- The Washington Times - Friday, April 10, 2009

The South and persecuted Jews will rise again — in indignation — after seeing the shallow sensationalism of Robert O’Hara’s play “Antebellum,” a full-tilt Technicolor spectacle directed by Chay Yew in its world premiere at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company.

“Antebellum” contains the whole shootin’ match — male nudity, sexual situations of every configuration, goose-stepping Nazis, miscegenation, racism, anti-Semitism, sex changes, a tribute to classic Hollywood, nostalgia for the Weimar Republic, not to mention Scarlett O’Hara and Mammy pretenders.

The result makes about as much sense as trying to explain dadaism to your dog, but like a fur-lined teacup, “Antebellum” is at least eye-catching. Woolly piles on the production values in a show that features a Dixieland paradise of a plantation house by set designer Tony Cisek and artfully garish costumes by Valerie St. Pierre Smith. Leading a fearless acting ensemble are Jenna Sokolowski as a shotgun-toting, daydreaming Southern belle who is not as naive as she seems and Carlton Byrd as a poised and unattainable object of desire.

Where does one begin to describe the plot? It’s a time-traveling mystery set in 1939, interweaving ingrained racism in the South, the premiere of the movie “Gone With the Wind” in Atlanta and medical experiments at concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Sarah Roca (Miss Sokolowski) is a Southern Jew giddily awaiting the arrival of her husband, Ariel (Nick Vienna) so they can dress up like “the good old days” — pre Civil War — and attend the movie premiere. A mysterious woman, Edna Black Rock (Jessica Frances Dukes), pops up and soon offers to be Sarah’s black maid.

Edna’s appearance spurs a flurry of flashbacks, which take place in Sarah’s living room, a la Tom Stoppard’s “Arcadia.” Sort of a cross between “Ilsa: She-Wolf of the S.S.” and Warner Bros. B-movie melodramas, these flashbacks concern a carnal commandant, Oskar von Schleicher (Andrew Price) and his “secret,” a black cabaret singer, Gabriel Gift (Mr. Byrd).

Mr. O’Hara manages to find a link between the New South and the Final Solution, and it is a lulu. Playwright Charles Busch couldn’t come up with something this ludicrous even after three martinis and a fistful of Ecstasy.

“Antebellum” is sketchily researched and defies credulity: Where did Oskar learn the fine points of gender-reassignment biology and genetics — in S.S. school? How could Gabriel just waltz out of a Nazi detention center and onto an airplane back to Georgia?

It would take special brilliance to make a soap opera out of the Holocaust and institutionalized slavery in America. Mr. O’Hara certainly has big ideas and audacity, but his broadly farcical treatment and turgid dialogue just make a mockery out of suffering.

WHAT: “Antebellum” by Robert O’Hara

WHERE: Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D St. NW

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through April 26.

TICKETS: $26-$60

PHONE: 202/393-3939

WEB SITE: www.woollymammoth.net


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