“Battle of Black and Dogs” -- Yale Repertory Theatre

--Irene Backalenick

Yale Repertory Theatre has grown ever more experimental in substance and style this past season—with its past production of “A Servant of Two Masters” and now “Battle of Black and Dogs.” Though appropriate for a theater connected to a university and school of drama, offerings should still be accessible to audiences—and paying audiences at that.
           
But “Battle of Black and Dogs” (translated from the French by Michael Attias) proves to be even more of a disappointment than its predecessor. Moving into uncharted seas, the Rep leaves its audience far behind, floundering in confusion and boredom. The audience ponders the play’s message through two hours and ten minutes (with no intermission)--fidgeting, coughing, and shifting in its seats. But the answer never comes through. Not only is “Battle” obscure, but its plot is stale, its dialogue repetitious, and, greatest sin of all, the offering is pretentious. This “Battle” is not the Second Coming, as suggested in its program notes, but a story we’ve heard before on stage and screen.

-- As it happens, playwright Bernard-Marie Koltes’ own story could have been far more
meaningful. The French playwright died in 1989 at age 41, while fighting his battle with AIDS –

Koltes has set his drama in a lonely construction site in West Africa. There is plenty of explosive action—with threats, attacks, nudity, bloody garments and human feces—as a woman and three men make their stands. The construction boss has imported the young Parisian woman (the lone woman on the premises) to be his bride. Meanwhile, a black man has come to the site, seeking the body of his dead brother. He gets the runaround from the construction boss, who knows full well that the man’s death was no accident, that he was killed by a subordinate who has dumped the body into the sewer, beyond retrieving. The black man continues to wait stubbornly, and, in the process, connects for a brief loving moment with the young woman.

On the positive side (and, surprisingly, there is a positive side), “Battle” offers a
superb cast. Andrew Robinson, Albert Jones, Tracy Middendorf, and Tommy Schrider all give incredibly fine performances. They have captured the rhythm of Koltes’ language to perfection. And Koltes himself often achieves a kind of poetry in that language.
          
Each player also creates a memorable character, for which director Robert Woodruff also
Deserves credit. Robinson (Horn) is a boss who handles his subordinates and others with guile, good fellowship, cruelty, as needed. In contrast Schrider (Cal) creates a man always on the edge of hysteria, violence and madness. Middendorf  (Leone) wanders into the scene like a wistful waif—and gives a lovely, lyrical performance. And finally, Jones plays Alboury, a black man of lofty dignity. Soft-spoken, with measured lines, he comes across with quiet strength, as he speaks from the back of the theater.

Yet, to what avail are such strong performances? What is the Koltes message? Through all the sturm and drang, the question constantly arises—why? Alas, Yale Rep offers one more experiment which falls short of its aspirations.

This review also appears in the Connecticut Post and nytheaterscene.com.

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