Reviews (5)
The Whipping Man’ reveals old scars of the American body politic

Marty Hughley | The Oregonian [19 Mar 2013]

Amid the desolation of the Civil War’s waning days, a newly freed slave has been looting—liberating, he prefers to say—clothing, china, liquor and so forth from the abandoned houses of Richmond, Virginia. And in a brief exchange between a wounded Confederate soldier and the thief, Matthew Lopez’ drama “The Whipping Man,” which opened Friday at Portland Center Stage, lays out what we might call an immoral equivalency: “What’s all this?” “Things.” “Whose?” “Mine now.” “What are you going to do with it?” “Own it.” “Why?” “Because I can.”

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The inherent evil of slavery is a point we expect a modern audience to take for granted, but Lopez artfully revisits that issue in a story that plumbs the personal impacts of America’s painful racial legacy, coloring it as both a complicated and shameful family secret and our nation’s original sin.

That masters and slaves alike in this tale have been raised not just as family but as Jews provides the metaphorically rich (but historically accurate) coincidence of Negro emancipation occurring alongside Passover, a celebration of an ancient escape from bondage. Questions of identity—personal, familial, racial, even national—and loyalty abound.

Tony Cisek’s mammoth scenic design, the magnificent ruin of a grand antebellum house, convincingly storm-bedraggled by Diane Ferry Williams’ shadow-dappled lighting and Casi Pacilio’s thunder-and-rain sounds, gives the action a suitably cataclysmic backdrop. And director Rose Riordan draws finely turned performances from Carter Hudson as the distressed and conflicted Confederate, Gavin Gregory as the household’s faithful old servant, and especially Christopher Livingston as the bright but troubled trickster who liberates many a bottle of whiskey yet is confounded by the ties between freedom and responsibility.

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The Whipping Man

Gigi Little | Ut Omnia Bene Blog [19 Mar 2013]

I was captivated even before The Whipping Man started last night at the Gerding Theater.

Down across the darkened stage, in the little arched window over the front door of the DeLeon house, I could already see the rain. A hint of glitter across the glass. I felt smart for noticing - and then wondered if they’d “turned on” the rain this early just to give people something to feel smart for noticing. As it turned out, the rain was an almost constant element in Portland Center Stage’s production of The Whipping Man, a perfect constant, reminding me of the harshness of the world and the fragile safety of home but also helping create the intense crucible that this particular home was intended to be.

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The rain also reminded me of the Noah flood story. And the plagues of Egypt during the Exodus. Because this play, which takes place just following the South’s surrender at the end of the Civil War, concerns two former slaves and one former master, all who follow the Jewish faith. Caleb DeLeon, a Confederate soldier, returns home, wounded and in agony, on the eve of the Passover. The only folks left in the house are Simon and John, two former slaves, newly liberated and still coming to terms with their freedom as well as their past. The end of slavery seen through the prism of the Jewish faith is great irony, of course, as illustrated perfectly when former slave Simon [Gavin Gregory] officiates the DeLeon Passover Seder by singing:

Go down, Moses, way down in Egypt’s land, tell old Pharaoh, let my people go.

It’s really thought-provoking stuff, but the Jewish-slave connection isn’t the entire heart of the story. There are also loads of secrets and loads of tension between these three complex, fully-realized characters. I thought the acting was superb. I last saw Gavin Gregory in the campy musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, and I’m amazed at how beautifully differently he played the two parts. Carter Hudson as wounded soldier Caleb is a master at portraying pain, both mental and physical, and Christopher Livingston gives the young John a great mix of bitterness and humor.
The set is magnificent. The beautiful ruin of an antebellum home - so finely detailed and so realistic, at least to my layman’s eye. Shadow and rain and evocative lighting direction make it even better.

As a pretty staunch atheist with a fascination for the Bible, I had an interesting reaction during the Seder that played out in the second half of the production. During the first act, Simon tells Caleb you can’t be a fair-weather friend to God. I don’t remember how he actually puts it, but that’s the basic idea. Caleb has lost his faith on the battlefield, says he searched for God, besought God, and God wasn’t there. Knowing [even on a small scale] what the soldiers of the Civil War went through, what the slaves of the South went through, it seems almost laughable that Simon would defend a faith in any god. But for just a moment, later, during that Seder, I believed him.

