Chicago Theater Review: MUD, RIVER, STONE (Eclipse Theatre Company)

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by Lawrence Bommer on November 10, 2014

in Theater-Chicago

GETTING ROOTS WRONG

The Dark Continent just got a bit less light. Concluding their all-Lynn Nottage season (which featured Ruined and Intimate Apparel), Eclipse Theatre Company offers the sardonic parable Mud, River, Stone, a culture-clashing drama. Nottage stalwartly addresses the challenges faced by African-Americans who want to be both, specifically two upscale New York tourists who find themselves lost (in so many ways) in a rebel-infested area of southeast Africa.

Sarah and David Bradley (AnJi White and Robert Hardaway), an African-American couple vacationing in Africa, try to resolve their differences in Eclipse Theatre's production of “Mud, River, Stone” by Lynn Nottage, directed by Andrea J. Dymond.

With bleak “fish out of water” humor more befitting a serious sitcom, Nottage details a “nightmare vacation” in which this trendy couple—a naïve journalist and an ambitious banker—find themselves trapped in the wrong adventure.

Simone Frick (Delia Baseman), a humanitarian aid worker, tells David and Sarah Bradley (Robert Hardaway and AnJi White) that help is on the way for a crisis that has spun out of control, in Eclipse Theatre's production of “Mud, River, Stone” by Lynn Nottage, directed by Andrea J. Dymond.

Globe-trotting cosmopolites Sarah and David Bradley (AnJi White and Robert Hardaway) just want a romantic return to the land of their ancestors. But, misdirected by torrents of rain and bad luck, they’ve “crossed the line,” never knowing that one existed. Abandoned in the jungle, they stumble into the once-elegant Imperial Hotel, a colonial relic now in territory disputed by insurgents and far from help. Plagued with power failures and bad plumbing, reduced to eating bushmeat when available, and drinking heavily from the always open bar, the Bradleys are in for a crash course on Africa’s contradictions.

Neibert (Matt Thinnes) joins Ama (Elana Elyce) in a traditional African dance, in Eclipse Theatre's production of “Mud, River, Stone” by Lynn Nottage, directed by Andrea J. Dymond.

Nottage surrounds these stereotypical Ugly Americans with five predictable representatives of aspects—and extremes–of Africa: There’s white Mr. Blake (Zach Bloomfield), a gun-toting, exploitive businessman whose uncle built the now-dilapidated hotel; Ama Cyllah (Elana Elyce), a Nigerian missionary aid worker wise to the perils of poverty; and Neibert (Matt Thinnes), a strange Belgian white boy who, having gone native, wears a Masai toga and spouts animist lore. Later we meet hapless Simone Frick (Delia Baseman), an intermediary who’s yet one more ineffectual outsider.

Mr. Blake (Zach Bloomfield) finishes a crossword puzzle in the lobby of the Imperial Hotel before introducing himself to the newly arrived Americans David and Sarah Bradley (Robert Hardaway and AnJi White), in Eclipse Theatre's production of “Mud, River, Stone” by Lynn Nottage, directed by Andrea J. Dymond.

Finally, and fatefully, there’s Joaquim (Anthony Conway), a bellhop and former soldier who, stealing Blake’s revolver, suddenly turns on these guests, holding them hostage in return for a wool blanket for his mother and grain for his starving village.

David and Sarah Bradley (Robert Hardaway and AnJi White) tell the story of their African vacation to party guests (Matt Thinnes and Anthony Conway), in Eclipse Theatre's production of “Mud, River, Stone” by Lynn Nottage, directed by Andrea J. Dymond.

Regrettably, Nottage turns the residents’ potentially engrossing captivity into either talkfest or illustrated lecture about the dangers of mythologizing Africa. She clearly sides with Joaquim, a dangerously desperate underdog—even though his gun-flailing tends to forfeit some sympathy (it’s hard to concentrate on nuances in dialogue when you always fear imminent violence).

Joaquim (Anthony Conway) exerts his authority at the Imperial Hotel, in Eclipse Theatre's production of “Mud, River, Stone” by Lynn Nottage, directed by Andrea J. Dymond.

It’s strangely sad how quickly Mud, River, Stone (its title as abstract as its indictments) turns static and schematic, holding us all hostage in the worst way. Nottage reduces these characters to talking points issuing position papers on how narrowly they perceive the multiplicity of Africa. Of course, the not so African-American Bradleys—and the audience—get a colorful “how I spent my summer vacation” anecdote. But the problems afflicting Africa remain inscrutable. Of course, that’s Nottage’s argument—but it doesn’t come through as urgent or captivating theater.

Sarah and David Bradley (AnJi White and Robert Hardaway, foreground) argue while vacationing in Africa at the Imperial Hotel, as Joaquim (Anthony Conway), Neibert (Matt Thinnes), and Mr. Blake (Zach Bloomfield) look on, in Eclipse Theatre's production of “Mud, River, Stone” by Lynn Nottage, directed by Andrea J. Dymond.

The always excellent Andrea Dymond prosecutes Nottage’s PowerPoint play, injecting as much vigor as seven stolid roles allow. But for too many Americans the one truth they’ll take from this scary travelogue (at least there’s no Ebola) is a fervent desire to never leave the tourist zones.

photos by Tim Knight

Mud, River, Stone
Eclipse Theatre Company
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport Ave.
Thurs-Sat at 7:30; Sun at 2
scheduled to end on December 14, 2014
for tickets, call 773-935-6875 or visit www.eclipsetheatre.com

for more info on Chicago Theater, visit www.TheatreinChicago.com

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