By Michael Martin
Although I didn’t cover the Tulane Shakespeare Festival’s Incarnate before its brief run ended, I don’t want to let it pass without comment. This second collaboration between the festival and the performance art collective Compleat Stage was far and away the loveliest pastiche – whoever coined the phrase “devised theatre” should be weighted down with thesauri and tossed into a river – which I’ve seen in town. I hope it returns next season.
Directed by Chaney Tullos, in unknowable collaboration with the other principals, the modest Incarnate succeeded in two crucial ways. (Three, if you count its modesty. Making devised theatre usually gives license to include everything but the kitchen sink.) First, there was a clear through line, simple enough to carry the audience along without benefit of plot: The Woman (Cristine McMurdo-Wallis) recites miscellaneous passages of Shakespearean verse to “narrate” the story of dancing young lovers as their relationship unfolds from first meeting to inevitable passing. Ruby Lou Smith, who may be meant to be understood as The Woman in youth, and Jake Wynne-Wilson, New Orleans’ reigning stage icon of romantic male beauty, toed the line between dancing and emoting quite skillfully. Barbara Hayley choreographed with energy and grace, and precision enough that even non-dance aficionados like me could comprehend the lovers’ changing moods. (Their first Big Fight happens off-stage, however, while McMurdo-Wallis covers it with poetry of regret, which is a shame. We should see it.) Raul Gomez’ original score was evocative but not intrusive.
Second, Incarnate promised “mature images and themes,” as its title implies, and meant it. I can’t count all the shows purportedly for adults which have choked in the clutch. Here the verse set to music, sung by Keisha Slaughter with accompaniment by Oscar Rossignoli, was a terrific enhancement. Slaughter’s low-slung voice throbs; I wished she’d had a few more numbers.
I also wished more had been spent on the Spartan set. Smith looked great in Jen Gillette’s blood-red tulle skirt, Wilson the same in various outfits; the backdrop, bathtub and heavy black chairs were entirely serviceable…but McMurdo-Wallis near-shapeless pantsuit was unfortunate, and her huge bolt of white fabric, upon which was sewn hundreds of red petals, had to carry too much symbolic weight to look like wrinkled cotton rather than silk.
If nothing here was revelatory – least so about the Bard’s poetry, although it’s delivered flawlessly by McMurdo-Wallis – for a show like this, “haunting and beautiful” is more than enough. Incarnate ended as it began, and as it ought: With the audience’s attention squarely on her compelling face.