George (Austin Smith), steeped in European sensibility after a recent trip to France, returns to America to find a plantation he has inherited in financial peril. He’s caught the eye of the wealthy heiress Dora (Mary Wiseman), but his heart belongs to Zoe (Amber Gray), the eponymous daughter of his uncle and a slave. George’s eloquence wins over Zoe, but marriage between them is forbidden by law and the impending plantation auction threatens to separate them forever. The nefarious M’Closky (also Mr. Smith) wants Zoe for himself and contrives to get her by intercepting a letter that would save the plantation and then bidding on her when the plantation’s slaves are auctioned. In the process, M’Closky murders Paul, a young boy admired for his singing and dancing, and manages to frame Wahnotee (Haynes Thigpen), the boy’s best friend, for the crime. Will George be able to save the plantation, get the girl, and expose M’Closky as a villain?
It doesn’t much matter in An Octoroon, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’ contemporary revision of Dion Boucicault’s The Octoroon. The nineteenth-century melodrama becomes a play within a play, a sprawling, wonderfully silly comedy about BJJ (Mr. Smith yet again) adapting Boucicault for a contemporary audience. Over the course of the show, the audience is treated to verbal abuse from the play’s original author, a simulated ship explosion, a rabbit-headed fop hopping about the stage, two brief musical numbers, and a host of hilarious performances.
Mr. Jacob-Jenkins has a worthy proxy in Mr. Smith. He is a versatile performer, convincing both as the playwright and as a duo of dueling caricatures. The exaggerated gait of a mustachioed silent movie villain seems to come as easily to him as discussing awkward therapy sessions with the audience. The rest of the cast succeeds greatly in turning a once serious drama into farce: Maechi Aharanwa plays the slave girl Minnie’s brazen outbursts beautifully, and Mary Wiseman’s vocal acrobatics make Dora one of the funniest aspects of a consistently funny piece.
But An Octoroon excels most when toying with the audience. BJJ bemoans people assuming his work is about race while applying whiteface to loud hip-hop music. He takes great lengths to describe how modern audiences are unaffected by photography before flashing an image that left the theater silent and still. The play signals its slyness most clearly by having Br’er rabbit conduct the scene changes in comic pantomime. The person behind the scenes is playing with you.
It is an uproarious and exceptional show.
An Octoroon runs through March 29th at the Polonsky Shakespeare Center. 262 Ashland Place Brooklyn, NY. 2 hours 30 minutes. One intermission.