Haiti Wow! Just Wow!

If Theatricum Botanicum’s artistic director Ellen Geer were British, she’d be considered a national treasure and made a Dame of the British Empire by the Queen for her services to theater and acting.

Dame Ellen (indulge me, please), would take afternoon tea with other British thespian dames and household names like Judy Dench, Helen Mirren, and Maggie Smith. But I don’t believe they direct like Geer does, certainly not as often, and I doubt as successfully.

In case you haven’t heard on the Topanga grapevine, the fifth and final opening night of an already stupendous 2018 season, culminated in a momentous performance of Haiti, a play written by William DuBois in 1938, and stunningly directed by…Dame Ellen Geer.

First, please allow your reviewer to eat some humble pie. In my review of The Chalk Garden, I made an assumption that Haiti, based on a true story about the only successful uprising by slaves against their oppressors, would be short on laughs. I was dead wrong. This is an absolute gem of a play and there are many funny lines here, albeit more ironic in a toe-curling way at the expense of the racist French invaders.

This is intelligent and clever writing with a strong, emotional story line involving former slave and revolutionary Jaqueline (the awesome Earnestine Phillips), and Odette (a terrific Tiffany Coty).

DuBois wrote Haiti for the Negro Theater Unit of the Federal Theater Project that was a radical and, at the time, controversial production with black and white actors performing on stage together.

Here’s an idea: Haiti is such a strong play and this production so superb, it should be on Broadway and every other theater in every major city in the U.S. Perhaps Dame Ellen Geer could get funding to tour it with this stupendous cast?

“I came across the play in an old library,” said director Dame Ellen Geer. “It’s one of the many plays Hallie Flanagan selected as part of the Federal Theater Project to get people back to work. It’s the only play I know of about the uprising that gave the Haitians back their country, and we think this will be the first time since then that it’s been performed.”

Knowing Haiti hasn’t been performed since 1938 suggested to me that it can’t be that good. Wrong. Again. And another reason why Geer deserves her damehood. She rediscovered this wonderful play that other artistic directors have missed.

Forgive me if I fast forward to the end of this production. Not exactly a full house but impressive, bearing in mind Topanga Canyon Boulevard was closed for the weekend. Getting there from another event in Malibu took a longer detour than I expected. Another excuse for not attending, although people might be forgiven for thinking the subject might be a downer.

But how the audience cheered and leapt to its feet to ovate these outstanding actors as the lights dimmed.

Jaqueline (Earnestine Phillips) and revolutionary General Christophe (Max Lawrence)
argue about strategy. Photo by Ian Flanders

I usually make a quick getaway after the performances, but this was something so magical, I sat back down in my seat and looked around as the actors came back on stage to chat with the audience who didn’t want to leave either. I surveyed the scene before me and have been trying since to understand what happened here.

The odious General LeClerc (Mark Lewis) inspects the slave and revolutionary Jaqueline (Earnestine Phillips) Photo by Ian Flanders

This opening night performance of Haiti was a perfect storm of excellence. The temperature was ideal, not too hot, after the hellish heatwave, the direction dazzling, the pace perfect, with dialogue that was witty, gritty, and sharp as the finest blade. The acting? Outstanding.

When they took their bows, you could tell from the actors’ faces that they were joyful. They all knew, as the audience knew, that something special had just happened. They were elated. I would imagine that’s why actors act, in the hope they will get it right on the night and the audience will get and appreciate their work. We did.

Odette (Tiffany Coty) discovers Jaqueline (Earnestine Phillips) is her mother. Photo by Ian Flanders

This is an ensemble cast of the highest quality. Rodrick Jean-Charles as Toussaint L’Ouverture did a cracking job. Tavis L. Baker as Colonel Roche, Steve Fisher as Boule, Lea Madda as Pauline, Jeff Wiesen as Colonel Boucher, Cameron Rose as Joseph, Holly Hawk as Nurse Aimee. Bravo each and every one.

Rivals in love, Col. Boucher (Jeff Wiesen) and Capt. Duval (Dane Oliver) have it out in a riveting swordfight choreographed by Oliver. Photo by Ian Flanders

Max Lawrence as our hero, General Christophe, was, as always, wonderful. Mark Lewis as General Leclerc made this demanding role look easy. No scenery chewing as he descended into alcoholic madness…just great acting…and some impressive physical comedy as a drop-down drunk.

Captain Duval (Dane Oliver) and Colonel Roche (Tavis L. Baker) muse about military life. Photo by Ian Flanders

The success of this production is, in no small way, thanks to Dane Oliver who played Captain Duval. His dashing good looks and mighty fine acting chops made him an ideal leading man and love interest of Odette, wife to her abuser, Colonel Boucher.

Oliver brings a lot to the table at Theatricum. He also serves as fight choreographer. I doubt there’s ever been a better sword fight at Theatricum than the one between Captain Duval and his nemesis, Colonel Boucher. Oliver and Wiesen acted and fought so well together that the audience cringed at the split-second timing and sheer athleticism of the fight.

Congratulations to the entire creative team on Haiti, too numerous to mention individually, but deserving of high praise as well.

Here’s an idea: Haiti is such a strong play and this production so superb, it should be on Broadway and every other theater in every major city in the U.S. Perhaps Dame Ellen Geer could get funding to tour it with this stupendous cast?

Last year in L.A., people were raving about Hamilton and happy to pay top dollar—ticket prices started at $400! —and drive for two hours to get to Hollywood to see it. Here, in our own backyard, there are five wonderful plays to see this summer that will move, entertain, and inspire you for less than it costs to drive and park at the Pantages Theatre.
Did I mention that Ernestine Phillips is awesome?

Haiti runs through September 29 in repertory with Coriolanus, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Crucible, and The Chalk Garden.

For tickets: (310) 455-3723 or www.theatricum.com. Adults: $38.50 (lower tier), $25 (upper tier); Seniors (65+), Students, Military Veterans, Teachers, AEA Members: $25/$15; Children (5-15): $10; Children 4 and under: Free

Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum is located at 1419 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd., Topanga, CA 90290 (midway between Pacific Coast Highway and the Ventura Freeway).

The outdoor amphitheaters at Will Geer’s Theatricum Botanicum are terraced into the hillside of the rustic canyon. Audience members are advised to dress casually (warmly for evenings) and bring cushions for bench seating. Patrons are welcome to arrive early and picnic before a performance. 

Editor’s Note: The Playbill notes “This production of Haiti was made possible, in part, by a grant from The Sheri and Les Biller Family Foundation.” We all owe a great deal of thanks to the Foundation.

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