So…do you remember The Firesign Theater? Does the name ring a distant bell of recognition? If so, you’ll have a pretty good idea of how you might prepare yourself for a visit to the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center, where A Free Man of Color, a new play by John Guare, is now in previews.
For those of you who don’t know—or can’t quite recall—Firesign Theater was a comedy troupe that performed on radio during the height of the 1960s psychedelic era and produced record albums with such titles as Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers. The group’s modus operandi was surrealistic, stream-of-conscious wordplay, best appreciated in a state of heightened awareness induced by any number of medicinal herbs.
Or so I'm told.
In any event, A Free Man of Color, with its cast of 26 spinning under the whirlwind direction of George C. Wolfe, is an eyeful of something-or-other that is difficult to fathom in a state of cold sobriety.
Let me take a stab at explaining. Remember, though, that we are now entering the realm of speculation.
Act I takes place in the wild and woolly New Orleans of 1801. The lead performer is the title character, who goes by the name of Jacques Cornet, played with wild abandon by Jeffrey Wright. Cornet is a man of property who considers himself to be an influential member of the upper class, an intellectual, and an unparalleled womanizer. That he is the mulatto offspring of his white plantation owner father and his black slave mother is irrelevant—at least in his eyes.
Aided and abetted by his own slave, Murmur (played with great élan by Mos, the actor formerly known as Mos Def), Cornet offers up what I take to be a play he himself has written, in a style that co-opts William Wycherley’s Restoration comedy The Country Wife, along with odd bits of Moliere and Shakespeare—filtered through a manic New Orleans Mardi Gras sensibility. There is something very off-kilter, though, so that the only way I could make sense of it was to think of Cornet as pretty much unschooled as well as self-important and delusional–kin perhaps, to the bipolar young hustler who calls himself "Paul Poitier" in Guare's Six Degrees of Separation.
With Act II, reality starts to intrude, and Guare switches gears by providing us with a history lesson on the unfolding of the early phase of what would later be referred to as “Manifest Destiny,” the expansion of the United States from sea to shining sea. New Orleans has been swept up in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, and it is no longer a place of unbridled freedom.
The scenes flash by like an out-of-control carousel, featuring—among others--Thomas Jefferson (John McMartin, how nice it is to see ya), Meriwether Lewis (an enthusiastic Paul Dano), James Monroe (Arnie Burton), Walter Reed (Brian Reddy), and Napoleon Bonaparte (performed with scene-stealing hilarity by Triney Sandoval). It’s not for nothing that there are over two dozen performers, several of whom—like veteran actress Veanne Cox—play multiple roles.
In all of this mayhem, Cornet is caught up in the riptide of history. When he is finally washed up on shore, he finds himself in a much different world than the one he inhabited just a few years earlier.
John Guare is definitely an important playwright, having given us such indelible works as the aforementioned Six Degrees of Separation and The House of Blue Leaves (set to be revived in the spring). Thus, I am loath to dismiss A Free Man of Color as merely a spaced-out opium pipe dream of a play.
So, I’ll just say that if you should go, do not expect to fully understand what is taking place before you. I’m not even certain that Mr. Guare or Mr. Wolfe fully understands what they have unleashed.
But both the director and the actors have leaped aboard in a great act of blind faith and are giving it their all. The same is true of Ann Hould-Ward, who has created an exploding rainbow of colorful costumes, and of David Rockwell, whose sets are both eye-catching and designed in such as way so that they fly on and off as quickly as the performances.
You may leave the theater scratching your head, but you may also be surprised to find that the visceral images linger. If so, you might just want to pull out your old copy of Don’t Crush That Dwarf, Hand Me The Pliers and give it a whirl.
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