Review: The Red Letter Plays (IN THE BLOOD and F**KING A)

Recently I saw the two Red Letter Plays written by Susan-Lori Parks at the Signature Theatre in New York.  Parks had off-handedly said she would write a new play based on the classic American novel “The Scarlet Letter.”  When she scrapped her first attempt that she titled F**KING A (I use the same attribute used on the Playbill cover) she tried a different approach and wrote IN THE BLOOD.  Going back to her first title she created a new and different work that forms the Red Letter Plays as we know them.

I am a fledgling playwright, not nearly as adept as Ms. Parks, and watch plays always trying to keep the script in mind.  How did the playwright establish her world and use her voice to provide the foundation for the director and actors to shape what we are seeing?  A frequent trap of a beginning playwright is to write in their own voice instead of a character’s voice.  I’ve seen it in many works of my own and my colleagues.  Ms. Parks has avoided this trap.

In these two plays Ms. Parks creates two different worlds, distinct and compelling characters and two approaches of how society or authority oppresses and abuses.  She has clearly distilled the essence of The Scarlet Letter but made it contemporary and compelling.  While disturbing and disruptive the plays draw you in and keep you engaged.  They are raw, uncompromising and important works.

IN THE BLOOD is much more allegorical and free form as directed by Sarah Benson with exceptional performances by all six performers: Jocelyn Bioh, Michael Braun, Russell G. Jones, Ana Reeder, Frank Wood and especially Saycon Sengbloh.

F**KING A takes a much more Brechtian tone with songs by Ms. Parks that have a strong echo of Kurt Weill.  The world created is vitally different than the companion play and more interesting to me.  The actors are tasked John Doyle style double duty playing instruments for the extensive musical selections.  Directed by Jo Bonney it includes theater royalty such as Christine Lahti, Marc Kudisch, and the exceptional Brandon Victor Dixon.  All the players are exceptional here as well: J. Cameron Barnett, Ben Horner, Joaquina Kalukango, Ruibo Qian, Elizabeth Stanley and especially Raphael Nash Thompson who’s character is given scene stealing moments.

I have been a fan of Susan-Lori Parks since I saw her Broadway breakout TOPDOG/UNDERDOG but seeing these works together cement her place in the pantheon of Great American Playwrights.  F**KING A runs only through October 8 and IN THE BLOOD through October 15.  I strongly recommend you see them both close together as I did but do not miss the former.  It is already my favorite theatre experience of the season.

OB In The BloodOB F**king A

As always you can find more at http://www.walterthinnes.com and on Twitter @walterthinnes

TOMORROW: National Pancake Day

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