Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Theatrical Review and Critical Analysis: Queen Amarantha

Queen Amarantha
A Play by Charles Busch
Produced by the Otherworld Theatre Company
Directed by Tiffany Keane
Running until June 28, 2015
On the stage at City Lit Theatre (2nd Floor)
1020 W Bryn Mawr Avenue
Chicago, Illinois
$20.00 Tickets - Purchase Here

The Otherworld Theatre Company puts on the best gender transgressive '80s/'90s fantasy b-style dialectical reluctant hero's origin story entrenched in a mythical revenge tragedy theatre production I've ever seen. Suffice to say, I have seen none other. Queen Amarantha made for a fun night at the theatre, no matter my level of experience in the genre.

Charles Busch's screenplay follows a fairly standard plot arc. Otherworld provides the following synopsis:

Headstrong and transgressive, Amarantha is far from a meek and mild medieval monarch. Yet, when her enemies destroy her reputation, she abdicates and runs away from her duties. The throne then falls to her hopelessly weak ward, Roderigo, and soon the kingdom is imperiled, forcing Amarantha to choose between her freedom and saving the country.
The two-act play runs 2 1/2 hours, a fair length paled by mainly modern epic science fiction and fantasy motion pictures. At least Amarantha provides an intermission for a bathroom break.

The first act expends much of its time setting the stage for the frenetic pace of the second act. Act one maintains your attention but takes its time introducing a lot of details in the form of dialogue exposition.
Unfortunately, it engages the head more than it resonates with the heart. It makes sense as a stand in for the struggles of an alienated youth without their own voice dealing the pressures of the world.

Even with all that time, though, Amerantha doesn't allow itself to breath to let the feeling of the people and setting settle. Fact after fact comes, the feelings also coming as fact rather than drama.

All the exposition has its purpose. The play already stretches to 2 1/2 hours. Expanding on the main characters or adding more dramatic scenes would add a whole lot of time. It could stretch easily to 4 hours by dramatizing more of the characters or even a whole season of a television show. We already have enough trouble managing our time.

The first act, nonetheless, still feels like the narrative forcing the characters to move forward. Blame can't fall too hard on anyone. Audiences generally want familiar narratives, this one being the coronation of a peculiar leader, their fall then rise again to restore the natural order of things.

Unlike the first act, the action of part two avalanches inevitably to its conclusion where the two main women, Amarantha and Thalia, face off with swords in the climax. The second act doesn't feel forced, the audience gets pulled along for the ride. Instead of getting lost in all the exposition of facts, the audience gets lost in the moment, just trying to keep up with the action.

Act two also counteracts the first act by having time to breath. One of the most memorable moments comes during an argument between Amarantha and her partner as she heads toward her chosen destiny. He wants to pull her back to freedom away from the path of justice.

In her maturity, though, she has come to appreciate a variation on feminity, which she had detested previously. This variation has a tougher edge, but it doesn't go as far as her partner who wants her more radical expression.

This gives the audience a touching experience as Amarantha comes closer to her real self acting out radically because it's opposite of what everyone else expects. The softening of Mona Begale's portrayal of Amarantha feels palpable here, reaching out to the audience, even as everyone in the room has to grit their teeth, knowing that Amarantha has to harden herself for the battle ahead.

All the while in the court, Thalia, takes it over, both in political power and dramatic presence. She becomes more erratic, paranoid and wretched, drunk with power and fearful that everyone else wants to take it from her.

Mary-Kate Arnold channels Thalia's perverted force, commanding the stage and towering over the weak-willed Roderigo who used to act as the dilletante and the politicians who use to try bullying the unsure Amarantha. Elliot Sowards, David Servillo and Dylan Schaefer all subdue their characters into their just humiliation, as they have all brought it upon themselves.

The end dance of sword play between so many characters highlights the fight directing of Kai Young and the intimidation of Justin Veistiaete's Champion, who stood in the background for most of the play. Now, though, he faced three enemies, nearly besting them all, showing that his swordmanship equaled his intimidation.

