Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Bars and Measures at the Jungle Theater

Bars and Measures is a brand new play that opened last week at the Jungle Theater as part of a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere.

Playwright Idris Goodwin was inspired by a New York Times profile by Corey Kilgannon about brothers who connect through music.

In the play, Eric (Darius Dotch) visits his brother Bilal (Ansa Akyea), in prison awaiting trial. Bilal, who was known as Darryl before his conversion to Islam, is a jazz bassist. Eric is a classical pianist, but the language they both speak is music. And what music! With original music composed for this production by Justin Ellington, the brothers scat through jazz melodies as Bilal teaches Eric his own compositions. Dotch and Akyea have wonderful chemistry as the brothers, trading riffs and arguing over Eric's mastery of jazz. Through their visits and the trial, we learn about the alleged crime, and see Eric's support of his brother waver in the face of the evidence presented.

Taous Claire Khazem, Darius Dotch.
Photo by Dan Norman.
Bilal is given the chance to make a statement in court, and Akyea shows us the conflicting and conflicted sides of his character, making him a relatable person in spite of his circumstances. Dotch has a few stirring moments himself, whether speaking to others about his brother, or addressing the audience at a benefit performance. Two actors play the rest of the roles in this intimate piece. Taous Claire Khazem portrays a singer who works with Eric (as his brother asks, "works with, or works with?"), Bilal's lawyer, and others. Maxwell Collyard plays a number of corrections and law officers, a prosecutor, and others.

The small cast size keeps the focus on the brothers, who create a realistically loving and antagonistic sibling relationship under Marion McClinton's assured direction. The action moves smoothly from Eric's upscale home to Bilal's cell on Andrea Heilman's compact, stark set, accented by Michael Wangen's always-stellar lighting. Trevor Bowen's costumes help to define the characters, particularly in the contrast between Bilal's prison wear and Eric's wonderfully tailored and coordinated outfit.

Perhaps the most impressive scene is the courtroom, which has Eric looking on as the prosecutor and Bilal's lawyer unleash an overlapping barrage of questions and objections and Bilal tries to answer. The effect is like a particularly aggressive jazz improvisation, rather harsh to watch given the content and circumstances, but beautifully staged and performed.

Darius Dotch, Ansa Akyea, Maxwell Collyard.
Photo by Dan Norman.
Bars and Measures is a fascinating play that introduces us to complex, layered characters navigating a complicated relationship. In 80 minutes with no intermission, it raises a number of questions and doesn't offer easy answers.

After the show, "Stay Late" for an open-ended post-show discussion, which the Jungle is presenting after every performance. Particularly for this show, we found hearing the questions and opinions of others helped us to process our own thoughts about this dense piece.

If you want to delve deeper into the subject, there is a reading list, at #junglereads. And for this show, there's also a list of music suggested by the production's composer.

The National New Play Network rolling premiere of this new work means that the show is being produced in several cities this year, each in a different theater with a different cast and director, and even, for this show, different composers. It's fascinating to contemplate how different directors may interpret this work, and we are very fortunate to have the opportunity to experience this wonderful production.