Theater Review - "Marcus" makes it rain at Actor"s Express

Karen Robinson and cast bring the mystery and magic of the bayou to life

You never know what the stage will look like when you enter Actor's Express for a new production. In the past year, the space has been transformed into a bar for Murder Ballad, an elegant drawing room for Les Liaisons Dangereuses, and a contemporary apartment for Bad Jews. For the current production, Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, the stage has become a mystical Louisiana bayou, which provides a stunning background for an ambitious piece of theater.

Director Karen Robinson, who previously helmed the play at Kennesaw State University, is quick to distinguish between the two productions. "It's quite different in terms of the visual conception," she says of the show at Actor's Express. "Last time it was more abstract and there were visual references to the energy of the Orisha through layering of different textures. This time I was more interested in focusing on the bayou atmosphere and that sense of magic and mystery and connection with mystical forces."

Robinson connected early on with scenic designer Kat Conley and lighting designer Rebecca Makus, and the trio worked together to ensure that the profusion of water imagery in the play would be reflected in the design, even including two pools on the stage.

The visual elements and use of water are reminiscent of another lush piece, Mary Zimmerman's Metamorphoses, which also incorporates references to mythology. It's worth arriving early to study the lobby display and program notes prepared by dramaturg Jane Barnette, who Robinson notes has also previously studied the play and brought a wealth of knowledge to creating these helpful tools. The play references the Orisha, who are deities of the West African Yoruba culture, and reading the information provided helps to give context to certain character names.

Marcus is a study in contrasts, as the use of unfamiliar mythology and the main character's mystical visions create a natural distance from the audience, but the actors break the fourth wall by speaking their own stage directions, which in turn creates a conversational intimacy.

"I approached it with the actors by saying it's never a throwaway kind of moment, it's an opportunity for you to share your subtextual feelings or your overt feelings directly with the audience," Robinson says. "Actually, it's very similar to Shakespeare or Restoration comedy, where the character has an aside where he or she directly addresses the audience and shares what he or she is thinking or feeling in a more explicit way. Because these are stage directions, the explicitness comes through the inflection, the emotional coloring of the stage directions. It allows you to frame or set up what is about to follow, it receives added emphasis because it has been set up."

Even the title is something of a trick, as the "Sweet" refers to Marcus' budding sexual identity, which is not really a "Secret" to anyone in the play, except for perhaps Marcus himself. "What's really lovely about this idea of secrets is that sometimes secrets are knowledge that you keep from yourself," Robinson says. "I think it points to a lot of things that Marcus learns about being a boy coming into maturity. So the secret of sweet is that this kid has visions and insight, and that he is able to give that gift to other people."

Robinson notes that the actor who portrays Marcus, Terry Guest, remarked in rehearsal that the play demonstrates that this young gay man is essential to the ecology of the community. Actress Bernardine Mitchell, who plays Elegua, pointed out that the play is an ultimately joyful story about a young man coming of age and coming out. On stage and behind the scenes, it appears to have been an otherworldly experience for the team.

"There's a magic to theater, and there are certain theatrical projects where everything just converges and you have this beautiful blend," Robinson says. "It doesn't happen every time, and when it does, you recognize it."

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