Photograph by Whitney Quinn Stebbins
<Lost and found: Noah (Manfred B. Hayes) discovers a locket with a history in 'Noah Johnson.'
RTE's 'Noah Johnson' takes a cynical look at burying the dead
By Marianne Messina
A MAN-HIGH mound of bloody body bits, center stage, doesn't bode well for the denizens of Jon Bastian's black comedy Noah Johnson. To love Renegade Theater Experiment is to love characters who can carry a conversation and a severed head at the same time, and this play, set before a tent (scenic designer Jennifer Jigour) near the front lines of a Civil War battlefield, gives us undertaker Jeremiah (John Baldwin) and his apprentice/son, Noah (Manfred B. Hayes). Having gotten rid of the competition by underhanded means, Jeremiah is now the sole undertaker for both sides of the war. He can name his price, so he figures why not name his body count as well. He gets his savant son to do the math in his head, reverse-calculating how many bodies there must be by how much money he wants to make, and the humor is all about Jeremiah's outlook.
Baldwin gives us a matter-of-fact, industrious, yet somewhat warm Jeremiah befitting his self-description, "a simple businessman." This Jeremiah arrives at his behavior by a process of deduction, which underlines a scratchy reality: His profiteering is built on a latticework of other people's dishonesties and an illogical system. He smoothly talks the Northern captain into paying more than he wants to, in the name of giving mourners their needed ceremony. When Noah asks why the living make so much over the dead, Jeremiah replies, "Because they treat the living so poorly."
Hayes portrays the freedman Noah with Jeremiah's same casual air but also with a soupçon of eager-to-please. Together, they putter around the camp as if they're relaxing on vacation, complete with homey, fatherly advice. When you make a promise, Jeremiah instructs his son, "You have to be prepared to do anything to seem to keep it." Into this smooth gravy train comes a little spice, the "war widow" Lydia (Arcadia Conrad) searching for a compromising locket. She is onto Jeremiah's scam pretty quickly, and threatens to be his match in knavery.
Throughout Act 2, Lydia and the body snatchers compete for the upper hand in a series of deceptions and manipulations. If only Bastian had treated Lydia as lovingly as Jeremiah. There is not much of the unexpected in her maneuvers. Perhaps it's Conrad's poise, her versatile command and her sense of hidden reserves that make us expect more of her underwritten character. Bit by bit, the setup's quirkiness and surprise trickle dry. So much the worse for director Jenn BeVard, who has trusted the humor to emerge on its own by keeping the acting subdued, the tempo relaxed, and eschewing desperate ploys like the burlesque—no meretricious Frederick's of Hollywood undergear on the seductive Lydia.
The resulting, subtler comedy leans heavily on irony. As Noah picks and pokes through the heap of body bits, trying to cobble together full bodies out of a less than full body-part count, birds chirp sweetly overhead (twisted sound design, Derek Batoyon). Laudably playing both Maj. Frost and Col. Grass, Howard Miller's Southern colonel accepts Jeremiah's inevitability in the jolly collusion of a good ol' boy, while his Northern major is formal, skeptical and determined to be dealt with squarely. Together, they represent two flawed ways to confront humanity's inevitable flaws. Though the tale doesn't end quite as cynically as it starts out, the resolution may not be as satisfying as seeing someone get voted off the island.
Noah Johnson, a Renegade Theatre Production, plays Thursday–Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm through July 28 at the Historic Hoover Theater in San Jose. Tickets are $18/$20. (www.renegadetheatre.com).
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