Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August, 2002
Just when I thought I could go to the theatre and just enjoy myself, I have to go see Black Sheep, and everyone says “Oh, you HAVE to write about it, Gail!” And I suppose I do.
This is the strangest play I have seen since I was in college (and I went to a college noted for its strangeness in general, not just on the stage) and the first time I have ever seen a naked man on stage. Is strange the same as good? Sometimes. Did the man need to be naked? Probably not, and my criteria for nudity in general is its necessity. Am I glad I saw Black Sheep? Apart from having to write when I thought I had a day off, yes. But then I kind of like strange theatre because I came of age in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s in New York City and went to a college that venerated strangeness. Okay, let’s get real. I am kind of a strange woman.
So, that being said, what about Black Sheep? It is a very fine production. Looks great. Loved the set (Andrew Lieberman), the lighting (Peter West), and the sound design (Eric Shim). Award-winning actor Gerry Bamman, who comes from that same late 1960’s/early 1970’s strange theatre tradition in which I grew up, gives a great performance. He gets it…whatever it is. I got that there was nothing to get. On the way home I pondered some of the repetitive symbolism of the script and the design and decided that this was one of those times when a cigar is just a cigar. Or, in this case, a fish tank is just a fish tank.
There is a fish tank on the stage, with real live fish in it, and the entire set resembles a big fish tank itself. There is a lot of water imagery in the play – a lake, a swimming pool, the fish tank, a drowning (maybe), and three characters who appear in bathing suits. There are also a lot of those cheap African carvings on stage, the kind you can buy now for $4.99 at T.J. Maxx. If the play is about anything, it is about this wealthy white family dealing with the fact that their nephew is black (so was his mother, but you never see either of his biological parents). But the African carvings didn’t seem to be too directly related to the racial issues.
In his author’s notes, award-winning playwright Lee Blessing writes about “parallel realities.” The word “dream” occurs frequently in the play, and that is probably its very best description. This is a dream play, and one that comes remarkably close to capturing the weird über-reality of a dream. In essence, Blessing is attempting to revive a genre considered long dead in this first decade of the third millennium – Theatre of the Absurd.
But the word underneath the title of the play in the program is “comedy.” Do not forget this. You are supposed to be laughing. This is not serious. Dreams are not serious. That which is absurd is, by definition, not serious. The very seriousness with which our dreams play out is comical.
Now, about that naked man. He is supposed to be dead, I think. In any case, he flops out of an industrial waste-type barrel stark naked and dripping wet and just lies there for the last ten minutes of the play. The actor (Haynes Thigpen) was breathing rather a lot for a dead man, but perhaps that is what you do after being stuffed inside a metal barrel stark naked and dripping wet. I cannot claim first-hand experience in this area. There was no explanation given for the character being a) dead, b) naked, c) wet, or d) inside a barrel. This leads me to conclude that he could just as well have been wearing the pair of swim trunks he had had on all during the show and saved the Southern Berkshire Regional School Board the trouble of “investigating” the propriety of a naked wet man lying on school property. I understand that Blessing considered the character’s nakedness “dramatically important to the play.” Okay…
Because I am a strange kind of woman who is partial to this strange kind of theatre, I think that it is cool that Barrington Stage mounted this production. In my mind it makes up for them playing it so safe and opening with South Pacific. Will Black Sheep annoy people, confuse people, upset people? Yup! And hallelujah! Theatre in Berkshire County, particularly in the summer months, plays it too darned safe. It’s time we took some risks and had some healthy arguments on the way home from the theatre. And Black Sheep would have accomplished that end even if the “dead” guy had been wearing his swim trunks.
Black Sheep runs through August 3 at Barrington Stage Company (413-528-8888) performing at Mt. Everett Regional High School (413-229-8734), on Berkshire School Road between Rts. 7 & 41 in Sheffield. The show runs 85 minutes with no intermission. There is adult language and situations, violence, and nudity. The company will not admit unaccompanied minors to the performance.
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2002