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A Human Being Died That Night
by Nicholas Wright
Adapted from the book by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela
Directed by Patrick Siler
Upstream Theater
May 12, 2017

Jacqueline Thompson, Christopher Harris
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

The latest production from Upstream Theater is an interview play. Based on true events and a book by Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela, A Human Being Died That Night looks back at events in the relatively recent history of South Africa, personalizing them by telling the author’s story of meeting with a convicted man who has committed many heinous crimes. It’s an exploration of the concepts of guilt, justice, racial injustice and reconciliation, and forgiveness, as well as humanity itself, and in the hands of the excellent cast and creative team at Upstream, it’s a powerful, thought-provoking production.

The story follows the book’s author, Pumla (Jacqueline Thompson), who is a psychologist for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa following the dissolution of the Apartheid system of government in the 1990s. Pumla introduces her story via a lecture at a podium, but then the wall opens up behind her to reveal the room at the jail where infamous former Police officer and assassin Eugene De Kock (Christopher Harris), or “Prime Evil” as he was called in the press. Following De Kocks’s conviction for numerous horrific crimes, Pumla interviews him in jail and tries to get an idea about what made him do what he has done, and what kind of person would do such things. Eugene doesn’t deny his crimes, and seems quite defensive at first, while also pointing out that while he did all the things he was accused of doing (and probably more), he wasn’t the only one doing them, as he tells stories of organized and systematic crime in his department and among other branches of government. This is a very personal story, but the interview format somewhat limits it, although the portrayals here are excellent. The concepts of reconciliation, forgiveness, guilt, blame, and justice are dealt with as Pumla and Eugene talk about their lives and what has happened over years of a corrupt, unjust, and brutal system of government in South Africa. Also dealt with is the idea of humanity–the humanity of the victims as well as of the perpetrators of the crimes. Is it easier to see a mass-murderer as a soulless monster or as a human being who did horrible things?  And conversely, what happens when the murderer is finally forced to recognize the humanity of his victims, and how does that change what he thinks about what he has done?  Those last two questions become the source of the title of the book, and this play. There’s a lot to talk and think about here in this relatively short play.

The performances here are excellent, and a lot of the drama of the play comes from the interpersonal dynamic between the characters. As Pumla, Thompson projects authority as well as empathy, and as more of her own personal story comes out through the course of the interview process, Thompson makes the process compelling. Also well-portrayed is Pumla’s increasing investment in the interview process and in hearing Eugene’s story and contributing to his realization of the real human weight of his crimes. Harris is equally convincing in portraying Eugene’s process of not just admitting his guilt, but owning it. These performances are augmented by the staging and presentation of the piece, with Patrick Huber’s inventive set, Michele Friedman Siler’s excellent costumes, Joseph W. Clapper’s vivid lighting design, and Michael Dorsey’s striking media design contributing to the atmosphere and mood of the production.

A Human Being Died That Night is another provocative, thoughtful production from Upstream. Despite its format limitations, the performances and presentation work to make this a compelling piece of theatre. It’s sure to provoke a great deal of thought and discussion, not just concerning South Africa, but concerning how the concepts portrayed here apply here, and universally.

Jacqueline Thompson, Christopher Harris
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

Upstream Theater is presenting A Human Being Died That Night at the Kranzberg Arts Center until May 28, 2017

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The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
Adapted and Directed by Patrick Siler
With Special Music Composed and Performed by Sleepy Kitty

Upstream Theater

April 11, 2015

Jerry Vogel Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Jerry Vogel
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

This isn’t high school English class.  Currently on stage at Upstream Theater is a staged version of Coleridge’s classic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in a form that brings the work to life in a way that couldn’t have been imagined by my teenage self when I was assigned to read it in school. Taking the text of the poem, along with some classic engravings by Gustave Dore’, Upstream has joined forces with musical duo Sleepy Kitty to construct a living, breathing and singing presentation that brings the story off of the page and onto the stage in a vibrant, memorable and thoroughly winning manner.

This is the well-known and oft-studied English poem with many well-known passages and concepts, such as the albatross around the neck, “water, water everywhere” and so forth.  It’s a vividly told story in written form, and director Patrick Siler has adapted it beautifully for the stage.  With a three person cast and the two musicians, the story of the Ancient Mariner (Jerry Vogel) comes to life with color, depth and haunting melody. Joined by fellow cast members Shanara Gabrielle and Patrick Blindauer in various roles, Vogel portrays the the Mariner as he interrupts a festive wedding to tell his tale of adventure, calamity, despair and redemption on the high seas. Accompying them are Sleepy Kitty members Paige Brubeck and Evan Sult, who each play a variety of instruments and contribute vocals to the folk-influenced rock score of the production.

This production is a marvel of inventive staging, presented in the cozy black box theatre at the Kranzberg Arts Center. With Kyra Bishop’s simple but detailed set suggesting the bow of a ship, along with ropes, a rope ladder and other nautical accessories that are walked, climbed and danced on by the performers throughout the show. There are also vibrant costumes by Lou Bird, with late 18th Century English styles represented as well as some fantastical elements, as a number of realistic, stylized and ethereal creatures inhabit the story. There are some striking uses of clothing items like a scarf for the fabled albatross, as well as a variety of masks and veils utilized in different situations. The lighting, by Joseph W. Clapper, is striking as atmospheric, shifting in mood as the play shifts, and there’s excellent use of Dore’s engravings as projections to highlight various moments in the story.

This is a show where all the different elements are essential and blend together seamlessly. It’s remarkable how the musicians are brought into the story as well, with Brubeck and Sult donning costumes and featuring in the story on occasion, most notably in a haunting “death ship” sequence toward the middle of the play.  The cast is top-notch as well, led by the charismatic, weary-eyed Vogel as the weathered, alternately optimistic, then haunted, then despairing, then penitent and ultimately joyful Mariner. Vogel navigates the gamut of experience and emotion with expert skill, displaying strong stage presence and a strong voice, especially in an ode to loneliness in the middle of the play and a joyful, worshipful refrain at the end. Blindauer and Gabrielle lend their support with much flair, as they both appear in a variety of roles from wedding guests to shipmates to sea creatures and more, displaying excellent voices and movement in the various sequences.

This is an excellent and somewhat surprising multi-media performance that makes great use of projection, video and sound to bring this 18th Century tale to a 21st Century audience with spirit and heart.  Its short running time (about 65 minutes) is packed with action, song and story. I didn’t know quite what I was getting into when I saw this production, but what a wonderful surprise it is. This is a truly memorable, inventive and cleverly staged production that takes a classic work and brings it to the stage with remarkable modern style.

Patrick Blindauer, Jerry Vogel, Shanara Gabrielle Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com Upstream Theater

Patrick Blindauer, Jerry Vogel, Shanara Gabrielle
Photo by ProPhotoSTL.com
Upstream Theater

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