AMBITIOUS “CLEMENTINE IN THE LOWER 9” HAS SOME CHARM, BUT ULTIMATELY DISAPPOINTS

(Charles Kruger)

This reviewer is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

“Clementine In The Lower 9” by Dan Dietz, presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. Music: Justin Ellington. Director: Leach C. Gardiner. Musical Director/Orchestrator: Justin Ellington. Setting: J. B. Wilson. Costumes: Cathleen Edwards. Lighting: Steven B. Mannshardt. Sound: Jake Rodriguez. Production Dramaturg: Meredith McDonough. Fight Director: Jonathan Rider. Dialect Coach: Kimily Conkle. Stage Manager: Jamie D. Mann.

Chorus: Kenny Brawner. Clementine: Laiona Michelle. Reginald: Matt Jones. Jaffy: Jack Koenig. Cassy: Jayne Deely.

Trumpet: John Worley. Bass: Richard Duke. Drummer: Kelly Fasman.

Playwright Dan Dietz, a regular visitor to New Orleans, felt called to write a play about the devastating effects of Hurricane Katrina. He recognized that such a huge subject presented unique difficulties. How could he successfully explore multiple themes of human dignity, racism, devastation, and the fundamental questions about human suffering? He began work on these large themes in 2007, and in 2009 and 2010 “Clementine In The Lower 9” received its first workshop productions. Now, in 2011, Theatre Works Silicon Valley presents a full scale world premiere production.

Kenny Brawner, Laiona Michelle and Jack Koenig in "Clementine In The Lower 9" at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley. Photo Credit: TheatreWorks.

Struggling to find a plot large enough to carry the weight of his themes, Dietz turned to the ancient Greeks for inspiration, calling the result “a blues riff on Aeschylus’ Agamemnon”. Utilizing a chorus of jazz musicians (led by the excellent Kenny Brawner) his characters include a possessed prophet named Cassy, a riff on Cassandra one presumes (Jayne Deely) and a family constellation consisting of Father Jaffy (Jack Koenig) returning from “the wars” of an out-of-state search for employment, wife Clementine (a sound play on Clytemnestra?) and estranged son Reginald (played, respectively, by Laiona Michelle and a notably capable Matt Jones).

It is a good idea, and one must respect what is attempted here, but the execution is sadly flawed. Much of the dialogue is stilted and obvious. For example, the plantive query, “Can’t you believe in me, even just a little?” The setting is more cartoonish than tragically evocative, featuring a ramshackle, candlelit house. It is appealing, in a musical-comedy sort of way, but doesn’t seem appropriately matched to the themes of Greek tragedy.

Indeed, it is sometimes confusing whether the play is intended to be a Greek tragedy or a folksy musical comedy. It tries too hard to be entertaining and only succeeds in confusing the themes.

In the end, the sentimental, folksy tone of the piece does not do justice to the scope of the tragedy that was Katrina, nor to the specific tragedy of the family depicted. The overall effect, alas, is patronizing.

For all that, some moments are quite moving. I was gripped by the opening sound effects of the howling storm. The music was well performed. In fact, a few brief bars of St. James Infirmary, performed near the end of the evening, offered more honest emotion than the rest of the play put together.

The ending left me confused and uncertain of what had happened on stage.

Overall, I have to conclude that in spite of some excellent musical work and fine acting, this was an evening of theatre hampered by the cliched sentimentality of a script that failed to live up to its ambition. In short, a noble misfire.

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