Review: ‘Dutchman’ and ‘The Owl Answers’ at Penumbra Theatre

With a bold evening of one-act plays, Penumbra is showcasing two impressive, unsettling works by African American playwrights.  Both Dutchman and The Owl Answers were revolutionary ventures written in the 1960s to push against a harsh political and social environment. Both plays are tough to stage, act, and direct by nature, and there are underlying complications in making each show accessible. At Penumbra, they’re given new life—and what follows feels like an almost transcendental journey into the world of ghosts. The main characters in each embark on dangerous journeys to find their identities in a complicated and racially fraught world, but the plays succeed to differing degrees.

There’s a lot of spectacle and shock—from the first time Lula screams a racial slur in Amiri Bakara’s Dutchman to the off-putting masked figures whispering “bastard” in Adrienne Kennedy’s The Owl Answers. The former play concerns Clay Williams (Nathan Barlow), an African American man who finds himself in the company of the strange but alluring Lula (Kate Guentzel); Amiri Bakara wrote the play as a response to structural racism and power dynamics. The Owl Answers, by Adrienne Kennedy, is surreal, almost hallucinatory, and focuses on the character of She (Austene Van), a woman trying to find her identity and voice as the child of the “richest white man in town” and his African-American cook. Scenic designer Maruti Evans ably employs the same basic set for each one-act: a dark, rusted subway car. The loud sound of doors opening and closing emphasizes the eerie world the audience has been thrust into.

These are plays bound to the past, but racial tensions and violence are all too reminiscent of the world today. In Dutchman, directed by Lou Bellamy, Lula embodies American society in her seduction, language, and in her violence. She knows exactly what fears to use to provoke Clay. Guentzel as Lula is a force of nature, showcasing both the manic textures of the character and her subdued moments with equal prowess. Barlow adds layered complexities to Clay Williams, a role that requires quiet skill to work against Lula’s unhinged antics. With their chemistry, Barlow and Guentzel turn a subway ride into an unsettling racially tensioned tale that could have taken place in in the 1960s, or just last night.

The Owl Answers, directed by Talvin Wilks, is bold but unconventional, addressing gender, race, and identity. With the script’s opening direction of “The scene is a New York subway car is the Tower of London is a Harlem hotel room in St. Peter’s,” it’s clear that playwright Adrienne Kennedy created an impossible world to stage. And this staging of The Owl Answers comes about as close to Kennedy’s wild imagination as possible. With a rotating stage, lifting panels, and fall-away walls, the subway car becomes supernatural. Masked figures with wings creepily saunter around the stage in elaborate costumes, their echoing voices filling the stage. But despite these elements and an emotional performance from Van as the character of She, the nonexistent narrative of Kennedy’s incredibly abstract text weighs down the production, making it almost incomprehensible by the end.

There is not a relaxing moment here, from the time the curtain rises with a simple jazz tune in Dutchman. But that is Penumbra’s design: In the 60s these shows were meant to boil blood, to provoke, to push back against violent racism. It feels like both these shows have accomplished the same task almost 50 years later, even if one succeeds in addressing this more strongly than the other.

An Evening of One Act Plays – Dutchman and The Owl Answers
Dutchman by Amiri Bakara and The Owl Answers by Adrienne Kennedy
When: March 1 – March 27
Where: Penumbra Theatre, 270 N. Kent St., St. Paul
Featuring: Nathan Barlow, Jamecia Bennett, Brian Frutiger, Kate Guentzel, H. Adam Harris, Neal Hazard, Peter Moore, and Austene Van
Tickets available at penumbratheatre.org

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