Among all this action, the real transgressor, the jester, the radical, the noble feeling savage becomes embodied in Adrian, portrayed by Brendan Stallings. He starts as an assassin who falls in love with Amarantha then tries to tempt her with peaceful isolation from civilization. An interesting quirk: he prefers Amarantha when she cross dresses with a beard and has a masculine edge.

In all but a couple parts, Adrians transgresses traditional norms with ease that most everyone else fights against or struggles to break away from. Even in our contemporary age, when accepting such subversions, we wonder if we should embrace it with tons of attention or to brush over it, treat it like a norm but to do so in such a way that it gets disempowered.

Adrian feels refreshing because for most of the play, the other characters accept him as a person with an identity. These subverting characteristics of his just come off as an expression of him, not as features assigned to him by others.

Even Adrian can disappoint, though, and fall into the complacency of his identity. His feelings for for Amarantha cause him to exert his will over her environment, controlling what information reaches her and what doesn't. In his fight against the majority culture defining him, he comes to exert unjust power over Amarantha, who has allowed herself to become vulnerable to him.

In the same scene that Amarantha softens into finding herself, Brendan Stallings expresses Adrian's disappointment with himself by simple silence. Masterful ease when things matter little becomes sad awkwardness along with all the other characters' wondering about their own identities or covering up their own emotional voids by exerting control over those around them.

His joining the assault on the castle felt surprising. I thought he would disappear into the woods, trying to keep a hold of his freedom. He proved a standup guy, though, showing that even transgressors have to support a mature natural order to allow for true freedom.

The lack of denouement and getting no answers feels disappointing at first. When the dramatic conflict ends, the victor takes their spoils, and the play ends. The audience never becomes privy to the actual final synthesis or any final answers.

Sometimes creative works should do just that. They should open frontiers, not close them. As with Amarantha, we need to exprience things on our own, through success and failure then think on our own to find our own mature answers and identity. Maybe it means exalting in the undefined wild or return to civilization on our terms, using what works for us and discarding what doesn't.

I think my initial uneasy reaction to the seemingly formulaic Queen Amarantha came from my own desire to be led into an "innovative" formula that I had never seen before. Finding on the surface a seemingly unoriginal plot arc that sacrificed answers for still somewhat controversial issues, I had felt the narrative strangling the interesting parts to please everyone for the cost of not making anyone happy.

For a play written 18 years ago, though, it can still give an open mind something to think about. We may have same-sex marriage gaining support more everyday, but when that becomes fully accepted without question, how do we define ourselves after the fight?

Wasn't there something out there about Barack Obama getting into office meant we entered a post-racial world? But now, eight years later, some of the biggest news out there is Ferguson, Baltimore, white cops of privilege having unconscious against black people contributing with their ease to shoot and put black people into dangerous strangleholds.

We, as human beings, have a lot of maturing and growing to do, both as individuals, as societies and as a world. We need to ask a lot of questions to ourselves and the world around us to find out who we all are. Sometimes we may have to for the identities, justice and surivival of ourselves and others at the expense of those who try to overdefine everything else around them.

Like the ambiguity at the end of Queen Amarantha, we have to get used to uncertainty. All the questioning and seeking will have its slow times and other moments of progression that we have a hard time keeping pace alongside but gets our dopamine and blood pumping. We can't give up on the battle of the human spirit, though. We have to keep pushing for a more just world.

Tiffany Keane, artistic director and founder of Otherworld Theatre made a good choice with Queen Amarantha for getting this energy out there. A theatre company focused on putting science fiction and fantasy onto the stage makes for a fitting vehicle to do so (even though I can't help but express some disappointment in some in the wider SFF community for pushing more for a closed off, overly defined world).

The cast and crew seem to agree with Keane on this decision. Passion emanated from them both during and after the productions. Congratulations on a job well done!

I now very much regret missing out on their production of Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. After all, that book very much inspired the creative path that I now find myself. Ah well. Such is life. We all miss out on things we would have liked to witness.

Don't worry, though. I'll be keeping my eyes open for future Otherworld Theatre products.

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