The phoenix, the mythological bird that dies by fire, only to rise again from the ashes, is one of humankind’s most enduring fables. The fantastical creature represents many things: rebirth, resurrection, regeneration; the survival instinct itself. Never mentioned in the work, this particular myth is central to Brandon Crone‘s latest play, Contempt, that has opened at The Storefront Theatre.
Contempt has only four characters, and a rather simple plot. Sharon (Marcia Johnson) is the mother of her disabled son, Freddie, who was horribly injured in a fire when just a boy. As his constant care-giver, she knows her virgin son has reached puberty and adulthood. Astonishingly forthright, Sharon seeks the help of a sex surrogate who, she believes, might aid her son understand his sexual development. Freddie lives his life in a wheel chair, unable to speak. He blinks his eyes as a means of limited communication. One might imagine the subject matter is difficult, even depressing. Instead, much of Contempt is hilarious.
Tara (Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah), the sex surrogate, on her first assignment, arrives at Sharon’s home, prepared to meet her chair-bound client. Instead, Freddie’s mother, Marcia Johnson natters away at a furious pace, her fear of being displaced as her son’s sole care-giver drives her cheerful prattle. As Freddie’s mother, she’s hopeful Tara will help her son, but she also fears a lost of control to this young and more educated rival. After meeting Freddie, Tara returns to her lusty boy friend, Ryan, played by Benjamin Blais. As Sharon’s lover, Ryan is cheeky as they come. He’s the pleasure-loving frat boy, with a university degree and no career, now coasting through life as a bartender. One imagines he’s good at his job. He knows how to pretend he’s listening.
The characters and the plot are interesting, but what allows this play to blaze across its full trajectory is the acting, and I have a hunch all of these actors will win awards for this show. Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah plays the ambitious sex surrogate, with amazing grace and confidence. As an graduate sexologist, she knows everything about the mechanics of sex and professional demeanor, but less about how to handle or understand the emotions that intimacy unleashes. And she’s not exactly a good judge of character. This really show up in her choice of boyfriends. Ryan’s great in bed, and it’s clear why Sharon likes him. What she doesn’t anticipate is how his immaturity and narcissism, nurtured by his own insecurities, have turned him into something increasingly cowardly.
Tara works with handicapped Freddie, to help him “develop” his knowledge of sex and of his emotional needs. Instead, and mostly unaware, she’s the one who is growing. Her profession has taught her to “quantify” and “describe” human interactions, as if emotions and sexuality were solid objects. The clinical language Tara employs gives her a sense of objectivity, when really, she uses it to control her own confused feelings, and this leaves her open to her lover’s manipulations.
All the actors are very good and work seamlessly together. But the true champ of the piece is Prince Amponsah, who plays the disabled son and it’s his performance that makes the play an amazing success.
Theatre itself is “the make-believe room”. It’s the sacred place where the audience is free to set aside its defences, and surrender to a vulnerability richer and deeper than when we dream, asleep. And in the make-believe room, a really good actor is always in control of his audience. He’s our guide, signally the audience what we should feel. Amponsah is, in real life, a disabled man. But as an actor, in a play, he never lets us feel sorry for him. He’s too skilled for that.
On stage, Amponsah is always in character. He is always Freddie. And this triggers a far different dynamic, and conjures a far greater magic. As Freddie, Amponsah sits, mostly motionless, and totally mute. Although he uses only his eyes, posture, and breathing, you sense you’re reading his every thought. As the nearly-inert Freddie, he’s actively offering us a detailed performance simply by a blink or roll of the eye. Really, it’s his presence that propels Contempt forward, making it not only a spellbinding drama, but a terrific comedy as well.
Contempt may be Brandon Crone’s most mature work. His earlier plays seem less focused, less satisfying. In the past, he was often the new, sassy rebel—the naughty playwright who loved to shock his audiences with rude or novel subjects.
But with Contempt, Crone reveals himself as the mature artist. The titillations of his early works have given way to shock waves that have a longer, more haunted reach, like a whale’s cry echoing through deeper waters. He observes that humans are truly fools, lost in a dangerous drama. We grasp at hope when there is little or none, and we fight for survival when there appears no good reason to bother.
No matter how broken or disfigured we are by life, lies the unseen, regenerative power of our fantasies, wishes, and dreams. These forces are the kindling wood for the resurrection fire of love, passion, hope, and sheer endurance.
The phoenix will always perish in the flames. The bird will always rise again, on fabulous wings. Life in ascendancy, in the make-believe room.
Prince Amponsah, as Freddie; Benjamin Blais, as Ryan; Marcia Johnson, as Sharon; Khadijah Roberts-Abdullah, as Tara.
Katherine Belyea, Stage Manager; Julian Bulof, Lighting Designer; Brandon Crone, Director/Playwright; Alex Dault, Executive Producer; Rachel Forbes, Set Designer; Claire Hill, Producer/Production Manager; Samantha Holland, Associate Producer; Holly Lloyd, Costume Designer; Emma Mackenzie Hillier, Dramaturge; John Gundy, Photography.
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All photographs by John Gundy