Elvira and the Lost Prince/Home Ain't Nothin' But a Word | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

Elvira and the Lost Prince/Home Ain't Nothin' But a Word 

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ELVIRA AND THE LOST PRINCE

ETA Creative Arts Foundation

HOME AIN'T NOTHIN' BUT A WORD

Hidden Stages Chicago

Poor Elvira--fired from her $60,000-a-year job as a corporate attorney, facing disbarment, accused of embezzlement by the press, harassed by the mob, and all because she stonewalled on a plan to build a shopping center on land where slaves were buried. But little does the feisty young woman realize, slouching about her house and drowning her sorrows in cheap champagne, that her fortunes are about to change: the handsome, eloquent young man with one crippled foot who appears suddenly at her window is none other than Eshu, the priapal trickster of Yoruba folklore, who's fallen head over phallus in love with her. Seeing great potential in Elvira's reverence for her ancestors, feral sensuality, and love of tricks--she is a lawyer, after all--Eshu intends to petition his divine family of Orishas to make her one of them so that he can marry her. This notion infuriates the vain and jealous Oshun, who vows to use her feminine wiles to block their union. And the meddling of gods being rather messy, the lovers suffer many tests at the hands of spiteful adversaries.

Elvira and the Lost Prince is a narrative almost as immense as the Orisha kingdom itself, requiring as it does plots and characters for two complete universes and circumstances in which the two may clash. This Herculean task brings the running time of Michael S. Weaver's play to two and a half hours, but one is hard put to find anything extraneous here. Then, too, any play relying on the euphuistic language thought to be idiomatic for supernatural beings could easily flounder under its own words. That Elvira never does so is due in large part to the steadily paced direction of Jaye T. Stewart and the prodigious charm of Christian Payton and Valerie D. Robinson as the lovers.

Those enamored of pranks can often be irresponsible, destructive, even criminal, but Payton and Robinson are so innocent and exuberant in their amorality that all judgment is suspended--except by old Mary, the neighborhood witch-woman, played with an effectively taciturn humor by Juanita Wilson, and by Alice, Elvira's outspoken sidekick. Elizabeth Shivers gives Alice a bantamweight truculence that makes her conversion into a femme fatale (through Oshun's mischief) especially funny. Ron Pearson's gentle Shango, the thunder god, is the voice of reason but cannot prevent his two wives from intervening in the lovers' destinies: Oya is played with maternal dignity by Stephanie Archie-Dunn, and Oshun by Dianne B. Shaw as a deliciously spoiled brat. One wants to hug and spank her at the same time, watching her self-satisfied little wiggle before she leaves the stage, having caused all manner of pain and grief. Dorian Sylvain's modular set, Michael Alan Stein's dazzling costumes, and Darryl Goodman's kaleidoscopic lighting help integrate the diverse elements in this fresh, new American look at African myths.

Home Ain't Nothin' But a Word is also a story of lovers enduring hardships, but the lovers here are two middle-agers on the skids. Sally Goodman, once the frivolous wife of a high-rolling club owner, was left alone with a mass of debts, no skills, and a fierce pride that prevented her from asking for help from anyone. Eddie Howard, mistakenly listed during the Vietnam war as killed in action, returned home to find that his wife had taken off with his insurance money and his identity. These two unlikely companions rendezvous daily in the railway station where they both now live--a residence recently plagued by a pickpocket. Is it the hapless Sally?

Most playwrights take up the Plight of the Homeless with more zeal than craftsmanship, often sacrificing drama to didacticism. Margaret Smith Lowery, however, has written a straightforward, well-plotted tale of love and spiritual growth in two whole and believable human beings, allowing larger questions to arise naturally from the central action. Are the light-fingered pickpocket and the bureaucrat who robs halfway-house residents any better than those they exploit, and isn't their fear of becoming like their victims understandable in these uncertain times? Sam and Jack, the security guards who are supposed to roust out the vagrants, and Zena, Sally's former coworker, are perhaps justifiably reluctant to endanger their own positions by being too sympathetic. And perhaps Sally's stubbornness and Eddie's despair were instrumental in bringing them to their present situations. Lowery points no fingers--instead she allows her characters to speak for themselves, and her audiences to draw their own conclusions.

Deftly directed by Donn Carl Harper, Doris Craig Norris gives the defensive Sally an intelligence and sensitivity that shine through her squalid surroundings. Foster Williams as Eddie, Scott Baity as officer Sam, Jean Marciniak as a no-nonsense social worker, and Teresa Blake as a sweet-faced thief also deliver fine performances. On a bare-bones set, enhanced by the sound of freight trains just beyond a window, this production by Hidden Stages (a theater that lives up to its name--make sure to ask for directions) is well worth the journey into the up-and-coming neighborhood west of Chinatown.

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