Los Angeles Theater Review: PURE CONFIDENCE (Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble at Sacred Fools)

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by Jason Rohrer on May 7, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles


Featuring a bright, pretty Tom Buderwitz set, Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble’s Pure Confidence is a chance to see something increasingly rare under Equity rules: a stageful of hot actors really close up, working hard and nailing it. From the front row (there are only three), William Salyers’ frightened eyes, Tamara Graham’s worried chin, Armond Edward Dorsey’s arrogant teeth make a spectacle so arresting that it took me an hour to start disliking the writing. The long points of Deborah Puette’s cheekbones frame intention as well as any face in town. Eamon Hunt and Dylan John Seaton kindle fire independent of the author who wrote their soggy parts. This kind of talent and skill is edifying to witness, even more impressive when, from the house, I can’t see where the actors got the inspiration.

A play that mistakes political history for drama replaces show with tell. There’s no business like tell business for a very good reason; left to its own devices, Carlyle Brown’s 2009 script makes a tedious entertainment. The story of a celebrated jockey slave who tries to earn his freedom and fortune at the racetrack only to have the Civil War collapse upon him, the play is unembarrassed to use Stephen Foster’s “Camptown Races” as an anchoring tool, sung by the cast at every opportunity. Lacking interesting plot and story points, Pure Confidence seems hamstrung by adherence to historical fact, but the story is entirely of Carlyle’s invention. There is therefore no clear excuse for making half the play’s characters purely expositional devices (“I’m a journalist researching black jockeys!”, “Get south of the Mason-Dixon – we’ve fired on Fort Sumter!”).

Over the course of two hours’ conversation on race and society, a character does make a couple of dramatically salient choices, in each case saying several times what he intends to do before doing it. The rest of the time is devoted to naturalistic chatter that edges more-or-less benevolent white people toward seeing that it’s not enough to be nice to your slaves; you have to free them too. Lip service is paid to the passing theme of a wife’s servitude to her husband, and vice versa. But the dramatic action is consistently insignificant to the characters – the final choice is whether those freedmen ought to go back and work for their former masters, and it’s not clear whether enslavement, war or freedom have made much impact on their lives. Poetically speaking, Ouroboros is not a moveable feast: The snake of fable more easily digests a tail made from a fantastic Beckett apocalypse than from actual historical circumstances with practical repercussions.

A modern audience is furlongs ahead of the characters in this race. The playwright has said that Foghorn Leghorn was the inspiration for a central role. This suggests a playful presentation might work better than Marya Mazor’s prosaic staging, which stands and sits its cast in a series of straight lines, and runs Nicholas Santiago’s projections instead of creating scenes. Even Buderwitz’s captivating cyclorama is designed to showcase predictable video: running horses; period lithographs; a 20th-century blackface performance of, yes, “Camptown Races.” Heavy is the hand, and heavier the feet, of this show’s simplistic thesis.

And yet six actors make their passions unmistakable and important, because actors aren’t what they say. They’re what they do. These elevate the proceedings past the black-box due diligence of so much intimate theater. It is always exciting to see human beings care this much.

photos by Ed Kreiger

Pure Confidence
Lower Depth Theatre Ensemble
Sacred Fools Theatre, 1076 Lillian Way in Hollywood
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 3
ends on May 14, 2017
for tickets, call 323.960.7745 or visit Lower Depth

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