It's not often that you can compare a play to a kind of painting, but that's an image that arises after seeing Ages of the Moon by Sam Shepard, now at Ensemble Theatre. In this case, the painting is an impressionistic portrait of two old sax players, leaning in toward each other as they explore the various notes of a bluesy tune they've played countless times before.
Those sax players could stand for either the characters or the actors in this one-hour one-act that touches ever-so-lightly on the quizzical nature of getting older. While it doesn't delve boldly into its themes, Shepard's signature language — crackling sharp and often impulsively amusing — still manages to tickle the ear with its unexpected rhythms.
Ames is a snarky old dude who has been exiled to a fishing cabin in the woods, after his wife found evidence of him messing around with a younger woman. To salve his wounded soul, he has called up old friend Byron, who's travelled a ways to come see his buddy. Even though they haven't laid eyes on each other in years, Ames often seems upset by Byron's presence, erupting in anger at perceived slights.
When he's not flaming Byron, Ames is immersed in a quiet euphoria, describing the phases of the moon as lushly as when he recalls the beauty of a woman. Ames is awaiting a lunar eclipse that night, now that his relationship with his wife has been similarly obstructed. And he wants Byron by his side (except, of course, when Ames is trying to shoot him).
Under the direction of Stephen Vasse-Hansell, the two actors in Ages turn in solid, resonant performances. As Ames, Allan Byrne is a slight and wiry old coot with a hair-trigger temper. And Allen Branstein gives Byron a low-key charm and authenticity: You can see why Ames would have called on this man for some companionship. These theatrical "sax" players are at their best in the quiet moments, since their more boisterous riffs feel a bit pushed.
Ultimately, Ames and Byron emerge from their jumbled memories, shared loneliness and feisty conflicts into a reflective conclusion that we can all understand. It's that moment we all experience, when we feel a little closer to a truth that we can't really explain.
Ensemble Theatre is known, among other things, for its frequent use of non-traditional casting, which often refers to black actors playing traditionally white roles. While there is none of that in Ages of the Moon, a recent production in the Northeast Ohio area has received national attention for such a casting choice.
In The Mountaintop, a play by the black playwright Katori Hall, the lead role of Martin Luther King Jr. was played by a white man. That choice, by the Cleveland-based director Michael Oatman, has garnered some national publicity and triggered a reaction of outrage from the playwright.
The play is set entirely in King's room in the Lorraine Motel on the eve of his assassination in 1968, and seeks to plumb the depths of this ultimate icon of the black community. Director Oatman cast a local and accomplished white actor, Robert Branch, to play Dr. King.
As Oatman, an African-American and an adjunct professor of playwriting at Kent State University, has explained," I wanted this casting choice to reflect King's wish that we be judged by the content of our characters and not the color of our skin." He sought to employ non-traditional casting as an "intellectual aspiration, a way to explore certain aspects of the play in a new way."
But that argument apparently doesn't hold water for the woman who wrote The Mountaintop. As she was quoted in an article in the Washington Times: "(This casting choice) echoes this pervasive erasure of the black body and the silencing of a black community — theatrically and also, literally, in the world." She went on to say, "Oatman's experiment proved to be a self-serving and disrespectful directing exercise ..."
What do others think? Well, Celeste Cosentino, artistic director of Ensemble Theatre and a white woman, sides with Ms. Hall. Even though Cosentino has recently cast black men in conventionally white roles (Greg White as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, Kyle Carthens as Jay Gatsby in The Great Gatsby), she indicates she would not make the casting choice Oatman did.
As Cosentino explains, "I believe non-traditional casting can work when the race of the character is not germane to the story. Martin Luther King Jr. was and is an icon in the African-American community for specific reasons. And I don't believe casting a white man in that role does the character justice."
For his part, Oatman welcomes the controversy: "All the criticism is justified. But as theater people, we often make provocative choices and we can't be worried about a negative response. We have to roll the dice and take the consequences."
Let the discussion continue.