Review: “The Brothers Size” at Theatre Rhinoceros

Tarell Alvin McCraney is just about to become a big deal. True, his plays have been produced all around the world, including in New York, but he has remained mostly obscure. That is all going to change when the 2016 film Moonlight hits theaters, which he has written the script for, based on his own play. It premiered Telluride in September to extremely positive reviews and is tapped to be a major contender this awards season. If you want to see one of the author’s earlier works before that film hits the mainstream, Theatre Rhinoceros is producing The Brothers Size in an effective, if slightly shaky, production.

The Brothers Size takes place in the “distant present” in bayou Louisiana territory, concerning Ogun Size, a hardworking mechanic, and his younger brother Oshoosi, an aimless drifter who has just gotten out of prison and is trying not to go back. Rounding out the three person show is Elegba, Oshoosi’s ex-cellmate and current best friend. It seems like the premise for a highly typical play, but McCraney presents the show under the framing device of an African spiritual, interspersing the evening with tribal music (with beautifully abstract lyrics) and interpretive dance.

This device could easily come across as trite, but McCraney treats this spiritualism with a seriousness and care that will make you accept it without any suspension of disbelief. Additionally, McCraney has a stunningly clear authorial voice and many actually interesting and unique things to say about family, masculinity, and race, that make his work seem essential rather than just interesting. There are slight problems with narrative thrust (which can be attributed to authorial youth; Brothers Size was written when McCraney was just 26), but overall, The Brothers Size is a daring and beautiful work. The play is part of a thematic trilogy known as The Brother/Sister Plays, but context is not necessary to enjoy this play, which is fully self-contained.

If this play sounds of interest to you, Theatre Rhinoceros’s production of the show is good enough, though it feels slightly disjointed, mostly due to the direction. Laura Elaine Ellis’s choreography is by far the most impressive element of the evening, which is emotionally stirring, beautifully intense, and executed with skill by the actors. Gabriel Christian is the strongest of the 3-person cast as Oshoosi, the headstrong brother on probation. He is able to make the character’s lackadaisical attitude believable without much context and handles his more serious monologues quite well. Julian Green is also pretty good as Elegba, Oshoosi’s best friend, though he perhaps never plums the depths of the character’s motivations and personality, instead giving the audience a rather surface-level take on the character.

There probably is a good performance in LaKeidrick S. Wimberly, who plays Oshoosi’s responsible older brother Ogun, but he is currently playing the character far too aggressively and loudly to be as sympathetic as necessary. His later scenes have a certain power, but when his first lines onstage are bellowed out loudly enough to shake the theatre, there is nowhere for the character to grow from that point, thus resulting in a sense of stagnancy.The blame for this choice most likely lies with director Darryl V. Jones, who has a very uncertain take on the material. His staging is rather unfocused, and he doesn’t have a feel for the play’s specific ethos, which carefully tiptoes the line between realist drama and abstraction.

For example, the play requires many of the actors to say their own stage direction (i.e.: “Oshoosi enters stage left” would be said aloud by the actor playing Oshoosi as he enters stage left) and Jones has his actors say these stage directions as quickly and as unobtrusively as possible instead of presenting them as moments of overt surrealism. It’s not a hindrance to the dramatic completeness of the evening as a whole, but is representative of his desire to hide the more unconventional moments of the play rather than highlight them.

Even though Theatre Rhinoceros’s production could use a little work, it’s good enough, and the play is certainly strong enough to make the performance as a whole one absolutely worth seeing if you have a free afternoon or evening. Someday, when McCraney is a known name, you can say that you knew him before his was famous.

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