Focus, focus, focus. By stripping Porgy and Bess down to its essentials, Court Theatre director Charles Newell and musical director and orchestrator Doug Peck invite audiences into the heart of the masterful folk opera by George and Ira Gershwin and DuBose and Dorothy Heyward. With its simplified staging, white costumes and bare-bones set, this “Porgy and Bess” is nevertheless lavish in its intimacy.
Court Theatre’s 250-seat house is an apt venue for a production that seeks to erase much of the usual separation between cast and audience. The audience faces two sides of a low, square white-washed platform that suggests a “praise house,” the traditional place of worship and meeting for the Gullah community of the South Carolina coast, the setting that inspired DuBose Heyward, a native of Charleston, to write the novel and, with his wife Dorothy, the play that served as the basis for the opera.
Seated along the two remaining sides of John Culbert’s strikingly minimalist set are six musicians who become part of the action as they move from one instrument to another, creating the multi-layered sound of an entire orchestra pit. Music director Doug Peck conducts and plays piano, with Chuck Bontrager on violin and viola, Christian Dillingham on bass, Nick Moran on woodwinds, Stephen Orejudos on trumpet and flugelhorn and Brent Roman darting from one percussive instrument to another.
The cast enters from the back of the house clad in simple white garments designed by Jacqueline Firkins. At moments during the performance the actors surge back up and the down the aisles, like the tide licking the shore, mingling with the audience. When Joelle Lamarre (Lily) peddles her wares as the strawberry woman, she bestows samples of the sparkling berries to a couple of audience members as she sings her luscious lullaby, literally touching an audience that is already deeply engaged.
It is that connection between cast and audience that makes Court Theatre’s Porgy and Bess a revelation. The cast works as an ensemble. This Porgy and Bess is not so much about Porgy and Bess as it is about community, the disadvantaged residents of Catfish Row, a tenement building in Charleston, who eke out livings as fishermen and stevedores, their meager earnings sometimes blown on gambling or drugs. On the bottom rung of this shaky economic ladder is Porgy, the crippled beggar played by Todd M. Kryger with a physicality that demonstrates believably what it is like to live with Porgy’s disability. That the book’s writer, DuBose Heyward, was a polio survivor may explain why a white Southern man was able to create an African-American character of Porgy’s depth.
Newell and Peck wanted to emphasize storytelling in their version of Porgy and Bess, and for the most part, they succeed, although it’s not always easy to follow the passage of time without changes in costumes and scenery. To emphasize storytelling, they cast actors who could sing, rather than singers trained in opera. That strategy pays off, with fine singing from every cast member. But the production doesn’t come fully alive until partway through the first act, when Bethany Thomas sings Serena’s mournful My Man’s Gone Now, channeling a grief so deep that it seems ready to split her apart. From that point on, the storytelling is indeed a match for George Gershwin’s inimitable music.
The story revolves around a skewed romantic triangle: Porgy, Bess and two men who offer Bess a twisted refuge of violence and drugs. The first is Crown, a thug with a taste for pretty women, booze and drugs who is menacingly portrayed by James Earl Jones II. Stirring the pot by offering up “happy dust” is the drug-dealing Sportin’ Life, tartly played by Sean Blake, who struts his stuff as he puts a fresh spin on It Ain’t Necessarily So.
Alexis J. Rogers (Bess) enters as Crown’s mistress, scorned by the God-fearing women of Catfish Row but elevated in Porgy’s eyes. She is partly redeemed by her love for Porgy but weak enough that after Porgy kills Crown to protect her, Bess takes off to New York City with Sportin’ Life. Bess is equal parts opportunist and victim, and in the end she is all about survival. It’s a difficult, nuanced role that many previous portrayers have communicated through overt sensuality. The diminutive Rogers is not the usual Bess, and that could be a good thing, but neither does she offer fresh insights into what motivates Bess. Rogers may be miscast as Bess or simply mismatched to Kryger’s strong yet subtle Porgy.
The remaining cast members are all terrific: Bear Bellinger (Peter), Wydetta Carter (Maria), Matt Holzfeind (Mr. Archdale), Brian-Alwyn Newland (Robbins), Harriet Nzinga Plumpp (Clara), Kelvin Roston Jr. (Jim), Travis Turner (Mingo), Adrienne Walker (Annie) and Bryon Glenn Willis (Jake).
For an up-close look at Catfish Row, book now. Performances of Porgy and Bess have been selling out.
Photo credit: Michael Brosilow
Porgy and Bess has been extended through July 3 at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis Ave., Chicago. Performances Wednesdays through Sundays. Tickets are $46–$65. For tickets call 773-753-4472 or go to CourtTheatre.org.