Different Angle, Different Play: Cry Old Kingdom‘s mysterious McGuffin

One idea that Center Stage artistic director Kwame Kwei-Armah returned to repeatedly in the panel of Humana Festival play directors he moderated on Friday afternoon is that in the theater, a director’s work is often invisible.

He’s right: The image in the collective imagination of a filmmaker peering through a lens slung around his neck may be a cliche, but it’s a useful one. It reminds us that movie directors control exactly what appears in the frame and — if we remove the pause button from the equation — for how long.

Play directors can attempt to guide our eyes through lighting and blocking, but if I decide I want to send the entirety of Act 2 staring at Shelly “The Machine” Levine’s errant nose hair, there’ nothing the director can do to stop me. Shows staged in-the-round, rather than in a traditional proscenium stage, give directors still less power. The physical vantage point from which an audience member watches an in-the-round staging affects the type and quantity of information he or she is given, and may actually change the experience.

Director Tom Dugdale’s Humana production of Jeff Augustin’s Cry Old Kingdom is one such play. Set in a remote Haitian village in the 1964, the piece, on its most basic level, concerns one man’s process of painting another man’s portrait. There’s a negotiation between them. The subject, Henri Marx, is skeptical of the artist’s motives and methods. The artist, Edwin, is patient in explaining why he chooses to work as he does. He forbids his subject to see the unfinished painting — but we in the audience can see it. Well, about half of us could. Thus the moment when the subject steals a peak at the canvas and reacts with alarm, demanding its destruction, plays differently for those of us who can see that it’s a seemingly uncontroversial, representational portrait than for those who don’t know what it is, especially given the exchange of dialogue that erupts once Henri Marx sees it. “You said you weren’t interested in m face,” Henri Marx protests. “You can’t have my face.”

Augustin’s script is mum of the question of what the portrait looks like. It’s the kind of moment wherein a director wields substantial power.

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