Before I start today’s post, I wanted to take a moment and encourage everyone to contribute to the Chardon Healing Fund. 100 percent of the money raised will help those in the community directly affected by the random and devastating violence from earlier this week.
The majority remains quiet…And it is the minority…which strikes the match.’” — Antebellum
Cleveland Public Theatre’s latest production Antebellum continues the Gordon Square theatre’s mission of producing “a forum for debate, a vessel for exploration” through the performing arts.
Although the play, which runs at CPT through March 10, takes place almost a century ago, it is lines like the one above that demonstrate Antebellum‘s powerful relevance in a contemporary climate saturated with extremist idealogies.
Written by Robert O’Hara and first helmed at DC’s Wooly Mammoth Theatre in 2009, Antebellum is making its regional premiere at CPT. Last Friday, Scott and I headed to the Gordon Square Arts District for the production’s opening night.
At the heart of Antebellum are two men – one African-American, the other Jewish. The beautiful cabaret singer Gabriel and conflicted Southern gentleman Ariel (portrayed by Nicholas Sweeney and Mark Rabant, respectively) share a love that bridges years and thousands of miles while challenging their societies’ intolerance of race, religion and sexual preference.
CPT’s Associate Artistic Director Beth Wood both directed and designed the production’s set. Her stage design allowed the action to fluidly jump between a southern American plantation, a German concentration camp, the world premiere of Gone With The Wind and a Berlin cabaret in the 1930s.
Its simplicity also created a very effective backdrop against which three relationships become indelibly intertwined because of Gabriel and Ariel’s sweeping romance.
Although Gabriel and Ariel’s love story pushes Antebellum’s action forward, it’s through the respective people holding them back that the audience sees the full spectrum of discrimination central to the play.
On the one hand, there is Ariel’s wife of convenience whose obsession with the world premiere of Gone With The Wind is kind of chuckle-inducing at the start of the play. Laurel Hoffman intentionally plays “Simple Sarah” with an almost over-the-top ditziness and naivete. However, beneath her Southern belle charm lies a subtle racism that eventually transforms into violent hatred.
On the other side of the Atlantic is Oskar von Schleicher, a Nazi Commandment portrayed by Dana Hart. He is equal parts monster – imprisoning then viciously torturing Gabriel – as well as tragic prisoner to a love forbidden by the regime he serves.
Although Sarah and Oskar were powerful antagonists to Gabriel and Ariel re-discovering love, it’s a testament to Hoffman and Hart’s authentic portrayals that they could simultaneously stir pity and disdain for their characters.
Unfortunately, Audrey Lovy’s portrayal of the mysterious Edna was the production’s only weakness. Her performance was too restrained and didn’t fully capture the enigmatic stranger that shows up on Sarah’s doorstep at the beginning of the play.
O’Hara’s Antebellum is a heartwrenching story about discrimination in all its forms. Not just the outright hatred and violence that most often comes to mind when the topic is discussed, but the majority’s complicit silence that allows it to thrive.
Antebellum is on stage in CPT’s main Gordon Square Theatre until March 10. Along with Darwinii: The Comeuppance of Man and poor little Lulu, it is part of a three-play series CPT is busy producing over the next month.
Disclosure: I was offered two tickets to a performance of Antebellum in exchange for sharing my opinions in this blog post. As always, these opinions are 100% my own.