October 24, 2006

Nothing rotten in Victory Gardens's Denmark

Perhaps the most exciting thing about the Victory Gardens’s newest play, Denmark, is not the play itself, but the opening of the Victory Gardens’s new Biograph theater, just down the street from their old location on Lincoln Avenue. In an age when simply paying the rent can be too much of a challenge for a regional theater, VG’s long-standing artistic director Dennis Zacek and his wife have opened up a gorgeous, $11.4 million renovated theater.

The artistic focus of the theater hasn’t changed, as it still is dedicated to producing new works by ensemble playwrights in an intimate theatrical setting. What has changed, however, is the potential scale of the production. Denmark, Charles Smith’s new play about a freed slave in antebellum Charleston, SC, would feel just as viable on Broadway as in a Chicago theater.

The professionalism of Denmark extends through the performance of Anthony Fleming III and Smith’s deft playwriting. Zacek’s direction, which seamlessly weaves in and out of plantations, prisons, and churches, adds the narrative flow required by the script. Although the play loses some steam in the second act, all in all it continually excites and entertains. The play succeeds while dealing with the perpetual African-American conflict between the personal and political that has characterized Smith’s career. If he keeps this up, Smith could earn the status of August Wilson’s natural successor in the American canon.

The title character, Denmark Vesey (Fleming), is a charismatic, multi-talented slave who, upon obtaining a dollar, turns it into $1,500 with a winning lottery ticket. He uses that money to buy his freedom from his generous and kindhearted master Captain Vesey (Raoul Johnson) and becomes a sought-after carpenter while trying to raise enough money to buy the freedom of his girlfriend Beck (played with a remarkable character arc by Velma Austin). Denmark, always idealistic and opinionated, is haunted by voices in foreign tongues, for which neither his Christian nor his Voodoo confidants can provide an answer.

The turning point of the play occurs at the end of Act I, when, infuriated by new legislation that prevents his congregation of black men and women from meeting without a church, he decides to forgo freeing Beck in order to build a church for the black congregates. From that point on, Beck refuses to acknowledge his existence, and, while remaining hopeful about his chances of leaving with Beck, he takes the well-being of Charleston’s slaves into his own hands.

By this point, Denmark no longer hears voices, but begins to sink into madness that not even his biggest supporters can help him avoid. He repeatedly compares himself to Moses, and some of the most captivating moments of the play are when Smith conveys that it’s hard to tell Denmark isn’t Moses.

That being said, the play sags somewhat during these religious parallels due to Fleming’s performance. We can certainly tell that Denmark is mad, but sometimes Fleming fails to convey just how far from reality Denmark has actually gone.

This deficiency is more noticeable due to the exceptionally convincing performances of the other six cast members, who seem deeply afraid of what Denmark is implying with his calls for vengeance and justice.

Nonetheless, Fleming’s performance throughout the rest of the play is remarkable. He was excellent as the deeply sympathetic, tragic character Cory in Court Theatre’s production of Fences last winter, and Fleming successfully conveys the same earnest insistence in his principles at the beginning of Denmark. It’s certainly an enormous challenge for Fleming to turn such an endearing character into a darker, more complex one, and he may have been helped if Smith or Zacek had pushed him a little harder.

On a technical level, the play is a remarkable success and a perfect example of the Biograph’s capabilities. Mary Griswold’s set design utilizes wings, trap doors, and platforms with remarkable precision, while Judith Lundberg’s costumes enable prison clothes to seem like church clothes without any awkwardness. Robert Shock’s lighting makes scene changes obvious without having the actors move.

As one of the premiere theaters in Chicago, the Victory Gardens’s opening of the Biograph Theater is certainly the biggest story at the beginning of Chicago’s theater season. While there have been a bunch of remarkable productions to kick off the season, Denmark, through both the originality of the play and the importance of its setting, may be the most essential production to see this time around.

The play is successful enough that you don’t have to care about the state of Chicago’s theater scene to find the play thoroughly successful, but if you do, the opening of a state-of-the-art theater in Chicago is perhaps the most exciting development in the city’s theater world in years.