Haiti: Already Hit of the Season

Leigh Kennicott Reviews - Theater

The sound of drums greets the ear as the preamble to Theatricum Botanicum’s Haiti, now running in repertory through the summer. Along with exuberant dancing, the drums herald a history lesson wrapped in a satisfying, swashbuckling adventure, where the clearly delineated good guys vanquish the foppish bad guys against all odds.

Theatricum is the first company to tackle the play since its premiere in New York City in 1938. Created as part of the Federal Theatre Project, Haiti created a sensation. As history, it tells the story of French efforts to re-enslave inhabitants when Napoleon decided the island would make a great staging area for Western expansion; that is, until the aristocratic officers were outlasted and finally overthrown by a band of free Haitians.

Under the direction of Artistic Director Ellen Geer, from top to bottom, the entire ensemble works beautifully together to create the ambiance and mood of an old-fashioned melodrama where audiences cheer the heroes and boo the villains, and, on opening night, that is exactly what happened. Audiences unused to such an over-the-top style will delight in the opportunity to stomp and cheer.

Geer keeps the adventure bubbling along, having tweaked the original a bit by casting the indomitable Ernestine Phillips as “Jaqueline,” in a role that was originally designed for “Jacques” (in keeping with the historical record). This substitution not only works seamlessly, but it deepens the relationship between mother and her daughter, Odette (played by Tiffany Coty), who grew up as white in the French court. Since the mansion constitutes her inheritance, her arrival plays a key role in determining the success of the rebellion.

An especially appealing characterization comes from Rodrick Jean-Charles as the venerable Touissant L’Ouverture, who helmed the Haitian resistance until he ceded the fight to his successor, Christophe (Max Lawrence). With the help of Jaqueline, Christophe mounted a guerrilla offensive, finally driving Napoleon’s remaining troops into the sea. In perfect depictions of melodramatic heroes, these French-educated resistance fighters are honest and true. Geer effectively contrasts the effete French aristocracy with the rootin’, tootin’ can-do spirit the Haitians represent. Although the only vice General LeClerc (Mark Lewis) exhibits seems to be his death from Malaria, the dastardly Colonel Boucher is a quintessential villain. In a smaller role, Holly Hawk as Nurse Aimee has moments of rebellion.

Dance choreographer Jessica Moneà Edwards provides the dance moves contrasting with vigorous stage combat, choreographed by fight choreographer Dane Oliver who provides a great, climactic sword fight that clinches the battle of good and evil. Set designer Ernest McDaniel blends the permanent set with the needs of the play, utilizing every corner of Theatricum’s bucolic setting, while costumer Beth Eslick captures the Empire flavor of the early 19th century. Other values – the lighting by Zachary Moore and sound by Marshall McDaniel – beautifully integrate the melodrama.

Theatricum Botanicum performs Haiti in rotation during its summer season, mixing Shakespearean plays and modern fare through September 30, 2018 at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum, 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga 90290. Tickets range from $10.00 to $38.50.  Phone (310) 455-3723 or online, www.theatricum.com for exact schedule and ticket information.