Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The M Ensemble: The Gift Horse (reviews)

gift-horse-image-520x270The M Ensemble opened its production of Lydia R. The Gift Horse at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center on January 22, 2015
A violinist resonates as Ruth, an African American artist and teacher, struggles to deal with the men in her life. Whether learning to love a friend suffering from HIV or reeling from memories of her father's abuse, Ruth discovers how to appreciate what she has while she has it. The Gift Horse follows Ruth from college, through therapy, into marriage and finally motherhood as she and the violinist explore what makes love easy and what makes love hard.
Lowell Williams directed a cast that included Andy Barbosa, Othon Cardelle, Andre’ L. Gainey, Carey Hart, and Janice G. Muller
Bill Hirschman reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:
M Ensemble’s production of The Gift Horse has praiseworthy virtues and crippling problems that make it a mixed experience. But it does give the audience a long-delayed gift in Carey Brianna Hart’s scintillating, poignant performance as a witty but troubled woman seeking true love.  One pleasure being a longtime theatergoer is seeing a veteran but chronically ill-used actor finally get the role she deserves and watching her nail it.
Hart and Diamond construct a penny-bright Ruth who charms the audience with a playful joie de vivre linked with a razor-sharp mind and who delights in storytelling. Hart has a slight lisp but in this role it makes Ruth all the more endearing, even imbuing a subconscious vulnerability. All three women fuse to make for delightful company to carry us through the 2 ½-hour show.
A major asset is Diamond’s compassionate, insightful and downright funny voice that can be heard not just in Ruth but in all of the characters. Although it can be intentionally prosaic and frequently embraces the joy of sex, it also can border on poetry festooned with metaphors and analogies. But above all, it exudes that love of storytelling mixed with an intellectual surgeon’s fascination in excavating the Byzantine pathways and switchbacks in human yearnings for affirming love in all its permutations.
Sorry, I have to read that last part again:
“…it exudes that love of storytelling mixed with an intellectual surgeon’s fascination in excavating the Byzantine pathways and switchbacks in human yearnings for affirming love in all its permutations.”
Man, how long has he been waiting to write that?  Anywho, back to the review:
The Gift Horse is a highly-theatrical play that enjoys slipping fluidly across past, present and future. Most characters talk directly to the audience, even talk to each other when they are in different scenes occurring at the same time. Director Lowell Williams understands what Diamond wants and stages that almost metaphysical quality with fidelity.
But that flow and the production are fatally undercut by several elements. The lighting design by Ron Burns seems fine, but the show is sabotaged by some of the worst execution of lighting cues we have ever seen: Unplanned blackouts, lights coming up way too late on someone in a dark part of the stage who is already speaking, lights remaining on people after their part of the scene was over, on and on and on…
Second, Gainey, who has delivered memorable work as offbeat sidekicks in King Hedley II and Fences, always has had a molasses measured vocal delivery. Here, the phlegmatic speech slows down Williams and Hart’s attempts to build a reasonable rhythm for the narrative arc that Diamond wrought.
Also, while this production does not land as sharply and solidly as it has the potential to do, the script is due some of the blame. As beautifully as Diamond writes, the play thematically seems to cover so many topics that it’s hard to get your arms around them all with some unifying concept. As a result, the ultimate meaning of the play drifts just out of reach, even on reflection the next day.
Violinist/actress Muller is enchanting as the commenting Greek chorus…  Barbosa… convincingly pours angsty passion in the loyal, lonely friend. But, and forgive this Anglo, I don’t remember him having such a difficult time in Hurricane enunciating clearly. Here, the accent we assume he has adopted for Ernesto is quite thick. This has good and bad consequences…   Cardelle, a relatively young actor still learning his craft, is less effective and Williams needs to push Gainey to move outside his always mellow comfort zone.
That carping aside, if the overall production isn‘t perfect, this may rank as one of the best M Ensemble has delivered in quite some time. And fans of Hart have reason to rejoice.
Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
Listening to the words of playwright Lydia R. Diamond as they tumble from the mouths of five actors in M Ensemble’s new production of The Gift Horse, one thing is sparklingly clear: This is the work of a prodigiously talented, imaginative playwright… And though at different times the script seems underwritten or overwritten, Diamond’s voice is captivating and powerful.
M Ensemble’s production, staged in a small space at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center in Cutler Bay, has been directed by Lowell Williams, who holds master’s degrees in both theater and psychology. One can only imagine the special insight he brought into the rehearsal room.
The Gift Horse is… a daring and challenging play, meaty fare that anyone drawn to thought-provoking drama should be glad M Ensemble decided to take on.  Thursday’s opening night performance was uneven, with plenty of absorbing highs offset by a few fixable flaws (missed lighting cues sometimes left the actors and the audience in the dark), which may improve or disappear during the play’s three-weekend run.
Hart is a charismatic, fully invested Ruth, but like nearly all the actors she has problems with projection. Barbosa is a dynamic young actor who was trained in Havana, relatively new to Miami theater. His character is Latino, but Barbosa’s English is so heavily accented that some of his lines are lost — however, he delivers some of the most emotionally honest, moving acting in the show.
Muller, who has a bachelor’s degree in music from the University of Miami, is an accomplished violinist and an intriguing actor, expressive in both words and music. Cardelle is better as the low-key Noah than as creepy-with-a-bad-wig Bill. Though Gainey gets to cut loose physically and emotionally once Brian and Ruth become a couple, he is so blunted in affect during the therapy scenes (yes, I know, it’s a shrink thing) that he seems almost robotic.
As drawn by the gifted Diamond, the characters in The Gift Horse — black and Latino, straight and gay — will resonate with anyone trying to understand and negotiate this journey called life. Here’s hoping that, from its decent starting point, M Ensemble’s production will grow sharper, tighter and deeper.
The M Ensemble presents The Gift Horse at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center through February 8, 2015

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