Review of The Beautiful Johanna

Review of The Beautiful Johanna-attachment0

It’s not the Dublin you’d find today, or even the Dublin of The Troubles. In David Brendan Hopes’ The Beautiful Johanna, Dublin is an apocalyptic nightmare, riddled by bomb blasts, machine gun bursts, and — perhaps most frightening of all — fire. Yet the subject of the play is neither horror nor hell. It’s love.

You won’t likely be thinking of love as the play opens. In the precious little light of a plainly depopulated street, a balding, gray-bearded gentleman, carrying an artist’s portfolio, is accosted by a couple of street waifs. There’s no question what they’re after: food, money, anything of value. Instead, they get a few pieces of art. There’s value in that, too, but not the superficial kind.

The older fellow escapes. He’s Reiner (Darren Marshall), a painter who has scoured abandoned and burned-out buildings to gather up the last scraps of the Dublin art world that used to be. His own home is isolated in a part of the city where no one else lives, and a bomb has blown a hole in the ceiling above his bed. Still, he keeps working. One reason he can continue to paint is that The Beautiful Johanna (DiAnna Ritola) still visits his apartment studio, as she has three times a week for the last twenty years. As she strips and poses (yes, there’s a long scene with partial nudity, and it’s a tribute to the strength of these actors that we’re more deeply engaged in their relationship than in ogling the beautiful actress), we learn not only the recent fate of the city — ruled with violence by the unseen but ever-present Mullaneys — but that these two, who obviously adore each other, despite their testy banter, once were lovers. What sundered them? His brief dalliance with a young man, and youth itself: they were too inexperienced and naïve even to understand what they meant to each other.

Elsewhere in the city, the waifs who accosted Reiner — Oliver (Adam Kampouris) and Trudy (Trinity Smith) — have an argument of their own, in the hovel they call home, even as they tack up their stolen artworks, one an early portrait of The Beautiful Johanna. These two, also, are in love. The problem is that Oliver’s as much in love with their compatriot, Terence (Casey Morris), as he is with Trudy. All three aren’t hampered only by their age; they’re plagued by an ignorance bred of being born at the end of civilization. They have made a family of each other, for the sake of survival. Yet they want so much more.

Terence has been scavenging, and as the first act draws to a close, all learn that he has been seriously wounded in the process, and one of the other waifs must brave the terrible streets to search for help. The second act contains so many surprises, it would be wrong to reveal anything more. Suffice it to say that the grimness of Act One — pervasive despite the mostly remarkable and frequently funny dialogue — is alleviated by unexpected realignments, and that a stunningly scripted and delivered monologue makes for a pure coup de theatre.

Hopes may be Asheville’s most proficient, prolific writer; in poetry and prose, he has earned himself a substantial reputation, and he may be on the verge of doing the same with his playwriting. It’s a shame that he seems to have an easier time getting produced elsewhere than here. His work isn’t flawless, but if he had more opportunities and support … In The Beautiful Johanna, clunky dramaturgy occasionally rears its head; in the central scene between Reiner and The Beautiful Johanna, for example, the extensive exposition simply isn’t plausible, dramatically. But this is a minor concern. Hopes may be more poet than dramatist in this instance, but he knows and presents his characters cunningly and compassionately. One cannot help but love them, too.

The performances are uniformly wonderful. One can quibble about the slippery, decidedly different Irish accents; one can note that, though there is plentiful tenderness between Oliver and Terence, when the young actors enacting them touch they are not altogether believable as lovers. No matter. This is a true ensemble performance, well worth seeing for the acting alone.

The actors have been guided, and the play plumbed, with a sure hand, and great thoughtfulness and delicacy, by director Steve Lloyd. Major contributions to the realization of Hopes’ vision have also been made by Crawford Murphy (set, lighting, and costume design) and Brian Sneeden (sound design).

Side note: before and after the show, and during intermission, The Red Wellies delight with well-played, traditional Irish music. It doesn’t really have anything to do with the play, and the curtain call tune comes up jarringly, considering the emotional ride the audience has just gone on. Nevertheless, The Red Wellies are a welcome addition to the evening’s entertainment.

The Beautiful Johanna, by David Brendan Hopes. Directed by Steve Lloyd. Presented by Black Swan Theater. Set, lighting, and costume design by Crawford Murphy. Sound design by Brian Sneeden. Stage Manager: Chris Martin.
With Darren Marshall (Reiner), Adam Kampouris (Oliver), Trinity Smith (Trudy), DiAnna Ritola (The Beautiful Johanna), and Casey Morris (Terence).

Shows at N.C. Stage (part of the Catalyst Series). Friday and Saturday, Jan. 22 and 23, and Thursday through Saturday, Jan. 28 to 30. 7:30 p.m. $15, $10 for students. Contains strong language, brief nudity, sudden loud noises and the use of strobe lights.

Cast photo by Andrew Fedynak.

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14 thoughts on “Review of The Beautiful Johanna

  1. Theatre Goer

    Thanks to Steven Samuels for his gentle, kindhearted review.

  2. Marcus Blue

    When I saw THE BEAUTIFUL JOHANNA I thought it was the best original piece I had seen since I moved to Asheville. Have not changed my mind since.

