From its opening dream sequence, director Karen Robinson’s alluring Actor’s Express production of “Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet” grabs hold and rarely lets go.
The scene is a rainy, foggy Louisiana swamp, fantastically rendered by set designer Kat Conley with a painted backdrop of stark trees, a patch of bare branches (and starry crystals) hanging from above, and replete with pools of water, in the larger of which a fateful spirit periodically emerges and disappears throughout the play.
Clearly, Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Marcus” is more than just another coming-out story — although it’s technically that, too. Dynamically enacted here by Terry Guest, as young Marcus struggles with his own sexuality, he also confronts some skeletons in the family closet, as it were (in the form of that dream figure, the dead father he never knew, portrayed by Olubajo Sonubi).
Under Robinson’s fluid direction, with atmospheric assists from lighting designer Rebecca M.K. Makus and composer/sound designer Joel Abbott, the shifts between illusion and reality are seamless. So does she strike a lovely balance between the profoundly serious drama of the piece and, yes, its genuinely warm comedy — essentially offsetting certain “infections of the soul” with an admittedly “funky little attitude.”
Marcus lives in the isolated modern-day bayou community of (fictional) San Pere, where residents practice the ancient culture and religion of the Yoruba people of West Africa. It isn’t much of a secret to many of them that he’s gay (or, as they put it, “sweet”). But he can’t seem to get a straight answer from anyone else about the past events that led to his father’s death, and they offer a lot of opposing interpretations about his recurring dreams.
It’s a companion piece to McCraney’s similarly themed and situated “In the Red and Brown Water,” which premiered at the Alliance in 2008 as a winner of the company’s annual Kendeda graduate playwriting competition. (In both shows, characters often recite the stage directions: “Marcus wipes a tear,” Marcus will say, wiping a tear; others typically announce their entrances and exits.) He also penned last season’s highly lauded “Choir Boy” at the Alliance, an altogether different sort of coming-out story, set at an upscale black prep school for boys.
McCraney may be covering some familiar ground in “Marcus,” but his eloquent, lyrical writing — and Robinson’s vibrant staging of it — keep the play feeling fresh and relevant. The most artificial (that is, false) moment is a musical interlude with Marcus and two of his high-school girlfriends, breaking the proverbial “fourth wall” and directly mixing it up with the audience.
Following Guest’s enterprising lead, the supporting cast ranges from the wonderful newcomer Ashley Tate (as one of those girlfriends) to the distinguished vet Bernardine Mitchell (as a wise philosopher). Other standouts include Tiffany Denise Mitchenor (in dual roles as contrasting mothers) and Enoch King (as a mysterious acquaintance of Marcus’ father).
In the mythical woods of San Pere, the memories wash over them — sometimes quite literally and, in large part, with breathtaking results. With or without several references to an impending storm that’s brewing (Hurricane Katrina?), the show proves to be its very own force of nature.