Thursday, February 2, 2023

Theatre Review: “Armature” a Timely Look at the Perniciousness of Hate

White supremacy is an insidious scourge. It can be anywhere, even where you least expect it. The local gay bar, perhaps.

Andrew Kramer’s timely and sobering play “Armature,” enjoying its world premiere at Island City Stage, imagines such a scenario, dividing its structure between twin timelines and two markedly different settings: The Armature Bar, a gay men’s “meat market” with a history of standing up to LGBTQ oppression; and the home and church of the African-American Ames family, whose matriarch, a faith-based progressive fighting for social justice, is running for her state’s governorship.

In the former, tabloid blogger Evan (Matthew Salas), a neophyte in the atmosphere of a gay hookup bar, is there to sniff out a salacious story involving a hypocritical Republican politician who sought some same-sex pleasure after hours. Instead, he meets Shod (Michael Ford), a tile-setter by day who aggressively pursues what he wants. Mysterious, muscular and tatted, Shod is the yin to Evan’s meek, doe-eyed yang. They hit it off swimmingly, and within a few nights, Evan gifts his new partner with one of his hotel keys.

Matthew Salas, left, and Michael Ford

Meanwhile, just across town, Blythe Ames (Karen Stephens) seeks to be the first woman—and the first person of color—to govern her unnamed state, requiring a relentless campaign schedule of town halls, interviews and other events that has begun to strain a family life quietly simmering with discontent. Her husband Denson (Keith Wade) gave up his job to run the household, while the actions of their adopted 18-year-old daughter Monica (Yesenia Ozuna) to distance herself from her parents transcend mere teenage rebellion.

To describe more of the plot would be to reveal too much of Kramer’s intricately plotted mystery. Suffice it to say that these two worlds collide in an incendiary fashion.

Karen Stephens and Keith Wade

“Armature” has a lot to say about a lot of things: the generational differences between liberated LGBTQ people of today and their forbears, who battled decades of institutional oppression to ensure the relative freedoms of today; the similar path toward acceptance for people of color, and Monica’s separation from that struggle; the pernicious nature of hate, and its tendency to rise when old, rotten power dynamics are threatened.

Where the play can use work, as in the case of many debut mountings, is Kramer’s diction. The dialogue can feel too abstruse, too often emerging from the actors’ mouths as tongue twisters. I’m sure it sounds poetic on the page, but in practice, it trips up even some of the production’s most accomplished actors.

There is room for improvement in the performances and direction as well. Wade’s performance suffers from so many verbal and tonal mistakes that his character sometimes struggles for coherence. Arguably the play’s signature scene, the first in which its divided worlds collide, does not capture the seething discomfort it attempts to channel. The actors collectively, under the direction of Andy Rogow and Michael Leeds, don’t find the rhythm—or the groove, or the “pocket,” call it what you will—to transfix us in the moment, to make us forget we’re watching it play. Too often, we see the gears grinding, not the machine itself.

Salas and Ford fare better in their scenes together at the Armature, persuasively embodying a pensive cat-and-mouse courtship that becomes something more. To that end, Jeni Hacker’s skillful intimacy choreography offers some of the steamiest action seen on a stage in some time.

Stephens occasionally struggles with the hurdles presented by both her colleagues onstage and the script, with its ungainly mouthfuls, but she also brings the required nuance to her role, allowing Blythe’s doubts to puncture her politician’s confident, managed façade.

Kent Wilson, clad in fetishistic black leather, brings comic relief and a wry, sage mentality to “Mama,” the proprietor of the Armature and the play’s central storyteller of sorts. He functions not unlike the stage manager in “Our Town,” reading direction and informing us of scene changes when not in character behind the bar.

In their staging, Rogow and Leeds endeavor for a minimalist presentation similar to Thornton Wilder’s masterpiece, though I found the choice of vacant and cheap props throughout the production to be maddening, even contrary to the play as written; at one point, Kramer’s script calls for the deployment of antique, hand-me-down spoons that are central to Blythe’s backstory; what we see onstage are plastic spoons. Later, Blythe drinks “coffee” out of a glass. (Not to keeping picking at nits, but, to paraphrase Neil deGrasse Tyson, that’s “kind of my thing.”)

As much as certain choices hinder the production’s verisimilitude, others are theatrical in the best way possible. Robert F. Wolin’s scenic design is quadruply evocative, suggesting at once the Armature bar, a hotel room, the Ames home and the church. Its tarnished and broken details—chairs with partially damaged ladderbacks, a building’s plywood foundations severed and charred—function as a constant reminder of a conflagration to come. When it finally occurs, the moment is stirring—revealing, though Preston Bircher’s stealth lighting, a crucifix that was hidden in plain sight all along, and that now resonates with the terrible symbolism of a burning cross.

There are elements of this production, and script, that can use a polish. But by the time the story coalesces around its tragic climax, we are fully invested in the horror—one that creeps up all too often in our news cycle. This is an important work, and it deserves a rich future.

“Armature” runs through Feb. 27 at Island City Stage, 2304 N. Dixie Highway, Wilton Manors. Tickets cost $35. Masks and proof of vaccination are required to attend. Call 954/928-9800 or visit islandcitystage.org.


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John Thomason
John Thomason
As the A&E editor of bocamag.com, I offer reviews, previews, interviews, news reports and musings on all things arty and entertainment-y in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties.

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