Not that there was a God - I didn’t suddenly believe that God is a real thing - but just as you can have faith in a fictional character you read in a book or watch on stage, I had a sudden faith that the God of the world of The Whipping Man did exist there. I can’t even remember today what specific bit of story, what bit of dialogue provoked the reaction in me. I just know that it hit me so unexpectedly that I nearly missed one of the big surprises in the play [a surprise that would eventually lead to what was, for me, one of the most satisfying endings in any play I’ve seen] because I was busy having whatever is the opposite of a crisis of faith.

Maybe it was the Sazerac I drank at intermission.

But God was somewhere in there.

The Whipping Man is still playing at Portland Center Stage - but only through March 23.

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The Race is Off Two

Rebecca Jacobson | Willamette Week [06 Mar 2013]

From Othello to A Raisin in the Sun, the immediacy of theater has cast a light on race relations. It’s arresting to witness such dynamics live. Last weekend, two plays opened that, on the surface, present similar themes. In Matthew Lopez’s The Whipping Man, a Confederate soldier and two former slaves grapple with the end of the Civil War. Athol Fugard’s Blood Knot finds half-brothers—one dark-skinned, one fair—navigating apartheid in South Africa. Both take a microcosmic approach, examining family dynamics as a mirror to the broader social climate, and both investigate ownership and freedom. But the treatment could scarcely differ more.

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The Whipping Man, under Rose Riordan’s gutsy direction at Portland Center Stage, traffics in direct emotion, carefully timed revelations and visceral incident, including an amputation scene. Lopez’s drama takes place in Richmond, Va., just as the Civil War has ended. Carter Hudson plays a wounded Confederate soldier named Caleb, who has heaved himself to his family’s gutted home. There he also finds former slaves Simon (Gavin Gregory) and the younger John (Christopher Livingston). Here’s the twist: These men are Jewish, and it’s Passover. Prodded by Simon, they hold a makeshift Seder in the half-demolished manor. That hulking house—with its moldering wallpaper, cockeyed banister and blasted-out windows—is captured perfectly by scenic designer Tony Cisek. Abetted by moody lighting and dramatic sound design, it makes for an intensely atmospheric experience.

Lopez’s dialogue can grow didactic, and the talky style can trample subtlety. Simon is often the wise mouthpiece: “All these things you’re telling me to do, by rights now you need to be asking me to do,” he says to Caleb. And later, to John: “You living in this world now, not just servin’ in it.” But the actors give such propulsive performances that the action feels vital and urgent. As John, an intellectual jokester with angry undercurrents, Livingston astonishes. His relationship with Caleb is fraught, though studded with brotherly mischief. In an early scene, John is triumphant yet irreverent, grinning impishly as he dangles a flask over the writhing Caleb. Throughout the play, John returns to the house with sacks slung over his shoulder like a swindler Santa Claus, bearing loot from neighboring houses. But beneath, he seethes with bitter memories. As he recounts his first experience being whipped, John casts his eyes downward and crams his hands in his pockets.

The play also has humor. Some is unintentionally topical: Simon eats horse meat even though it isn’t kosher (take note, IKEA shoppers). When the Seder arrives, the symbolism is heavy—Passover commemorates the liberation of the Israelites from Egypt—but wit remains. When Simon asks why Jews eat bitter herbs at the Seder, John answers dutifully, like a modern-day kid enduring the holiday rigmarole: “To remind us of the bitterness of slavery.” But then he adds a weary coda: “As if we needed reminding.” In reminding us that we must not forget, The Whipping Man leaves a powerful mark.