  3. zomBgrl

    Not sure when M. Blue moved here, but perhaps he should get out more. Samuels is tactful to a fault in his review. I don’t think I want a reviewer to be tactful– much less “gentle and kindhearted.” How about just truthful? But maybe that’s just me. Anyway, there’s some good dialogue in the play, and the cast is great, but overall the show just doesn’t get off the ground. And speaking of the ground, it palpably shook (along with my teeth) every time there was an “explosion” sound-cue i.e. pretty much at every scene change. Aren’t there better ways to keep an audience from falling asleep?

  4. Avid Dramatist

    I saw the play last night and wonder if the reviewer saw the same play I did…or if he is just too close to Hopes or Black Swan Theater to be objective. I could tell you what happened in the play but don’t have a clue as to what it was ABOUT! I never believed the actors for moment and was absolutely, mind-boggling benumbed by the lack of language in the play. Lot’s of babbling and no content. Side note: Maybe it was to accommodate the naked actress but detrimental to the enjoyment of the audience but it felt like it was 100 degrees in the theater. I had to rush out at intermission into the frigid night air to take a breath.

  5. zomBgrl

    Dear Avid: I feel your pain. I’m pretty sure Samuels has no direct connection to Black Swan, though. And anyway, “objectivity” may not be as important in a critic as “informed and honest subjectivity.” (Now that I think about it, I’m not even really sure what “objectivity” would mean when it comes to the arts.)
    Hope you didn’t catch cold out there in the alley.

  6. A Critic's Critic

    Short of critiquing the weaknesses of the play and the performance point by point (and perhaps incurring the wrath of the playwright and performers), the critic chose to look for the positive. He offered enough clues so potential playgoers could know what they were in for: the grimness of Act One . . .
    His work isn’t flawless . . .m/clunky dramaturgy occasionally rears its head . . . the extensive exposition simply isn’t plausible, dramatically. . . .the slippery, decidedly different Irish accents . . .young actors [ ] are not altogether believable . . . The actors have been guided, and the play plumbed, with a sure hand, and great thoughtfulness and delicacy.

    Perhaps the playwright has the right attitude: http://tiny.cc/LF5YQ

  7. A Critic's Critic

    Short of critiquing the weaknesses of the play and the performance point by point (and perhaps incurring the wrath of the playwright and performers), the critic chose to look for the positive. He offered enough clues so potential playgoers could know what they were in for: the grimness of Act One . . .
    His work isn’t flawless . . .m/clunky dramaturgy occasionally rears its head . . . the extensive exposition simply isn’t plausible, dramatically. . . .the slippery, decidedly different Irish accents . . .young actors [ ] are not altogether believable . . . The actors have been guided, and the play plumbed, with a sure hand, and great thoughtfulness and delicacy.

    Perhaps the playwright has the right attitude: http://tiny.cc/LF5YQ

  8. Avid Dramatist

    I certainly tried to find the positive in this play but, I suppose, after being subjected to this type of original material and production level in Asheville for so long I’ve just become terribly worn down. I realize a lot times my opinions are rather harsh. I believe it’s time to get harsh. Asheville deserves better theater than this. We have world class music, great dance, world class writers of literature (always have) and great art. Theater is never going to get better until someone gets harsh. I expect to be thrilled when I go out for arts and entertainment and I usually am unless it’s local theater. Is that too much to ask for? But all that said, I do go and buy a ticket to support all the theater companies, writers, actors, directors and other artists involved and I will continue to do so in the hopes that it will get better.

  9. Tiger Lily

    Does anyone make a distinction among various producing companies overall? Or are reactions just on a show-by-show basis? In other words, would you give this slack because it’s a non-professional Catalyst show? Or would you be blunt about it? Would you hold different companies to different standards? Does anyone think some groups are generally better than others? Do any of the people who like to opine here ever think about money, pay and time involved?

    Finally, do reviews really constitute coverage of the arts? Or wouldn’t it be better to have more preview articles and other stories about the craft and substance of theater, rather than just opinions after-the-fact?

  10. Avid Dramatist

    Yes, dear Theatre Goer, and I will probably buy a ticket to go and see his latest opus because I am the eternal optimist. What else is there to do?

  11. zomBgrl

    Tiger Lily: Xpress and CT do *sometimes* run “preview”-type articles. I personally find these pretty informative as background, but dubious as criticism, since anybody you interview about his or her upcoming show is going to tell you it’s the greatest theatrical event in North America. I think we need something like this Sightlines project. For all its flaws, it’s an attempt to close the circuit between creative artist, art work, and audience. Otherwise, plays go up and go down without much serious public discussion about what was done, how well or poorly it was done, and what it might mean for us as a community.
    I’m down with your question about distinguishing between professional and non-professional productions. And what about college productions? My impression is that the reviewers are not judging these all by the same standards. But maybe they should be? (The irony is that some of the best stuff I’ve seen here or anywhere has been done on a shoestring, while some of the most vapid and boring has been Officially Sanctioned Professional Theatre. That in itself proves nothing. But it does suggest that what makes theatre good or bad has little to do with budgets, professional credentials, etc.)

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