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An Octoroon

Being bold pays off for this engaging update of a dated play.

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Maechi Aharanwa, Danielle Davenport and Pascale Armand in a scene from “An Octoroon” at Theatre for a New Audience (Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein)

Maechi Aharanwa, Danielle Davenport and Pascale Armand in a scene from “An Octoroon” at Theatre for a New Audience (Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein)

Daniel J. Lee, Critic

In 2015, it’s a bold move to revive a century and a half-old play that bears a racially insensitive title, and it’s an even bolder move to refrain from apologizing for such source material. Nevertheless, playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins does just that in An Octoroon, his adaptation of Irish playwright Dion Boucicault’s 1859 melodrama The Octoroon. Back by popular demand from its previous Soho Rep mounting and recently extended at the Theatre for a New Audience through March 29, the production makes the risky decision to embrace an uncomfortable facet of our history and transform it into a contemporary piece. Thankfully, it paid off big time: the result is an entertaining, touching and illuminating theatrical experience that speaks to today’s audience.

Jacobs-Jenkins’ update retains Boucicault’s basic, five-act melodrama structure: After inheriting his late uncle’s fortune, the young aristocrat George Peyton arrives at the family estate Terrebonne to find it in the midst of a financial crisis. The villainous neighboring plantation owner Jacob M’Closky is determined to claim Terrebonne for himself. To complicate matters, both men have found themselves madly in love with Zoe, the one-eighth black, illegitimate daughter of a slave woman and George’s deceased uncle (because 19th century Americans found incest to be less taboo than interracial relationships, apparently). Thrown into the mix are the rich, repulsive suitress Dora Sunnyside; the protective Native American Wahnotee and his slave boy Paul; and the house servant slapstick duo Minnie and Dido. Residing comfortably in the world of unrealistic plot twists and comically heightened emotions, An Octoroon does well to retain its source material’s spirit.

For the most part, Jacobs-Jenkins executes the bulk of his script updates to great effect. Namely, his modernized comedy bits between Minnie and Dido crackle with wry wit and ironic commentary. Likewise, his mesh of modern day hip-hop music with more traditional folksongs offers a fun, accessible backdrop for the play’s action. Conversely, Jacobs-Jenkins’ script falters every so often during its moments of commentary. By delaying and interrupting main plot points for monologues about the history of race in America, our current cultural deficits, and the plight of the “black playwright,” Jacobs-Jenkins stalls his production’s forward momentum and does a disservice to Boucicault’s inherently engaging, albeit ridiculous story. This adaptation could have achieved its same or even greater potency with a half an hour shorter run-time.

Austin Smith and Amber Gray in a scene from “An Octoroon” at Theatre for a New Audience  (Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein)

Austin Smith and Amber Gray in a scene from “An Octoroon” at Theatre for a New Audience  (Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein)

Despite this, expert director Sarah Benson’s inventive staging more than makes up for any script deficiencies. Effectively utilizing production designer Mimi Lien’s stark, black-and-white, cotton ball laden set, Benson achieves some of the most stunning yet simple theater magic to grace the Off-Broadway stage in recent history. To divulge its details would be unfair to the production and its audience, but rest assured that the fourth act special effect—a staple moment for all melodramas back in the day—is alone worth a trip to the new Polonsky Shakespeare Center.

There to help make Jacobs-Jenkins and Benson’s jobs easier is a cast of seasoned actors up for the challenge of making this dated play newly relevant. In his New York stage debut, Austin Smith stars as BJJ, George, and M’Closky; seamlessly switching his voice and physicality between roles, he sometimes even inhabits multiple characters at the same time. By his side is Amber Gray (returning from last year’s Soho Rep presentation) who plays the strong but wounded title character with great sensitivity. Joining them for comic relief are Maechi Aharanwa and Pascale Armand respectively as Minnie and Dido; their expert timing bring pure fun to moments that could easily be labeled “offensive and stereotypical” in the wrong hands.

In keeping with the company’s dedication “to a dialogue between…a provocative range of classical and contemporary writers,” Theatre for a New Audience has found a great success in An Octoroon. The cast and creative team’s treatment of the antebellum melodrama is scathing and loving, ironic and sincere. This might be the most successful classical adaptation you will see in New York for a while. Well, provided you can still get a ticket.

An Octoroon (extended through March 29, 2015)

Soho Rep

Theatre for a New Audience, Polonsky Shakespeare Center, 262 Ashland Place, in Brooklyn

For tickets, call 866-811-4111 or visit tfana.org

Running time: two hours and 40 minutes with one intermission

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