Profile Theatre’s production of Blood Knot, however, does not. Some of this stems from the challenges of the script, a very different theatrical beast from The Whipping Man. Fugard’s 1961 play is metaphorical, next-to-plotless and interrupted by surrealism. Under focused direction, a production can develop an internal logic, but this staging by Kevin Jones feels bloated. As the darker-skinned brother, Don Kenneth Mason is fine, but Ben Newman gives a one-note performance as his fairer-skinned sibling. They spend the entirety of the play—close to three hours—in a one-room shack, a space just as claustrophobic for the audience as for the characters. Profile’s Fugard-only season has impressed so far, but its production of his breakout work—which so inflamed the apartheid government that his passport was revoked—lands with a thud.

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Review: PCS’s “The Whipping Man”

Jonathan Frochtzwajg | Portland Monthly [06 Mar 2013]

When Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating the Israelites’ Biblical-times liberation from Egyptian slavery, takes place later this month, Jewish people will not only celebrate freedom, but will reflect on what freedom means—and what responsibilities it comes with. Portland Center Stage’s timely and thoughtful new production, The Whipping Man, is set in the days leading up to Passover, 1865, just after the end of the Civil War. It poses the same fundamental question the holiday does—you’re free: what’s next?—but in a way that finds poetic and profound cross-currents between two moments of emancipation that unfolded centuries apart.

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In the play, written by New York’s Matthew Lopez and directed here by PCS Associate Artistic Director Rose Riordan, Caleb (Carter Hudson), the only son of the wealthy Jewish DeLeon family, returns home from the Civil War’s battle finale gravely wounded, only to find that the family’s Richmond mansion has been all but destroyed by the war and the entire family has fled the city—save two of their now-ex-slaves, whom the DeLeons raised in the Jewish tradition. Simon (Gavin Gregory), a man in his 50s, had been owned by Caleb’s family for two generations. Uneducated though he may be, he possesses a great deal of savoir-faire and wisdom. By contrast, John (Christopher Livingston), who’s about Caleb’s age, is book-smart but immature. He’s also more willing than Simon to test what the postbellum social structure will bear, looting abandoned neighboring homes and exploiting the uncertain new power dynamic between him and Caleb with a confused mix of glee and anger born from years of oppression and abuse (the two were peas in a pod, recalls Simon, until Caleb’s father and the whipping man came between them).

After being forced to amputate Caleb’s gangrenous leg, John and Simon stay and nurse their former master back to health out of ambiguous personal motivations: shreds of loyalty and affection, a sense of religious/ethical duty, and a former promise by Caleb’s father to come back and give them money to begin their new lives as free men. Outside the DeLeon residence, the country reckons with its schism; inside, Caleb, Simon, and John struggle to come to terms with their new freedom to define their relationships and distinguish between right and wrong.

After premiering off-Broadway in 2011, The Whipping Man rapidly made its playwright, Matthew Lopez, a hot ticket. (The play is currently one of the most produced in the country, with 15 stagings slated for this season.) Lopez deserves the success; the parallels he draws between the Jewish and African-American experiences are positively inspired. For instance, during the play’s climactic scene, a Passover seder that gorgeously syncretizes the traditional ceremony and African-style call and response, Simon breaks several times into “Go Down, Moses”—a Negro spiritual inspired by the Israelite exodus from slavery and sung today by many Jews as part of the seder.

Lopez’s script receives an excellent turn from PCS, with the production’s three-man cast delivering strong performances in demandingly complex roles. Christopher Livingston, as the audacious John, occasionally betrays an anachronistically modern comic sensibility, but he is, on balance, nuanced and fluid. Gavin Gregory’s portrayal of the abiding Simon, meanwhile, is exceptionally moving, particularly when late plot turns rock the character’s even keel. Finally, the play’s set, designed by Tony Cisek, is transporting and strangely beautiful as the DeLeons’ physically and metaphorically collapsing manse.

During The Whipping Man‘s seder scene, Simon presses John and Caleb to think about freedom broadly: as freedom from alcohol dependence or, say, reliance on outdated ideas. When the play ends soon afterward, it feels abrupt, yet fitting. As The Whipping Man leaves certain characters amid their ruins, so it leaves the audience in its seats: deciding for themselves how to live.

