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Group Effort 

Your Arms Too Short to Box With God, that wonderful Italian musical, is joyfully rocking the rafters on Carrollton Avenue. Yes, you read right. I did say "Italian." Strange as it seems, this African-American gospel show was originally commissioned by the powers that be at the Spoleto Festival in Italy, where it premiered in 1975. Apparently, the show -- by Vinnette Carroll, Alex Bradford and Micki Grant -- had the signors and signoras shouting "bravo" at the top of their lungs. And it was soon wowing the crowds on Broadway.

I didn't hear "bravos" on opening night at the Anthony Bean Community Theater, but the crowd was up on its feet and shouting out an enthusiastic Big Easy-style ovation.

Anthony Bean, the founder and artistic director of the theater bearing his name, has shown a great deal of perseverance since opening his doors to the public five years ago. There have been some top notch-shows. And there have been memorable moments and performances, even in some of the shakier productions. But Your Arms Too Short to Box With God marks an arrival of sorts; it has a confidence and evenness that allows one to relax and truly savor the exhilaration.

The show is mostly a retelling of the Passion of Jesus Christ in song and dance. In this production, the stage is bare, but an effective visual mood is created by Lyn Caliva's lighting and Leo Jones' attractive African-influenced costumes.

Attractive, in fact, is a key word, for the ensemble, which is 23 souls strong, is a remarkably attractive and talented group. And I mean attractive on some deeper level that encompasses all sorts of faces and body types, and radiates out from the stage, so you leave the theater feeling inexplicably better about the world and life -- even though you've just been through a deeply troubling tale of betrayal and torture. One of the weird, fascinating moments of this tuneful gospel shows us a trio of drunken townspeople taunting Jesus to save himself, to come down off the cross -- if he's so special and potent. The scene is horrible -- and yet funny in a grotesque "human, all too human" way.

When acknowledging a large group effort of this sort, one cannot give the credit deserved by each individual. But, first of all, a "bravo" to director Bean and vocal director/choreographer Leo Jones, who also gave typically buoyant performances in a variety of roles. And further bravos to Wayne Bennet (Jesus), Andran Lindsey (Judas), Dorshena Morris Pittman (who sang the part or Mary), Althea Williams (who danced the part of Mary), as well as to gospel singers Paulette Wright and Rosalind Washington.

Meanwhile, across the lake at the Skyfire Theatre, there are some strange goings-on. In fact, they go from strange to stranger. British playwright Joe Orton, who died in 1971, traced a brief meteoric trail through the firmament of drama, as a sort-of bold bad boy. The title, What the Butler Saw, is a typical Orton provocation, since one meets no butler in the play, nor any reference to a butler. Oh well, maybe you have to be British!

Alas, I'm not. And my bewilderment about the title of the play was not, by any means, set to rest by what followed. I'm afraid I just didn't get it. Let me quickly add, I seemed to be the only one in the audience who didn't. Who knows? Maybe my biorhythms were messed up by the drive across the causeway.

What the Butler Saw is meant to be a farce; it's set in an asylum. The plot begins with a Dr. Prentice (George Sanchez) trying to seduce a girl (Reagan Tucker) who wants a job as his secretary. Dr. Prentice's wife (Debbie Morvant) shows up, inconveniently enough, with a bellboy (Nicholas Beckett) in tow. She's had a sexual liaison with the bloke. But, wouldn't you know it, the bell boy has taken some X-rated pictures of their encounter. Well, add to this explosive mixture a deranged government psychiatric inspector (Jay Westbrook) and a buffoonish police officer (Gary Mendoza). Soon, everyone is running in and out of various doors and changing clothes (particularly in cross-dressing combinations). We've arrived at our destination: Farciana, a province of the great land of Nonsequitur. Under Deborah Marcelle's direction, the cast is game and spirited. But, for farce to engage us, as something besides pleasant silliness, it needs to be "sequitur" -- maddeningly, "sequitur."

click to enlarge Daphanne J. Poole, Paulette Wright and Rosiland Washington in Anthony Bean's current production of Your Arms Too Short to Box With God.
  • Daphanne J. Poole, Paulette Wright and Rosiland Washington in Anthony Bean's current production of Your Arms Too Short to Box With God.


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