Congo Square at Pittsburgh Playwrights | Program Notes

Congo Square at Pittsburgh Playwrights

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Having previewed this play for CP, I wanted to see the finished product. 

It was, after all, the local premiere of a work by locally based playwright Frank Gagliano, and both the script and the rehearsal I'd sat in on suggested an offbeat evocation of themes of innocence, corruption and fantasy through the lens of a hostage standoff in New Orleans.

Oh, and it's a musical -- or at least, a "drama with music," as Gagliano puts it.

Congo Square is a play about play-acting as escape -- possibly the only escape available to Willy Beau and Delphine, gunman and putative hostage, trapped in a corrupt world they never made and can't otherwise alter. 

Willy (played by Monteze Freeland) is holed up in a warehouse full of old Mardi Gras costumes and the mannequins that wear them; apparently he's shot someone, but because he's suffering from traumatic amnesia, we don't learn the full story until late in the play.

Joined by a young woman named Delphine (Erika Cuenca), whose true identity likewise is mysterious, Willy plays out a sort of personal history of New Orleans by singing in the personas of various characters historical, fictional and mythic from the 19th and 20th centuries: a madam, a murderous mulatto dandy, jazz pioneer Buddy Bolden. 

All the while, the play's third character, the mayor (Kevin Brown) tries to talk Willy out of the building that's facing demolition, first from outside, by bullhorn, eventually by joining he and Delphine in the warehouse.

While Tony Ferrieri's set is a splendid mad attic, the best thing about the play as written are the songs, with lyrics by Gagliano and music by the late Claibe Richardson (with new arrangements by, and performed live by, pianist Ed Tarzia). And that's largely because of Freeland, who's onstage for all 90 minutes and singing for half of it. He gives his all, and he's got a lot of talent to give, both vocally and dramatically.

The play itself is somewhat less successful. Director Marci Woodruff works hard to emphasize a through-line, but the script too often feels less like a portrait of real people and more like an intellectual exercise -- a working out of themes.

As such, it's not bad. Gagliano, for instance, draws an interesting parallel between a land-developer's 1845 plot to replace the slaves who dance in Congo Square on Sundays with a modern dirty deal to bulldoze part of historic Nawlins for a shopping mall.

But the narrative never really drew me in emotionally. And the buried-memory trope feels pretty hoary. (It's worth noting that Gagliano wrote the original version of Congo Square in the 1970s.)

Still, the set, the songs and Freeland's great performance are well worth the price of admission and 90 minutes of your day.

There are three more chances to see Congo Square at Playwrights' Downtown space: tonight, tomorrow's matinee, and on Tue., March 8, as part of a special Mardi Gras performance of Gagliano's entire Voodoo Trilogy, also including In the Voodoo Parlour of Marie Laveau and The Commedia World of Lafcadio B.www.pghplaywrights.com

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