Oberlin production brings on the heat
The quickening pulse of thumping bongo-drums fills the intimate venue of Little Theater. Camera bulbs spark and pop. Gloves smack against a punching bag. A jump-rope click click clicks as tennis shoes strike the floor.
The cool voice of James Brown creeps into the theater as hips gyrate with cadenced determination. Characters materialize on all platforms of the stage, each commanding the audience’s attention in a different direction. The dialogue initiates a sequence of vocal sparing, the final component of the deep and intricate rhythm that pervades the world of identity, passion and boxing in 1959.
Directed by Carolyn Jackson Smith, the Oberlin theater department presented Oliver Mayor’s Blade to the Heat this past fall, October 3-5. The play explores the themes of cultural, sexual and personal identity against the backdrop of title fights and soul music. The script itself is powerful, though the recurring symbolism between the central character Pedro (portrayed by College senior Bacilio Mendez) and his pet pit-bull was a bit over done. The “yip-yiping” sound effect it callsed for seemed patronizing, if not cheesy.
Considering the limited amount of stage space and simple set design, the blocking was interesting and dynamic: the actors never seemed idle, each movement was executed with purpose and not one scene remained static. Sound and lighting, coordinated by Richard Morris, Jr., played off of each other to create a convincing atmosphere. The throbbing beat of the bongo drums intensified during pivotal scenes, heightening suspense and drawing the audience closer to the edge of their seats.
The play is littered with accents, which, like the pace of the dialogue, wax and wane. Chemistry between most characters was strong and believable, which was fortunate considering the sexually charged undercurrents of the production and script. On the whole, energy was high and none of the individual performances failed to impress.
Mendez sweetly brought the sexually confused Pedro to life with endearing vulnerability, while College senior Melvin Jimenez portrayed larger-than-life Mantequilla with charisma and control. College first-year Diana Frame, the only female cast member, more than held her own.
Opposite Mantequilla, Frame played Sarita with an intriguing blend of compassion and attitude. The boxing matches, integral to the plot for both their symbolic and material ramifications on the characters lives, were skillfully choreographed and executed; incidence of mimed physical contact or the occsional stray fist was rare.
Little Theater’s personal atmosphere ideally lent itself to the production, which explored a host of intimate themes. Book and performance, effects and direction, boxing and soul all blended together to make Blade a production worth its salt.