Cabin Fever 

Uncle Tom and Little Eva are hot again at Cleveland Public Theatre.

Constant character switch-ups are both dazzling and - confusing.
  • Constant character switch-ups are both dazzling and confusing.
Nigger. Kike. Wop. Gook. Honky. The vile names for the racial and ethnic categories into which we shove others are virtually inexhaustible. Some people have always used their powers of observation to demean and denigrate those with a different skin hue or a non-"standard" shape of nose or eyes or lips. And in this country, no externally defiled group has been put through more damnable tortures than those people variously referred to over the past couple of centuries as Negroes, blacks, and African Americans.

Back in the 1850s, a white Ohio woman, Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote a book about slavery that probably helped to spark the Civil War. At the very least, Uncle Tom's Cabin presented a multitude of issues to a country that had pretty much accepted slavery as a necessary component of economic vitality. And we've never been the same since. As part of its American Classics Series, which seeks to reexamine classic plays from fresh perspectives, Cleveland Public Theatre is now presenting a reworking of Stowe's florid creation, employing a mixture of theatrical forms and intercutting the story's plot with asides from assorted literati (Oscar Wilde, James Baldwin), real slave narratives, and scientific pro-and-con babble regarding the supposedly factual foundations of race-centered eugenics.

Devised by Floraine Kay and Randolph Curtis Rand (who also doubles as this production's director), the result is an often breathtaking display of theatricality and staging, in which the message is frequently suffocated by the technique used to tell it. Five performers form the core of this exuberant work, each of whom constantly switches and shares characters -- blending age, gender, and race to symbolically obliterate preconceived stereotypes. Scenes are presented with stilted announcements of setting and character, minstrel-show-style, and the acting is gigantically broad and melodramatic. This is how we meet the characters we've all heard of, but can't quite place: Little Eva, Eliza escaping across the ice floes, impish Topsy, villainous Simon Legree, and of course, the unbearably noble and long-suffering Uncle Tom.

In the first act, all the characters -- including two burlesque biologists, who appear from various historical times and places -- wear period costumes, with the five principals also bedecked in African face paint. Two interactive stagehands (Robert J. Williams and Betsy Hogg), in modern dress, help set the scenes and occasionally join in as the company explosively deconstructs Stowe's story line. Director Rand presents a handsome, stylized product full of movement, spontaneous dance, and unexpected vocal attacks. This is all fun, as far as it goes, but since few in the audience have any memory of the original yarn and because the actors keep changing roles, the plot is fiendishly difficult to follow.

This confusion is remedied somewhat by a second act that is much more direct, with the five key actors clean-faced and dressed in all-black Mao-like outfits. The script whipsaws between pun-filled "Mr. Tambo and Mr. Bones" send-ups and didactic treatises, all in an attempt to probe the DNA of Stowe's original work, along with the cellular pseudo-differences among humans. Some of the wordplay is a delight, while other bits are so forced, they lose their snap (one character, in full anachronism mode, mentions that Uncle Tom is crossing a picket line, just so that he can utter the carefully enunciated groaner "Uncle Tom's scabbin'").

A play with such colliding components is a daunting vehicle for any actor, and the CPT performers who make up the role-sharing ensemble are only partly equal to the task. Nina Domingue switches characters fluidly and ignites as a hip-hop dancing Topsy. Similarly magnetic onstage is David Loy, who is captivating as pathetic Little Eva and the venomous Simon Legree. George Roth seems to have fewer showy moments, but is reliably steady. However, Cornelius Bethea drones through too many unshaped speeches, and Rhoda Rosen is excessively shrill, in addition to being soft on lines. This unevenness in the cast is critical when there is such an intimate sharing of characters, so the overall effect is ultimately weakened. As the comical doctors, Michael Regnier and G.A. Taggett happily butcher their-ah Italian-ah accents-ah.

One of the major pleasures of this Uncle Tom's Cabin is the eye candy, with Rand's innovative staging placed on scenic designer Rodney Cuellar's circular raw-plank platform. Framing the set is a row of tubular trees with short, contorted branches -- conveying the sense of a barren horizon. The lush lighting by Trad A. Burns meshes perfectly, shining up against the real brick wall of the theater as well as the figurative brick wall erected by racism.

The undeniable spirit and enthusiasm of this production eventually conquers the overabundance of content, leaving the audience with an electrifying theatrical experience. But with all the gags married to pretensions of gravitas, serious contemplation of significant racial issues will have to await another play.

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