Arts & Culture » Theater

Tough Stuff

Blood's riff on the Scarlet Letter is challenging fare


Suzan Lori-Parks is a playwright whose time has come. Last year, her play Topdog/Underdog won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Before that, In the Blood was a Pulitzer nominee. So it's good that the Hothouse Theatre Company is giving local theatergoers the opportunity to see the work of a writer who is garnering serious attention. But it also must be noted that -- at least with this dense offering -- Parks' ripped-off scab of a play is challenging stuff.

Her story, a riff on Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter (for what that's worth), concerns Hester LaNegrita, a homeless single mother of five children -- each sired by a different father -- who lives in a makeshift tent under a bridge. "It won't end well for her," the condemnatory Greek chorus predicts at the outset. These gossiping harpies resemble Hawthorne's judgmental Puritans -- a reminder, perhaps, that America is still a puritanical society. But how could it be otherwise for an illiterate woman who is still learning the letter A? This scarlet letter is not affixed to Hester's clothes; eventually it will be scratched out in blood.

But here's the problem: It's difficult to know what we are expected to take from this grim tale, because Parks has stated that her plays have no theme. "I have no issues," she recently stated. "If you were to go to the mall and people-watch, that's it. That's what I want you to see. People doing things." (Not that you see all that many guys getting blowjobs at the mall, as you do here.)

But doing things how? What is an audience -- or, that matter, a director -- to make of a play that is written in such a farrago of styles? In two hours we're exposed to realism, impressionism, expressionism, fantasy, even surrealism, along with frequent interior monologues that probably read better than they play. At least a confused reader is able to go back and reread; onstage, once uttered, the words are gone. If a viewer gets left behind, well, that's when the material gets labeled "stage poetry."

Amidst this obfuscation, Monica Parks' portrayal of Hester is a beacon of clarity. By the play's end she has risen to a paroxysm of emotion. Yet there's also the sense that still more is required if Hester is to resonate as a nuanced character. In the opening scene, Parks glares at the audience with a withering contempt, yet that hostile defiance is missing from the rest of her performance. Also, though the script tells us that Hester cannot read, Parks lacks the bluff, fear and confusion that accompany illiteracy. Surely those traits would be required in a realistic presentation of the character, but here, who's to say what's required when the playwright isn't telling?

Yes, Suzan Lori-Parks' time has come, but what does that say about our times? Whatever your answer to that question, it's easy to agree with director William Grivna, who concedes in his program notes that In the Blood is "probably not a smooth or easy ride." He got that right.

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