PRINCESS MARY DEMANDS YOUR ATTENTION at Bailiwick Chicago, Theatre Review – It's A Drag

 

Bailiwick Chicago’s newest “page-to-stage” production of resident playwright Aaron Holland’s Princess Mary Demands Your Attention ironically does anything except keep our attention. Unless one reads the production notes in the program, one would have absolutely no idea that the central character suffers from agoraphobia nor would one know that the show is meant to be a contemporary take on Leo Trolstoy’s epic (and longwinded) classic historical-fiction novel, War and Peace. Having tried reading the dense book way back in my nerd days right out of college about the only thing Princess Mary has in common with the novel is that they’re both hard to get through.

 

(left to right) TJ Crawford, Omer Abbas Salem, Armand Fields and David Kaplinsky

 

Now don’t get me wrong. Princess Mary is not a terrible play. God knows I’ve seen much worse. Underneath all the overdone pop-culture references and gay banter lays bare a touching story about a young gay black man finding the strength to grow up and let go.

 

I understand why Mr. Holland wrote it and why Bailiwick Chicago would feel the need to produce it on stage. It’s always nice to see a theatre company willing to take a risk on a new playwright. But even still this play clearly needs some major work if Princess Mary has any hope of growing up itself. What worked during a read through of the script between close friends and theatre acquaintances falls apart on stage in front of a general audience.

 

Set in Richmond, Virginia over a period of ten years from 2000 to 2010 (which again you’d only know by reading the program notes), Princess Mary tells the story of Amari Bolkonski (played by an endearing Armand Fields) a young black gay man who suffers from agoraphobia and who lives a sheltered life with his overprotective mother, Countess Bolkonski (played by an outstanding Pam Mack).

 

One day Amari has a random encounter with three young gay men out on his way to work. The trio is led by the charismatic Christian (David Kaplinsky) and his two colorful and sassy friends Bastian (Omer Abbas Salem) and his boyfriend Nathaniel (TJ Crawford). This group of friends pushes Amari past his usual comfort level by opening him up to new experiences and it forces Amari into a decade long struggle to accept himself and let go of his fears.

 

Amari’s struggle with himself is literally depicted throughout this play by the strange image of a drag queen named Princess Mary (played by the fabulous Baron L. Clay Jr.). Princess Mary is Amari’s spiritual guide. She also represents Amari’s confident, fierce, and free self. She is the part of Amari that he’s been ignoring his entire adult life. Though she appears frequently in Amari’s dreams it’s only towards the very end of the play that Amari is ready to accept her (and that part of himself).

 

left to right) TJ Crawford, Omer Abbas Salem, Armand Fields and David Kaplinsky

 

The subject matter in Princess Mary is actually intriguing, and indeed it would be interesting to watch if Mr. Holland were to take his characters seriously. Instead they all come off like a joke. The script is chalk-full of the most clichéd cardboard gay diva stereotypes you can imagine. True that’s to be expected when one of the main characters is a strong confident drag queen. But many of the characters are written in such clichéd ways that it’s hard for us to invest in them emotionally.

 

Right now many of the characters seem to only exist to provide us with “one-liners” or give us over-thought philosophical writer verbiage such as “why walk when you can fly?” or “you can’t hold on and move on at the same time baby”. In particular Amari’s boss at the local store named Stacy (Rus Rainer) along with the characters Nathaniel and Bastian are so over-the-top that they’re coming off like sketch comedy characters rather than real people. It’s hard to relate with characters that say things like, “He’s not my boyfriend”…. (Bastian and Nathaniel hold up their wedding rings)… “He’s my Beyoncé!!” The worst part of all this is that it feels like Mr. Holland wants us to laugh at these people for how extravagantly flamboyant they behave. I get that the intent is to own up to being “fabulous”, but that doesn’t give characters the right to be obnoxious at the same time either.

 

Though Mr. Holland is trying I must admit that the jokes in Princess Mary are so bad that it was a little embarrassing to sit through at times. Hardly anything in this play is truly funny and I had to take note that about the only people who were laughing on opening night were the usual opening night staff and ensemble members at Bailiwick seated in the back rows of the house. But for everyone else Princess Mary felt like we we’re watching the first draft of a show straight out of a playwriting 101 class that didn’t intend to have a real audience yet.

