Arts & Events

Theater Review: Marcus Gardley's The House That Will Not Stand at Berkeley Rep

By Ken Bullock
Thursday February 20, 2014 - 08:26:00 PM

What's most striking about 'The House That Will Not Stand,' the premiere of the Marcus Gardley play commissioned by Berkeley Rep and produced in collaboration with Yale Repertory, now playing at the Rep's Thrust Stage in an extended run through March 23, is the progression Gardley seems to be making from the seemingly Southern Gothic romance-style plays he was writing a half dozen years back (“évery tongue must confess,” reviewed in the Planet July 31, 2008, comes to mind) bringing out more of the lyric element, always present, but tied more and more to the action of the characters in ensemble.  

Gardley's plays are often referred to as being like radio plays—"plays for voices," which described Dylan Thomas' Under Milkwood might be a bit more accurate—but the extensive use of monologue and dialogue to flesh out the unusual situations Gardley looks for in African-American history is best matched with an equal density in activity onstage. When the actors in 'House,' directed by Patricia McGregor, are engaged in that intricate theatricality of word, movement and gesture, the play's at its best, and an excellent performance like Harriet D. Foy's as Makeda becomes possible, both standing out from and helping to link together the vignettes and scenes that add up to the whole of the play. 

But sometimes there's a sense of neglect, of inattention, as the action goes off in a different direction, which in 'House all but beaches venerable Ray Reinhardt, in the aptly-dubbed role of Lazare, the only male onstage, pater familias who tries to rule his house even after death. There should be more for Reinhardt to do or say, or at least a greater sense of his presence, but the action is more taken up with the generations of women in and around Lazare's household and their struggles with society, themselves and each other to find their own way as women of color. 

Set in 1836 New Orleans, three decades after its acquisition by the United States, Gardley's play is an exploration of the custom of plaçage, common-law marriages between (usually legally married) white householders (and slave owners) and women of color, who served as housekeepers, often mothering children, to the master of the house—and especially in French days, acquiring the property as rightful heir, sometimes over claims of a childless legal spouse.  

House reads from the audience perspective a little bit like the most trenchant play of a favorite of Gardley's, something like Garcia Lorca's 'House of Bernarda Alba,' with an ongoing gambit from Lorca's comedies thrown in. The humor, even in a role like Beartrice (a magisterial—and funny--Lizan Mitchell) adds dimension to the seriousness of the story and its historical situation, but doesn't always translate, at least in this production, to the different aspects of the plot—Beartrice's daughters struggling to find their places, one religious, another declared "too dark"—which leads to a kind of "speechifying" after intermission, running through the rest of the play.  

The shock—which has its humor, too—of Reinhardt's grand re-entrance (re-emergence?), almost a coup de theatre, becomes muted, finally lost, in the increasingly separate interworkings of the subplot, become almost thematic. What could have bound together this complicated story, making it truly complex, is allowed to evaporate theatrically, giving short shrift to the audience's (and the cast's) imagination. 

Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison near Shattuck, Tuesday through Sunday (various times, including matinees). $29-$61. (Half price tickets for those under 30; $10 off for students and seniors an hour before curtain.) 647-2949;