Review: ‘After Birth of a Nation’ at City Theater Company

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Today’s audiences need farce. Wild men chasing beautiful women through many doors, visual running gags, women dressed as men, and vice versa, all enhanced by a desperation throttled performing style to keep the laughs coming. Our crazy world just requires farce!!

City Theater’s After Birth of a Nation, a world premiere by David Robson, supplies all the common ingredients of farce, but sets the comedy in an unlikely locale: the White House in 1915, during the Woodrow Wilson administration. And one of the main characters is famed director D.W. Griffith, fresh from directing the classic (but virulently racist) movie Birth of a Nation.

Jim Burns, Dylan Geringer and George Tietze. Photo by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography.

Jim Burns, Dylan Geringer and George Tietze. Photo by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography.

You want laughs? When the President of the United States is unable to meet the Russian Ambassador, his daughter impersonates him. The President’s butler tries to murder an adversary and comically fails many, many times. There’s a lusty, girl-chasing reverend who jumps out of a window as his wife suddenly appears. It all contributes to the farcical mood.

The setting and lighting co-designed by Vicki Neal and Richard A. Kendrick deliver the necessary elements. There are two doors facing each other, one leading outside, the other leading to the servants’ area, dominated by “coloreds.” (This is, after all, 1915.) There is a window stage center where the poor reverend (George Tietze) can be seen freezing to death, and plenty of benches for lovers to couple on, tumble off, and hide under.

The cast is well-directed by Michael Gray to a sizzle of accelerated frenzy. President Wilson (comically impersonated by Paul McElwee) is concerned that his stuffy intellectual persona is not enough for an American public that prefers someone like the rough-riding Theodore Roosevelt. Griffith (Jim Burns) and White House advisor Colonel House (a Bannonesque Dan Tucker) give Wilson acting lessons to turn the President into T.R.

Also featured is the minister’s seductive wife (Kerry Kristine McElrone) who longs to change religions; she also makes a habit of mispronouncing words (“buttah”, “ToRAH”). Chris Banker has fun with Clarence, the so-called “negro” butler who tries to murder Griffith for making a racist film. The plot amps up hysterically as the Russian Ambassador (the always excellent Jeff Hunsicker) arrives unexpectedly, and the POTUS is nowhere to be found.

Chris Banker and Jim Burns. Photo by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography.

Chris Banker and Jim Burns. Photo by Joe del Tufo/Moonloop Photography.

Director Gray has heated the entire ensemble to a white-hot fury. Burns’ Griffith (more Sean Spicer that the real Griffith) ignites every scene with tremendous energy. Best of all is Dylan Geringer, a full-mugging clown, as Wilson’s daughter, who wonders if it is ethically correct to use her position as First Daughter to enhance a career.

The costumes (provided by Pierre’s Costumes) create the proper period atmosphere, though the sensibility is undeniably present-day.

After Birth of a Nation is fun, but film buffs and readers of Griffith or Wilson biographies will notice that the characterizations are hardly redolent of the elegant Southerners that these men were. If fact, the less you know of the history behind the situation, the better. Robson satirizes his subjects. Griffith and Wilson are depicted as racists, but their racism is only used to drive the plot rather than to examine their natures.

Birth of a Nation was the first movie ever screened at the White House. Film scholars suggest that the Civil War film’s title actually describes the birth of white supremacy, and Reconstruction’s creation of a Jim Crow society. (Birth ends with the triumphant rescue of Lillian Gish by the Ku Klux Klan.) This might well be a rich subject for discomfiting humor, but Robson only uses it as a setting for a typical farce. The possibility of a brilliant black comedy continually hovers over the short evening.

One quiet scene illustrates this point: Clarence the butler ironically praises Birth’s use of white actors in blackface. “They were so convincing,” he lies straight-faced. Griffith’s answer is “We just slapped on blackface and told them to move slower.” It’s very funny and very telling. This audience member wished for more.

Running time: 90 minutes, with an intermission.

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After Birth of a Nation plays through Saturday, February 18, 2017 at City Theater Company, performing at the Black Box Theater of Opera Delaware Studio – 4 South Poplar Street, Wilmington, DE. Tickets may be purchased online.

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