Chris Arnott’s Engine 31 review: Cry Old Kingdom

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It’s hard to know what to think about Jeff Augustin’s spare human drama of turmoil and unrest and shattered hopes in 1964 Haiti (“a couple of hours outside of Port-au-Prince”).

It’s hard to know because this misshapen production keeps shifting its acton from the center to the fringes. It buries important plot points within understated or rushed bouts of dialogue. Historic backdrops give way to vague internalized monologues.

I get the overall sense of the thing. The metaphors of escape (a boat) and idealism (a painting) are hard to miss. The despair and turmoil are felt. The costumes and sand/driftwood setting are clear. This is a show about a depressed and uncertain culture.

What it’s not is a show that follows carefully from idea to idea. There are only three people in it–a painter, a young boat-builder and a woman who’s a spectral prescence of old romance. The cast is fine, in that removed, tight-interaction-in-the-corners-of-the-stage way, all animated and pithy, with frenetic gestures from time to time. But their inward intensity doesn’t make Cry Old Kingdom any easier to follow.

There’s plenty of stuff for the players to do: paint, eat, build a boat. But most of these activities are staged on the margins, or are done on a relatively small scale, considering the ultimate impact of these endeavors.

Cry Old Kingdom clearly has some big things to say about oppressive governments and the way the oppressed react and cope and yearn for freedom. But the play says these things in such a roundabout or incomprehensible manner that it keeps its audience out.

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