated, literate slave. Watch for the barely suppressed, powerful panther-like physicality he gives to the character, even while revealing John's inner hollowness. He loiters on stage, slinking, swaggering across the floor with a fox's grace to display the pilfered treasures of Richmond's elite, unaware of freedom's true rewards. His is a mesmerizing performance, sometimes given just from the eyes and facial expressions, that heralds an electric new talent.
Nickell captures the audience from the very second Captain Caleb DeLeon hops through the moonlit door of Ken Goldstein's eerily bare, hauntingly gorgeous, mostly destroyed Southern Gothic townhouse. He hops, hops, screams. Faints. There is not a sound. We are in this world. Completely.
Nickell spends the entire show acting from a prone position, either laying directly on the floor or propped on a chair or cushions. Despite that, his magnetic presence and Pfeiffer's solid staging gives Caleb a vivid personality. If you're able, devote some attention to Nickell during the "eating" scenes. His varied facial expressions, layered in through repeated performances, add a wonderful touch to the show. Don't miss Caleb's heart-breaking letter to sweetheart Sarah at the top of Act II.
David M. Upton bathes the stage in beams of softest silver, filtered through cracked and crackled windows that suggest Twelve Oaks or Tara, but with an urban sophistication. Flickering lanterns, Seder candles and an ornate candle chandelier provide a warm glow and creates a powerful "storyteller's atmosphere." Actors, asked to light fires by touch on a dark stage, fumbled with uncooperative props for an overlong time Friday.
Colucci's sound design, including the wash of rain, the pounding of thunder and the slap of lightning, as well as the more sinister effects of war as experienced by Caleb, offer vivid insight. Watch Eisen-Martin for John's constantly upgrading wardrobe as he "borrows" finer and finer clothes from the empty houses around town. The sleek, polished wear contrasts perfectly with the horrors of the story.
The show isn't perfectly smooth yet. Places where the rhythm hasn't settled feel either slow or grindingly tense; these are few and far between. A stunning, tent-revival-worthy sermon after intermission drives out any thought of minor flaws. The dramatic, bombshell ending and stark, wordless, contemplative finale, with characters pondering the chains that enslave them, accomplishes the task that great theatre sets out to do - it makes you think.