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THEATER REVIEW Middle Passage
by Jonathan Abarbanel, Windy City Times
2020-03-01

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Author: Ilesa Duncan & David Barr III from Charles Johnson's novel

At: Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. Tickets: 773-761-4477; LifelineTheatre.com; $45. Runs through: April 5

Set in 1830, this classic picaresque tale concerns self-absorbed young Rutherford Calhoun, a Free Man of Color who is better educated than most men ( black or white ) of the era. Nonetheless, he chooses to be a petty thief and rake, especially when he travels to New Orleans to make his fortune. When his debts catch up with him, his only way out is unwanted marriage to wealthy Isadora ( Shelby Lynn Bias ). Instead, he stows away on a ship, the Republic, and is pressed into the crew, quickly learning it's an illegal slaver bound for Africa.

Soon enough, Rutherford faces true perils through which he matures into a worthy human being. After picking up human cargo on the Guinea coast, and surviving a storm that cripples the Republic, Rutherford must thread his way between a crew mutiny, a slave rebellion and his promise to spy for ship Captain Falcon, who has befriended him for self-serving reasons. To reveal more would spoil things, except there's something besides slaves below decks: there's a mystical African god or creature that's key to Rutherford's spiritual awakening. Also, the ship's ironic name is central to the tale, embodying Rutherford's identity struggle long before we had a term for being both African and American.

It's an engaging show, and why not? Lifeline Theatre has presented page-to-stage adaptations for nearly 40 years, so they have the narrative techniques and story-telling tricks down pat. Also, the cast features veteran Lifeline Ensemble members in key roles—Patrick Blashill as Falcon, Andres Enriquez as First Mate Cringle & Christopher Hainsworth as Squibb the cook—and they bring experience and versatility to the production.

As Rutherford Calhoun, Michael Morrow makes a very good impression in his Lifeline debut and really centers the show, which has been fluidly staged by Lifeline artistic director Ilesa Duncan. The production's excellent design elements also add a great deal: scenic ( Alan Donahue ), costumes ( Anna Wooden ), lighting ( Simean Carpenter, Scott Tobin ) and projections ( Paul Deziel, Alex. J. Gendal ).

Middle Passage is adapted by Duncan and David Barr III from the award-winning 1990 novel by Charles Johnson. Their version was staged previously at Congo Square Theatre, notwithstanding which it still could use some refinements. First, Capt. Falcon is not depicted as villainous or cruel—especially compared to other 19th-century literary sea captains—so what inspires the crew mutiny? The real villain is Papa Zeringue, the black New Orleans criminal mastermind who partners in the illegal slave trade. He's given almost comic treatment here, which doesn't feel right. Also, Rutherford's interaction with the mystical thing in the hold, which triggers his crucial spirit journey, could be longer and more intense. These refinements would make this worthy adventure even better.


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