Review: ‘Voices’ at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint

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VOICES eschews platitudes for depth

There are life-changing events that can hit one’s soul with the ferocity of a hurricane. Mental violence and strife can tear up the psyche to the point where those suffering from it become stuck in a quagmire, literally and figuratively.

VOICES directed by Jared Shamberger and written by emerging, local playwright Ebony Rosemond, explores the stagnant, mental lives of four mental patients at VOS S.K.C. clinic, who for various reasons, are mute. VOICES, the second in an unfinished trilogy of plays that began with BOXES, and which plays through May 22nd at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint, is a triumph of brilliant psychological introspection and analyst-worthy character study.

Eli El.
Eli El.

“Silence is a surrender!” is the theme the assembled cast brings home in the opening scene, in the bare, black box set, consisting of less than 10 boxes aligned upstage. This scene, like many of the others to follow is played in the abstract. From there, we get the first scene in the VOS S.K.C. clinic, with Head Counselor Ryan (the convincing Alison Talvacchio) trying to get Burdette aka Birdie (Kaisha S. Huguley) to open up verbally, and only getting responses to her questions with answers written on index cards. Later in the scene we meet Birdie’s hapless husband Phil (the natural and always in the moment Shaquille “Shaq” Stewart), who simply wants the clinic to “fix” his wife and send her back home to him and the kids.

In another abstract scene we see the incomparable Stanley Zukeh Freeman as a kind of 1970s style comedian huckster, Alex, trying to sell Shirley (Wilma Lynn Horton) “smarter” and “more confident” in the form of props such as plastic buckets and toys he pushes around in his cart. Of course, Shirley just needs “one person to love me,”nothing fancy for her. Soon after we see Stewart play a man who wants to be a minister, but we don’t learn much about this character; I was left wanting more.

In clever staging by Shamberger, we see the excellent Eli El house left and Robert Hamilton house right, as an evil idea-stealing boss and a put-upon underling respectively. We see Hamilton’s character Sam wreak physical vengeance on his boss (with El reacting to being whipped, while still clear across the stage from Hamilton), surely leading to the unemployment line—a life-changing event for Sam.

Stewart was a delight to watch as a kind of Clarence Oddbody (the angel from It’s a Wonderful Life), that gave Joseph (the powerfully good Marlon Russ), who has just overdosed on liquor and pills, a chance to answer three questions to get him into heaven—or back to the real world and counseling at the clinic. Having lost his voice, the terrific Damion Perkins “worked” Joseph like she was a ventriloquist as Joseph the Dummy fail to correctly complete the “This is Your Life” style Q & A (score another directing kudo for Shamberger).

In a backstory scene for Birdie, we see her prepare for her wedding, with her mother (played by Horton’s audio through an on-stage speaker) telling her how great marriage is. (Horton actually being on stage with Huguley would have worked better here, both dramatically and technically.)

There followed a nether-world scene in which the cast took turns belting out exhortations of self-expression. The theme was: “You have something to say!”

Freeman and Perkins played a loving, middle-aged couple from Ghana, who come to the clinic every visitors’ day. Sadly, their daughter never comes down to see them.

Stanley Freeman.
Stanley Freeman.

We see Joseph, Shirley, Sam and Birdie tune out their loved ones. The father and son dynamic between Sam and his father, David (El) was solid state truth. El brought to life the full range of emotions a father would feel for his son in such a situation, as he implored him to open up to him. Sam, communicating only in body language, remained silent. In a later visitors’ day scene, the gruff David shares the Biblical Parable of the Talents with his son in his own awkward way, a touching scene in deed.

Birdie’s husband Phil, tries to talk to Birdie about home life with the kids, but she is a wall too him. Head Counselor Ryan fails to get through to Shirley, and in general tries in vain to get Joseph, Shirley, Sam, and Birdie to let their voices be heard. The counter-objectives of Ryan and her charges built a terrific tension. Eventually that tension is tamed and the afflicted patients start talking, in a torrential downpour of verbal hail.

In the next scene, Birdie unleashed an unforgettable monologue, nay, a tirade about alarm clocks, traffic and why “the keys are never where you left them.” It’s clear that Birdie is fed up with domestic and work life.

After eight months of silence, Joseph’s wife, fiercely played by Perkins, tells him on the clinic’s visitors’ day that she’s leaving him and moving to Brazil. She tells Joseph he is not the man she married: “The man I married knew what he wanted and went after it.”

In a counseling game of “toss the ball and talk,” facilitated by Head Counselor Ryan, we see the residents take turns tossing a ball to each other and venting about the life they’ve lead in the past. Russ stood out with his monologue about his character Joseph’s admiration bordering on envy of the seemingly simple life of a landscaper, Chuck. Shirley laments that her white adoptive mother spends more time rescuing poor, lost kids, than her.

As the play nears its end, the residents of VOS S.K.C. voice their various life choices about how they want to spend their lives back in the everyday world; some of those choices are very pat and politically correct, and others, not so much. The character arcs don’t all have Pollyanna endings.

Stage Manager Keta Newborn kept scene transitions and prop changes crisp. Costume Designer Jasmine “Queenie” Shelton’s costumes, including Freeman’s and Perkin’s African garb, was just right for every scene.

VOICES will have you wondering where in life you are silencing yourself, and what you need to say to those around you. It urges you to not die with your music still in you, and is everything theater was meant to be.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with a 5-minute intermission.

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VOICES plays through May 22, 2016 at Rose Prose Productions performing at Mead Theatre Lab at Flashpoint – 916 G Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them online.

LINKS:

Meet the Cast of Roseprose Productions’ ‘Voices the play’: Part 1: Meet Eli El by Joel Markowitz.

Meet the Cast of Roseprose Productions’ ‘Voices the play’: Part 2: Meet Stanley Freeman.

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