A ponderous response to a fast-moving production Arts On Sunday
By Al Creighton

Stabroek News
September 12, 2004

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Today's theatre in Guyana and the Caribbean is highly market-driven. Producers have a fair sense of what will sell tickets, and that accounts for many of the trends, developments and practices on the contemporary stage. The audience is quite selective. They make up their minds about what does not appeal to them, and even about what they think is bad, and are inclined to avoid both. However, it is not as simple as that.

The timeless principle has always been that theatre is supposed to delight and instruct. Sometimes a third demand is made: that it should also elevate. The contemporary popular audiences want to be entertained. They look for thrills, laughs, sensation, and stay away from whatever they think will be dull, or so bad that it might bore them. They do not really mind instruction or even moral statements, provided they do not have to tax their minds or suffer slow, weighty material in order to receive them. Those can always come as added benefits, but first and foremost, they want to be entertained in the most direct fashion.

On the other hand, they do not mind being entertained by a bad play. What that means is, they are not going to be bothered by poor work, literary weaknesses, shallowness, bad writing or flawed scripts or anything of low literary or artistic value.

They are willing to put up with those if the production can make them laugh or otherwise thrill or amuse them. If it can speak to them in some way and they can relate to what is on stage, they are happy, and to a large extent, though not entirely, that is what theatre is about.

So, while the popular audiences like bad scripts that can delight them, they have nothing against being entertained by a good play. Trevor Rhone's Smile Orange fits that bill very well, and was a good choice of a play for today's popular audience. It is good enough to stand its ground in any company as a hilarious satire that makes important statements about a post-colonial society. It is artistically good; it has literary power without being weighty; it has its share of raciness, and several of its laughs are side-splitting.

So why did it not satisfy the Guyanese audience in its most recent re-run at the Cultural Centre?

Godfrey Naughton brought it back as a good candidate to attract the audience. There is a market for repeats of past thrillers, and for well-known ones like Smile Orange.

It has the ingredients for the popular taste, including comedy, raucous laughter, sex, funny characters; and if one wants a good intellectual reason, it critically examines aspects of the tourist industry, an industry that Guyana is now courting. It was a good choice, it was performed in Guyana before, the film version was a hit in the cinemas, and its recall to the stage now was not untimely. But the Guyanese audience did not like Naughton's production. How come? It did not work because of the way it was done.

What should be a thoroughly delightful, fast- moving comedy came over as laborious, slow, verbose and at times dull. The production failed to capitalize on the play's best moments and to capture its spirit, character and rhythm. Unable to find a suitable lead actor, Naughton played the legendary Ringo himself. It might have been a bit of a miscast, but it was not the worst thing about the production, nor the main reason why it did not succeed. Ringo is both the hero and the villain of the piece, which is not unusual for a folk hero and a perfect Anancy figure. He is a waiter in an international hotel on Jamaica's north coast, a trickster, a fraud, and considers himself a stud, earning extra money through sexual exploitation, or even as a gigolo.

But above all, he is a hit on stage, being a very entertaining character.

Naughton's portrayal was much too heavy and ponderous, lacking Ringo's dexterity, shape-shifting slickness, mental, physical and moral agility.

While those were not captured, Naughton is capable and experienced with enough stage presence to perform. There were other factors which pulled the production down, and other actors who just did not fit the bill.

Naughton, and others, took an ineffective approach to the play's language. This was carried in the Jamaican speech, and they made the bad judgement of trying to copy it.

Actors have to learn and study speech in order to imitate accents, and in this case, the imitation did not work. It bogged them down and rendered a number of sequences between Ringo, Joe and the Bus Boy a bore. The language delivery turned too many dialogues into laboured efforts that slowed down the whole play.

In addition, the characters of Joe and Assistant Manager O'Kief were totally wrong. Linden Jones as Joe was something of a miscast, particularly when teamed with Naughton.

Apart from being defeated by the language, he could not convince as Joe, a cohort of Ringo's, but a more mature and steadier man, even though as much of a rogue as Ringo is.

He is sometimes the conscience of the play and is sometimes able to get the upper hand of Ringo by being able to exert force and menace. Jones was unable to do any of that.

Michael Ignatius as the Assistant Manager was a total failure. While it is true that O'Keif was ineffectual as a manager and out of his depth in that hotel, Ignatius overplayed that weakness to the detriment of everything else.

In addition, O'Kief belongs to the coloured middle class, not the black working class, as Ignatius seemed to be attempting to play it. His language was wrong, his mannerisms overplayed and his voice jarring and much too loud.

Although affected by miscasts, this version of Smile Orange benefited from the effective performance of an actress who often finds herself miscast. This time Sonia Yarde struck the right note as the receptionist, Miss Brandon. She did not have a language problem and was able to capture all the subtle shades and nuances of the character of a female version of the Ringo-type predator. Her frequent quick changes of tone and demeanour and her wordless reactions to Mr O'Kief were particularly well done.

Cyril, The Bus Boy, is usually the comic star of the show in this play and Sheldon Brathwaite did not fail to live up to that. He cannot be described as outstanding, but more than others, he was able to play the required role.

His long narrative towards the end when he had to tell the story of the drowning failed to electrify the way it should, and was a part of those belaboured sequences, but at other times he did a very good j,ob of acting.

The wordless parts worked well as he captured the manners and movements of the naive, timid, country boy effectively cultivated into another rising Ringo.

These two acting performances, however, were not enough to rescue the production. Its overall effect remained unflattering, as a presentation that failed to take advantage of all that the play has in its favour.

This was a case of a play that has all the ingredients for pleasing an audience but a production of it that certainly did not.