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Theatre in Review: Dark Noon (A fix+foxy Production at St. Ann's Warehouse)

Siyambonga Alfred Mdubeki. Photo: Teddy Wolff

Dark Noon has two problems: There is no point of focus in its staging and no point of focus in its satirical point of view. The work of a Danish writer and co-director collaborating with a (mostly Black) South African cast and co-director on a revisionist epic of the American West, the play views history through so many filters that the result is blurred. There's an interesting idea buried inside it, but nobody involved has been able to tease it out.

The production also raises dismaying questions about the best use of projection technology in the theatre. The action begins with a narrator seen on screen; the actress Lillian Tshabalala-Malulyck is captured in a tiny video booth located upstage on Johan Kølkjær's set. (Rasmus Kreiner is the video designer.) The extensive use of that booth all night long creates a strangely distancing effect. Why can't the actors speak directly to us?

It's a feeling that only grows stronger, thanks to other design choices: What follows is a highly prejudicial, if not inaccurate, slice of nineteenth-century Americana, taking in the earliest Western pioneers, the slaughter of Native Americans, the first railroad, the rise of town life, and the gold rush along with the attendant ills of racism, runaway capitalism, unchecked gunplay, and genocide. One by one, structures made of scenic flats -- a bank, a jail, a Chinese restaurant, a church, and a holding pen topped with barbed wire -- are erected onstage. Because this extensive layout blocks our view, rolling cameras are needed to capture each scene. It's a fundamental abrogation of the theatrical contract between actors and audience: We're seated in a large theatre, with good sightlines and solid acoustics, and we spend the evening craning our necks to watch a live video feed. (So cluttered is the stage that even the curtain call is complicated.)

If they often can't see what is happening onstage, some audience members are enlisted as supernumeraries in the crowd scenes. Most of these involve abuse: A woman is "sold" at auction for ten dollars. A church congregation cowers on the floor while a shooter runs amok. A small group is locked up in that holding pen and menaced at gunpoint. The sight of well-dressed, well-fed New Yorkers -- most of them looking amused or embarrassed -- standing in for the oppressed gives you a clue to the essential hokum of this enterprise.

Would Dark Noon work better with a more compelling text? As it stands, Tue Biering's script is an illustrated lecture designed to draw parallels between the European colonization of South Africa and what he characterizes as a European conquest of the West. This isn't entirely accurate -- there were plenty of Black cowboys, for example -- but whatever; only broad strokes are employed here. The narrative strategy ditches specificity for generic, all-purpose denunciations produced by onlookers with no real feel for the culture they're criticizing.

To be sure, Dark Noon has occasional flashes of illumination. I liked the description of a prostitute's work as "horizontal refreshment." There's something profoundly disturbing about the facial tarring and feather of an actor caught stealing a can of Coke. Another striking image features an actor desperately crawling along the railroad tracks that bisect the stage. But none of these moments coalesce to any larger effect. Among the cast, Tshabalala-Malulyck makes the biggest impression, earning some tart laughter in her opening speech. Her colleagues are harder to judge, given the running around and yelling they are made to do; certainly, they perform with undimmed vigor. The other production credits -- Christoffer Gulløv's lighting, Camilla Lind's costumes, and Ditlev Brinth's sound -- are solid.

The most interesting sequence in Dark Noon is the finale, during which each actor, speaking (yet again) to the camera, discusses how, as kids, viewing Western films inured them to random violence and white supremacy. Fair enough; who knows what sort of Grade Z oaters they were exposed to? And some, who didn't yet speak English, remember being taken in by images only. But before we dismiss an entire film genre as a propaganda tool, let's remember the rock-hard feminism of William Wellman's Westward the Women; the festering, McCarthyite atmosphere of Fred Zinnemann's High Noon; or the tortured conscience of John Ford's The Searchers. Two other Ford films -- My Darling Clementine and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance -- actively interrogate the creation of Wild West myths. As always, the devil is in the details, a point that often proves elusive to the creators of Dark Noon. --David Barbour

(20 June 2024)

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