Review by James Wilkinson
‘Lost Tempo’ – Written by Cliff Odle; Directed by Diego Arciniegas; Scenic Design by Jeffrey Petersen; Costume Design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt; Lighting Design by Evey Connerty-Marin; Sound Design by J Jumbelic. Presented by Boston Playwrights’ Theatre at 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston through October 22.
I’m a sucker for a truly immersive theater set. There’s something about the way it envelops you, inviting you in. You’re allowed to let everything outside of the theater fade away. Forget about where you parked the car, what you had for dinner, the work at home you’ve been putting off. The curtain hasn’t even risen and already you’ve been dropped into the world of the play.
Audience members for Boston Playwrights’ Theatre’s production of Cliff Odle’s new play, Lost Tempo, may wonder why they have to walk down a dark hallway to get to the theater, but then they pass through the door, the light hits them and they’ve enter Mitzy’s Jazz Kitchen. You can feel the whoosh as you’re sent back to the 1950’s jazz club. Set Designer Jeffrey Petersen has created a beautiful sandbox for both the actors and audience to play in. Abstract art hangs on the walls. A bar sits off to the right. Small tables complete with lights are interspersed throughout the audience. There’s even a live jazz trio (Andrew DeNicola, Samuel Kjellberg and Matthew Stavrakas) playing in the corner, perfectly evoking the mood the audience will be settling into. You have to admire the audacity of setting such high expectations for the audience before a single line of dialogue is spoken. Thankfully the joys of the evening are only just getting started.
Our main character is saxophonist Willie “Cool” Jones, (Omar Robinson), who heads the jazz quartet in residence at Mitzy’s Jazz Kitchen during the 1950s. He’s ambitious and driven but also headstrong and impulsive. He’s also trying to kick a developing drug habit. Circling around in his immediate orbit is Babs Rosenbaum (Evelyn Howe), his ex who runs Mitzy’s, his sister Sheila (Miranda Adekoje) and the members of his band Lane McDaniel, (Kinson Theodoris), John “Sporty” Dale (Arthur Gomez), and Langford “Mack” Williams (Mishell Lilly). We watch these characters through three different timelines, one during the quartet’s early days, one, years later as rifts begin to form between the members, and one even later as Willie tries to tries to record a new album while struggling with the effects of his addiction.
We’re watching the events through the prism of how Willie remembers things, making this a memory play on one level, but it may be better to liken the text to a jazz piece. Odle bounces between timelines, letting scenes blend into each other like riffs on a musical score. Just as we get our sea legs on a scene, we’re thrown into either the past or the future, never letting us forget either how things will turn out or how things used to be for the characters. Going line by line, there’s a beautiful sense of poetry to Odle’s text, so much so that you might be inclined to lie back and let the language wash over you. Rhythm and music begins to from the voices of the characters. The actors are wonderfully in sync with each other, never letting the energy of the language drop for a second. Once it revs up, it sings.
The kinetic energy of Odle’s words seems to have soaked down to the marrow of the production. Director Diego Arciniegas runs with the idea of immersing the audience not only in the jazz club, but also within the memories of Willie. His staging keeps the characters constantly moving, circling around each other, much like the memories swirling around in Willie’s head. As the conflict begins to build, the characters begin to feel like boxers in the ring, always with one eye on their opponent. It’s thrilling to watch because you can tell that thought and care was put into how the pieces of the production would fit together.
This is a play of lost potential and missed connections. Funny at times, but it can be heartbreaking. I think that it speaks to the production’s strength that I didn’t want to leave the theater after the show. I wanted to remain in that world of poetry, color and light, with those characters and the soft jazz score playing in the background. So pull up a chair. Stay a while. Let it soak in. For more info, go to: https://www.bu.edu/bpt/