Woman-In-Law exploited more than the situational comedy

Popular theatre returned to the stage of the National Cultural Centre recently with Darren McAlmont’s Woman-In-Law. It was the assertive return of a Caribbean tradition in both stage and audience – with particular emphasis on audience traditions – at a time when a new trend in dark social realism had begun to surface. The audiences welcomed this realignment of farce and comedy, of dramatic thrills and resounding laughs.

Woman-In-Law was directed by Jennifer Thomas, but McAlmont, a writer and producer, has been very enterprising and can claim achievements in theatre entrepreneurship. Over the past few years he has campaigned in Antigua to the point where he was able to import actresses and actors from Guyana to perform in his plays in Antigua. He must have taken advantage of the opportunities for popular theatre in that island. At one time, Antiguan impresario Nambalulu Nambalala produced thrillers in St John’s, and The Theatre Company, led by Ron Robinson and Gem Madhoo at the time, also made hay with plays taken on tour there.

Woman-In-Law is not to be confused with The Woman-In-law by Ken Danns that was popular in Guyana many years ago. They are both local dramas steeped in topicality and situational comedy, but there the similarity can end. McAlmont’s play is different, a topical and situational comedy in the same mould as the evergreen Till Ah Find A Place by Ronald Hollingsworth.  Now, with this, McAlmont is re-establishing his campaign in Guyana.

The history of Caribbean theatre includes particular formal traditions in “Caribbean performance”. Elements of these arose from forms of folk performance such as the spiritual, satire, tents, story-telling and the long-running practice of vaudeville. These had a strong element of dramatic involvement of the audience in integrated performances. A significant factor in all of this was ‘audience talk-back,’ a crucial participatory element, which was once a dynamic part of the performance circuit. Members of the audience would seek to engage the performers, giving responses to what is proceeding on stage.

This was a factor in the roots theatre emerging in Jamaica in the 1990s, and began to return to the theatre in Guyana in the last decade or so. It is now very bold during the performance of a play at the NCC and makes its presence heard very loudly. It has become unruly, untrimmed and uncontrolled. Stand-up comedians thrive on it, as is evidenced in performances of Uncensored, with such masters of handling and exploiting it as Lyndon Jones and Oliver Samuels. But in plays in Guyana today, it can be a disturbance: often crossing over from being fun to being an irritant.

The extent of audience talk-back was a sign that Woman In-Law was reaching its audience.  There was an affinity – identification with characters and situations which the audience found not just humorous, but intriguing.

This play turns an interesting lens on a real environment with waitresses working in certain bars and night clubs, who, as a part of the trade, are meticulously and scantily dressed to be “eye candy” – to keep male patrons interested and to keep them returning. The play spotlights the kind of lifestyle, atmosphere and personalities of this environment. But while the characters in the play emerge out of that setting, the situational drama arises out of a home setting in which the heroine Diamond (Sonia Yarde), feeling hurt by the engagement of her friend Diane (Nathaya Whaul) to her ex-boyfriend Frankie (Michael Ignatius), invades their home in order to break it up.

Diamond, one of the waitresses mentioned above, is driven by vengeance and jealousy, but is aided and abetted by another friend, Angel (Clemencio Godette), who plies her trade as a prostitute on the street nearby. In a plot borrowed from the old Revenge Tragedies of Seneca, and the mischief-making Machiavelli of Elizabethan comedy, Angel is the real agent provocateur, the author of the schemes who pushes Diamond.

The play benefits from some good irony and symbolic naming of characters, primarily Diamond – a gem that is precious and sparkling. It has much superficial glitter but is at its core, very hard.  Yarde played the diamond suitably in that way. She succeeded in running the spectrum from the over-sensual, revealingly but garishly-dressed waitress, through the seductive siren to the dangerous ghetto girl.

What worked well was the way Yarde was able to switch from true sensitivity and hurt to pretence and deceptiveness, while when necessary to become the vengeful, brawling type. It was not entirely easy to get all of those inside of one character and to do it in a way that was believable.

Angel is a usual type of trade name for the prostitute and was also an obvious use of symbol and irony in naming her. Hilariously, the Angel was the demon behind Diamond’s schemes and Godette made full use of comic portrayal. She played the extravagant, larger than normal, kind of character who does nothing in half measures. The loud and flambouyant portrait was a stereotype but a calculated favourite delight of the audience. Godette proved to be a very versatile actress in sustaining the low farce necessary in this case.

Thomas’s directing brought out the appropriate style of farce. The pace was good throughout and overall quite well performed, by a strong cast of accomplished performers. They took on a play with familiar stereotypical characters, such as the barman Larry whose type is almost a stock character in these comedies. Mark Kazim had no difficulty playing the ‘queer’ type – always a hit with the audience, and it was a production tailored for audience laughter.

Ignatius did not manage or did not bother to achieve a particular character for Frankie, but he was in command of the audience and gave a role that worked sufficiently. Whaul presented a straight role – did not need to play for humour. She was very effective in bringing off emotions and managed the character switch that was very important to the plot. She travelled from bar girl – a waitress working at the same club as Diamond, to upright, well-spoken, middle-class wife.  This refinement as she stepped up the ladder with its accompanying pretentiousness, was well managed by Whaul in her characterisation.

Abigail Brower succeeded in both looking the part and convincing in it as actress in her portrayal of the teenaged daughter. She played studied concern when required and was very funny when that was required in an overall credible role.

Nelan Benjamin also appeared as an extra and Jackie Jaxx, the singer, opened the programme with a concert that was too lengthy, but was probably done to give her exposure. However, it was well merged into the nightclub scene as if she were entertaining there as a part of the play.

Woman In-Law exploited the situational comedy well. All of its humour was extracted as an audience-oriented thriller. It thoroughly entertained but did not have a statement. There were several twists and turns of plot. Diamond’s schemes changed course many times as if each new complication was geared to evoke more laughter.

The play had no resolution. Shockingly, it seems the ending was deliberately abruptly cut to make way for Woman In-Law Part 2. You do not do that to an audience. It is the playwright’s commitment to provide a full play. Bring on a sequel later if you like, but you advertised a play, not Act One of an unfinished play.

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