 

The story here is obviously very personal to Mr. Holland, as we can sense his influence and personality in each of the characters. But that’s also one of the biggest problems with this show. Other than the Countess the rest of the characters have no individuality. Every character whether it be Amari, Stacey, or the equally colorful gay trio that he befriends all tend to speak in with the exact same sassy gay diva tone. No one has their own voice nor does anyone have their own individual personality. The dialogue comes across as being straight from the writer’s pen rather than these characters’ mouths.

 

That said the only relationship in this show that has any truth to it at all, and is occasionally very touching, is the mother-son bond. I wish it was given further expansion. The only problem is that this mother-son dynamic feels all too similar to the fractured mother-son bond in the musical Passing Strange (a show which Bailiwick itself produced not too long ago).

 

(left to right) Baron L. Clay, Jr., Pam Mack and Armand Fields

 

For saying this play is inspired by War and Peace we need to see more of that constant back-and-forth battle of “war and peace” within Amari himself. Right now next to nothing is at stake in this play. Everything feels so flat that the show tends to “drag” endlessly on and on without a real purpose.

 

In addition there is no sense of urgency in this play. It needs a real sense of fear and danger, a lot more action, and more genuine struggle. The play could also benefit from less pop-culture gay references and more moments of honest and even painful vulnerability. And most importantly there needs to be an actual conflict where something, anything, is actually at stake in this play.

 

Also I really don’t understand what the point of having a drag queen roam around the stage “haunting” Amari if he’s just going to choose to outright ignore her for nearly the entire play.  It would have been more interesting to watch him actually struggle with accepting that part of himself. He can notice her and perhaps even fight with her in his constant struggle to accept himself and let go of his fears.

 

And why does “Princess Mary” only appear at certain moments? She should be on stage the entire time that Amari is (even if she’s off in the shadows or behind a scrim) so we get a sense of that constant inner struggle that Amari has to suffer through day in and day out and also so we can sense how much Amari is repressing that part of himself.

 

Amari apparently suffers from a mild form of “agoraphobia” a condition which includes panic attacks and extreme anxiety in open unknown situations. As far as I can tell the word “agoraphobia” doesn’t show up anywhere in the text. Only in the playbill could I find reference to the word. Right now his condition is coming off more like someone with OCD as Amari is repeatedly shown counting the number of steps he takes on his way to work, and his general anxiety around strangers just feels too normal. Aren’t most people anxious around people they’ve never met before?

 

We need to sense the outright fear and panic that he goes through from having this condition. There’s not much tension or anxiety with Amari right now. I wish Mr. Holland could discover new ways to explore Amari’s fear on an even deeper psychological level. We need to see him suffer from this devastating condition more. Amari’s meltdown at the gay club later in Act 1 comes close to a panic attack, but given the confrontation he just endured right before he blows up it feels totally justified. Generally people who truly suffer from agoraphobia have full-fledged panic attacks and extremely high anxiety that can come out of nowhere in unknown situations, especially in open spaces. Amari is too normal right now.

 

(left to right) Baron L. Clay, Jr. and Armand Fields

 

None of the motivations are thought out very well for any of the characters in this play. Why does Christian want to pursue Amari? Why do ten years go by without Amari changing at all? Why doesn’t Stacey seek out help for Amari? Why is there all this talk about Amari’s brother when he doesn’t even make an appearance in the show? Why does Princess Mary only appear in certain moments and not at others? Why is Amari not on medication for his phobia? Why has he never gone in for therapy? Why does being in drag equate to personal freedom and acceptance?

 

And though there isn’t much of a discussion on sexual identity in this play it’s still confusing to me that there could be so many openly extravagant homosexual men (in makeup and drag gear no less) who roam the streets and stores of Richmond, Virginia during the George Bush years without any problems at all. Not to mention Raquel Adorno’s costume choices for Stacey were flat-out atrocious. What kind of business owner would walk around in a sequined outfit with a doo-rag on his head? It doesn’t make any sense.

 

And then there is an over-excessive amount of unjustified and clumsy monologues narrated directly by Amari to his late father and to us in the audience. These monologues neither provides us with deep insight into his world nor do they move the plot forward much. For the most part all they do is provide us with an overabundance of unnecessary exposition. The monologues might serve to further the parallel with Tolstoy’s novel, but that certainly doesn’t make them engaging.

 

There are so many substantial narrative, structural, thematic, character, and motivational problems in Princess Mary that I can’t help but feel bad for pinpointing so many of them. I do have to point out that for a brand new play by a young inexperienced playwright the problems here are not unexpected. No play, even by the most cultivated of playwrights, is going to be perfect its first time around.

