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AlterTheater’s ‘Bondage’ is surreal, dense, perplexing

[Woody’s Rating: ★★★½☆

 

Zuri (Dezi Soléy, rear) and Emily (Emily Serdahl) play an odd game in “Bondage.” Photo by DavidAllenStudio.com.

Zuri (Dezi Soléy, rear) and Emily (Emily Serdahl) play an odd game in “Bondage.” Photo by DavidAllenStudio.com.

“Bondage” begins with a zombie-like promenade and ends with a coming of age like no other.

Sandwiched between, in this intensely surreal and metaphysical AlterTheater premiere, are chunks of biracial coupling, lesbianism, drunkenness and rhythmic ghostly breathing.

Plus biting touches of zealotry, lechery and slavery.

And bondage, both as a disturbing teenage game and a metaphor for life on an unnamed pre-Emancipation island plantation off Georgia, the Carolinas or somewhere else that itself doubles as a metaphor.

If that’s confounding, I do believe the playwright, Star Finch, may have been hoping for just that reaction.

Her “AfroSurreal” ghost story is dense, condensed and occasionally impenetrable — with so much to consider that I stayed awake for hours afterwards mulling what I’d just witnessed.

“Bondage,” directed adroitly by Elizabeth Carter and developed in AlterLab, the year-long AlterTheater playwright residency program, was sprinkled with just enough levity to let me breathe.

But it’s really a slightly less than two-hour drama with more dramatic tentacles than Medusa’s head has venomous snakes.

The storyline focuses on two teen cousins — a “white” one who enjoys fantasizing about the “black” one being a sister, with the mixed-race latter relishing the bennies of being a friend instead of a slave.

Dezi Soléy is incredibly powerful as Zuri, the 13-year-old slave-playmate on the brink of womanhood, a moth drawn to her black boyfriend’s flame while simultaneously trying to thwart the sexual advances of Emily’s father.

But excellent performances are also turned in by Emily Serdahl as the young white mistress; Cathleen Riddley as Azucar, their guardian/comforter/historian; Emilie Talbot as Emily’s visiting Aunt Ruby; and Shane Fahy as Philip, Emily’s heavy-drinking, libidinous British father who feels his home has become his prison.

Star Finch’s language is fascinating — at once poetic, heart-felt, stilted.

Her storytelling is equally layered and complex: a current reality/fantasy superimposed on various mysteries of the past.

Her ghosts, in fact, are yanked out of black history — especially black women’s history.

She adores repetition.

References to what the dead want, for example. Her answer: “A witness.”

Star Finch also loves the mysterious, the oblique — as in a nightmare about a horde of slaughtered animals coming to live on the plantation.

Yet some of her dialogue is quite pointed.

As when Azucar declares, “Life is labor.” Or when Emily naïvely reports that her “father says special slaves can be like a pet.” Or when Zuri plaintively asks, “What gives Emily so much power over us — her skin is barely whiter?”

Ruby’s rigid racial bigotry, not incidentally, becomes a backdrop used to point out the rigidity of her faith.

She contends, for instance, “A woman is never alone” — because God is always watching “from above” and slaves “from below.”

Star Finch deserves praise for both eschewing gutter language and for inserting uncommon conceits such as Emily wetting herself, hiding an egg in her body and playing that bondage game without making any of them seem completely bizarre.

AlterTheater, co-founded by exec director Jeanette Harrison 12 years ago, primarily performs in empty storefronts on 4th Street in San Rafael. This is its first performance in Corte Madera.

Post-show comments from the sold-out opening night audience ranged from blatant bewilderment to virtual rapture that a drama could proffer black legends and sensibilities that resonate with more than one side of today’s unstable society.

After all my pondering, I firmly stand in the latter camp.

Even though I’m not sure surreal playwrights aren’t the only ones who can fully fathom their verbal melting clocks.

“Bondage” will run through April 16 at the AlterTheater, 200 Tamal Plaza, Corte Madera. Night performances, 7 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matines, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets, $25. Information, 415-454-2787 or http://altertheater.org.

Contact Woody Weingarten at www.vitalitypress.com or voodee@sbcglobal.net

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