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Whipping Man, Blood Knot: race to the top

Bob Hicks | Oregon Arts Watch [05 Mar 2013]

Today a friend passed along that quote from the comedian Louis C.K., and the timing was copacetic: I’d spent the previous two evenings at the openings of Matthew Lopez’s “The Whipping Man” at Portland Center Stage and Athol Fugard’s “Blood Knot” at Profile Theatre. Talk about a soaking in the tricky pools of time! Both plays simmer their audiences in the boiling pot of a past that’s all too recent, and both deal with race as a social invention – we are “white” or “black” partly because we think we are – and also as a blood kinship. It’s tough to view these two plays without seriously disputing the popular notion that we’re living in a postracial society. Without getting too high on a soapbox, both delve into how intensely personal and fiendishly slippery racial attitudes continue to be: they can still jump out and shock us from behind almost any corner.

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In a sense “The Whipping Man,” which premiered in 2006, takes up the American racial story where Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner left off in the movie “Lincoln.” “Father Abraham” even makes an unseen appearance in the play, when news reaches the burned-out manse in Richmond that the president’s been killed and the actor-assassin is believed to have taken refuge somewhere in Richmond. Yet unlike “Lincoln,” in which race was central to the drama yet black people were largely tangential to the action, Lopez’s “Whipping Man” puts black and white characters squarely on the wrestling match and lets them go at it freestyle. Notions of Cain and Abel raise their impertinent heads here, too, what with intimations of unknown fathers and interracial dalliances and – here we go again – differences in skin tone. If Fugard hadn’t already used the title, “Blood Knot” would have worked quite nicely for this play.

The whipping man of the title is an idea rather than a presence in the play, a distillation of a certain casual brutality of body and soul. Sometimes in the antebellum South, overseers or owners couldn’t be bothered to punish their slaves themselves, so they hired out the job to professional whippers. You can imagine, given the American history of racial violence and institutional “just business” decisions, where you can go with a metaphor like that. It’s as clear yet as hidden as the lashes on a black man’s back.

Like “Blood Knot,” “The Whipping Man” keeps its bigger issues within a personal, family frame. The war’s ended, Lee has surrendered at Appomattox, and a badly wounded Caleb (Carter Hudson), scion of a once prosperous white family, comes crawling back to the family home, which has been gutted and looted and is now guarded only by an aging but still powerful former family slave, Simon (Gavin Gregory), who keeps his shotgun handy and his lanterns ready to snuff out. They’re soon joined by another, younger, former family slave, sharpster John (a comically astute Christopher Livingston, who seems part larcenous lost kid and part Sportin’ Life). Lopez’s twist to a familiar historical tale is that all three identify themselves as Jews. Their religion gives them a kinship that seems to go beyond race and blood, but that also raises disturbing questions: don’t the scriptures forbid a Jew from enslaving another Jew? As it turns out, Simon seems to be the most observant of the three, the one who understands the connection between ritual and reality – and what does that mean?

The big question that all three characters face is: what now? The war’s over. No one can own or be owned by another person. But how, on a personal level, will old ways disappear and new relationships be created? The way isn’t easy, and it’s fraught with switchbacks and uncomfortable surprises. The three actors, under Center Stage vet Rose Riordan’s direction, make it an interesting, sometimes gripping, journey.

Scenic designer Tony Cisek’s towering hulk of a house in ruins sets a wonderful visual scene for the story, and its sense of doom is augmented by Diane Ferry Williams’ dim lighting, as dark and shadowed as a Rembrandt painting. But on opening night the volume control on the sound effects was off, and in some crucial scenes – the opening, played out to an insistent hiss of rain from outside the mansion, and the conclusion, which seemed all in a rush to wrap things up in a tidy dramatic knot – vital dialogue was lost. The effect was especially acute at the play’s end, which I knew was the end mostly because the lights went down. I’m hoping a little fiddling with the dials will solve the problem.

Together, “Blood Knot” and “The Whipping Man” offer a rare and welcome package, an enlightening, sometimes piercing, look at where we’ve been and what in certain ways we continue to be. No, slavery didn’t end 400 years ago. And if we stand on the shoulders of giants, we also stand on the shoulders of their mistakes.


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