 

I’d also like to say that Princess Mary is not entirely unfixable. There is a real sincerity underneath this play that has a good heart to it which radiates throughout this piece. Even still I have to be honest, the writing and the show in general needs some major work. Perhaps a “script doctor” can give this work a closer inspection to help clean it up and make Mr. Holland’s script more focused, less predictable, less clichéd, and give it a bigger purpose.

 

This play should be an exploration of the insecurities and fear that we all hold inside of us. Right now it’s more of an exploration of a bunch of diva personalities which limits the scope of this play to a very specific group of people. Outside of Amari and his mother the countess, no one feels real. Instead of trying to give us an “edgy” gay subculture, how about give us a show that explores topics within this culture that are more relatable to a general audience?

 

What might help is if there was a way to play around with the overall structure of this play. Since the play already skims through different time periods it might be more interesting if that sense of lost time were incorporated more into the texture of this piece. Mr. Holland could play around with the storytelling structure to make it not so linear.

 

So, what if the play began at its climax and from there the story can jump around to different time periods in Amari’s life – giving us flashbacks and glimmers of his childhood and upbringing and perhaps towards the end we can see flash-forwards to his future? Doing so would incorporate not only an exceptional amount of character growth, but it would give us a reason to sympathize with Amari more, to understand his intentions, and give us a reason to be really be invested in his growth.

 

Speaking of flashbacks it would be helpful if we actually got to meet Amari’s dad and his brother Daniel so we can sense the impact these two absent family members have had on him. It would be great if we got to see a more vulnerable side to Amari’s mother, and if perhaps we got to see Amari being bullied as a kid, to see him discover his sexual identity for the first time, come out of the closet to his mom, and to see why a drag queen of all things came to represent his “spiritual” guide. And it would be nice if we got to see Amari struggle more with his agoraphobia.

 

And finally, Princess Mary needs to figure out a bigger message than just embracing being “fabulous”. It’s been done before. In fact there are already too many plays about letting go, self-acceptance, friendship bonds, and family ties. So for this play to really make an impact it needs to either figure out an entirely new way to get those points across or it needs to discover a more specific message for us to come away with that is unique to this play.

 

(left to right) Armand Fields and Baron L. Clay, Jr.

 

Aside from the writing the performances throughout Princess Mary are wonderful. This production has a wonderful ensemble feel to it. Everyone has good intentions and the cast plays well off each other specifically TJ Crawford and Omer Abbas Salem as Nathaniel and Bastian. The cast is also helped by the fact that Baron L. Clay Jr. looks stunning and radiant in drag.

 

The directing by the superb Lili-Anne Brown is terrific as always. She infuses the actors with a beautiful subtlety that makes them connect on a deeper level than what’s on the surface level. There are no major issues with either the pacing or blocking.

 

Bottom Line: Princess Mary Demands Your Attention is somewhat recommended. Yes, there are massive problems with the writing in Princess Mary and the play as a whole clearly needs some major work. Yet, even though I had some enormous issues with this play I also have to take note that there is so much untapped potential hidden deep within it as well. Moreover I have to applaud Bailiwick for taking a risk by doing this production and for giving faith in an untested and very talented new playwright. Despite the show's problems there is still room for growth.

 

PRINCESS MARY DEMANDS YOUR ATTENTION  – Bailiwick Chicago

Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, there is one 15 minute intermission.

Location:  Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago

Runs through: February 21, 2015

Curtain Times: Thursday, Fridays, & Saturdays at 8 PM; Sundays at 6 PM. There is also an added performance on Wednesday, January 28 at 7:30 PM and Tuesday, February 10 at 7:30 PM (industry night) 

Tickets and Reservations: $30 and can be purchased online (see link above), in-person the day of the show, or by calling the Victory Gardens Box Office at (773) 871-3000

Discounted Group Tickets: For groups of 10 or more there is a discounted rate. Please inquire with box office for details.

Written by Resident Playwright Aaron Holland, Directed byArtistic Director Lili-Anne Brown

Cast: Baron L. Clay, Jr. (Princess Mary), TJ Crawford (Nathaniel), Armand Fields (Amari), David Kaplinsky (Christian), Pam Mack (Countess), Rus Rainear (Stacy), Omer Abbas Salem (Bastian) and Jeremy Sonkin (Barry/Orderly/Mr. Mysterious.)

Understudies: Breon Arzell, Ryan Lanning, Eric Martin, Jon Martinez

Photo Credits: Michael Brosilow

 

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