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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, February 17, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 07
Sweeping Prairie Nocturne beautiful but flawed
Arts & Entertainment
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Sweeping Prairie Nocturne beautiful but flawed

by Miryam Gordon - SGN A&E Writer

Prairie Nocturne
Book-It Repertory
Through March 4


The singular word for the newest production at Book-It Repertory is 'beautiful.' The sprawling narrative that is Prairie Nocturne, adapted from Ivan Doig's novel, is beautifully rendered. The two leads, Geoffery Simmons and Myra Platt, make you fall in love with them.

Of course, there are a couple of deep flaws, mainly being the length (almost three hours, which leaves one more exhausted than uplifted) and some awfully fiddly set issues (a little more about that later), but you can ignore those in this ambitious story of a black servant with an extraordinary voice and the teacher who helps him achieve national recognition as a singer of African American folk gospel.

Two of the main sources of the beauty are the wonderful singing voices of Simmons and the ghost of his mother, Faith Russell. While this is not a musical, there is a lot of music in the play, as Simmons practices his spirituals with the emotional and vocal assistance of his mother, and Platt's Susan Duff composes her life's dream, which she entitles Prairie Nocturne.

Set in Montana in the 1920s, racism is an integral part of the tale, where small-town gossip has a teacher and student having an affair (resulting in an attack by Ku Klux Klan members), and Monty's vocal lessons might be for naught due to the difficulty in arranging concerts for a black singer. That tension, and the dawning love story between Monty and Susan, are the through-lines of the evening.

Simmons displays a full range of emotions, from despair to hope, pride to wonder, and finally self-fulfillment. He also has the vocal chops to fulfill the description of an amazing set of pipes - the immediate need of the character. Pratt also displays her talent as an actor (she more often directs and writes for Book-It), and also her talent for playing and composing music. She and Theresa Holmes wrote some original songs for the play, and some of the background music.

They are supported by Shawn Belyea as the ex-lover who decides his chauffeur must be taught, and a father-figure (Clark Sandford) and his wife (Walayn Sharples). Almost all the ensemble players are also musicians who make beautiful noise during the production. Belyea gives excellent support, along with Joe Ivy and a kind of cameo performance from Earl Alexander as Monty's father, who Monty believed abandoned him, and who is revealed to have been murdered.

A word about the set: Andrea Bryn Bush can do amazing set work. Some of this set worked beautifully, creating a music room, a ranch, and even the sense of a river canyon. But in trying to create the skyscrapers of New York, painted curtains were used and pulled on and off multiple times, which seemed fiddly and unnecessary.

And then there was this large square piece of flooring. It was turned to a diamond shape, then back to a square, then moved a foot and locked down again, then had two chairs put on it and taken off it, and moved back, and moved forward, and tilted, and realigned with the rest of the set. Could you quit fiddling with the set, please? It may have been director Laura Ferri's issue more than Bush's, but all that silly, minute changing was really off-putting and unnecessary.

Still, this production is well worth seeing, and forgive its flaws in favor of theatricalizing a sweeping American story and watching these seasoned pros work.

For more information, go to www.book-it.org or call 206-216-0833.

Discuss your opinions with sgncritic@gmail.com.

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