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The Red Letter Plays:

F***ing A

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors 


The Red Letter Plays: F***ing A

Christine Lahti in F***ing A.  (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors 

Hester, in Suzan-Lori Parks' F***ing A, lives in a dystopian world of violence, passion and society's oppressed classes. Says Parks, a Pulitzer Prize winner  (Top Dog/Underdog), she is not adapting Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter but doing a jazz riff on it, taking the original chords and writing her own melodies. At the Signature Theatre Company, her melodies ring with authority, pairing varying views of Hawthorne's character, Hester, in F***ing A and In the Blood, to be reviewed later.

Originated in 1999, Parks' Hester was branded with the scarlet letter "A" on her breast, not for adultery as in Hawthorne's book, but for abortionist. She lives in an undesignated era in a small town anywhere in the world, tolerated, if not befriended by her neighbors, and loved by the Butcher (Raphael Nash Thompson), a good man who wants to marry her.

Actress Christine Lahti, her hair wild and matted and her apron soaked with blood, gives an intense performance of  hardworking Hester Smith. Fatigued and fierce with a mother's love, Hester is dedicated to saving her coins to buy her son's freedom from prison.  Her maternal love is balanced with fiery hatred for the town Mayor's wife, (played by Elizabeth Stanley,  Million Dollar Quartet), who had sent the boy to prison 30 years ago for stealing food from her household.

This First Lady's husband is the grandstanding big honcho of the economically depressed town.  Played by Marc Kudisch (Assassins), his bombastic style is bolstered with vocal baritone skills and more than a touch of humor. The Mayor has a mistress, Canary Mary, played by Joaquina Kalukango (The Color Purple), who is also Hester's confidant. What is missing in his life, however, is a son. The Mayor's wife cannot give her husband a child, a plotline that untangles itself theatrically throughout the play.

Directed by Jo Bonney, racing storylines of society, sexuality, violence and revenge click into place with Parks' dramatic writing and the riveting performers. As everyone except Hester acknowledges, her son, called "Boy Smith," is not the sweet angel of Hester's imagination. With a history of misdeeds, Boy has continued committing horrendous crimes in prison, earning the nickname, "Monster." While Hester saves for his release, Boy played by the captivating Brandon Victor Dixon (Shuffle Along), escapes prison. His reunion with his mother is the culmination of this twisting, horrific plot.

With musical director Todd Almond, director Bonney brings in actors who are both vocally and dramatically skilled, many also playing instruments. While not known as a singer, Lahti does the job, delivering the challenging vocal determination of Hester's persistence. Other singing/acting roles are authoritatively delivered by Rubio Quan, J. Cameron Barnett and Ben Horner. The songs, reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, are biting and personal. While none will linger in the Great American Songbook, they lend power and humor to the show's vengeance and passion.

The struggles of Hester is played out on Rachel Hauck’s bleak wooden set, dramatized by Jeff Croiter's shadowed lighting and sound design by Darron L. West. Emilio Sosa dresses Hester in drab tan splattered with blood and her gal pal, Canary, is sexy and sassy in yellow. Quite interesting in this production is the occasional insertion of the women's language of Talk, translated into English on the wall.

A blood-soaked and grisly production, F***ing A gives vent to a contemporary unease of violence, misogyny, hopelessness and economic malaise that's hard to shake off.

The Red Letter Plays: F***ing A
Romolus Linney Theater at The Pershing Square Signature Theater
480 - West 42 Street, NYC
Previews: Aug. 22, 2017. Opening: Sept. 11, 2017. Closing: Oct. 1, 2017
Running time: 2hrs, 15 minutes. One intermission.
Cast: J. Cameron Barnett, Brandon Victor Dixon), Ben Horner, Joaquina Kalukango, Marc Kudisch, Christine Lahti, Ruibo Qian, Elizabeth Stanley, Raphael Nash Thompson
Playwright: Suzan-Lori Parks
Director: Jo Bonney

Reviewed by Elizabeth Ahlfors
September 2017

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