Oxblood

Oxblood at City Park’s Grow Dat Youth Farm through November 23
by Brian Sands for Ambush Magazine

A light drizzle was coming down when I arrived in City Park for Oxblood. It evolved into heavier rain before abating and drove off two audience members. But ultimately this small nuisance merely added to the wondrous atmosphere of this new outdoor performance piece. The innovative theater ensemble New Noise has taken up residency in a fallow field to tell the story of Rose (Bonnie Gabel) and Laurel (Kylie Arceneaux), estranged sisters reunited in rural Georgia after their centuries-old family home has burned to the ground. While Rose’s husband Jacob (Phil Cramer) loses himself working on the scarred farmland, the two sisters grapple over its uncertain future.  It is a simple tale, one that you’ve probably heard before, of one sibling (Laurel) who has stayed close to ancestral land while the other (Rose) went off to the big city, in this case Memphis. But New Noise’s marvelous melding of dance, theater, music and movement gives it a new immediacy. Working from Cramer and Bear Hebert’s script, Director Joanna Russo has seamlessly blended together Composer Brendan Connelly’s evocative score, a mixture of folk and bluegrass with tinges of both New Age and more traditional church music, and Angelle Hebert’s muscular choreography with its ballet, modern dance and Martha Graham influences. Against the open vista, which includes trees dripping with Spanish moss off in the distance, A. Hebert wonderfully uses the large space, amply filling it with just three people. Hebert, whose work in Macbeth I admired earlier this year, utilizes abstract movements to convey underlying, often subtle, emotions. At times, action occurs simultaneously close to and far from the audience, the shift in focus giving Oxblood a cinematic sweep. Cramer and B. Hebert employ Biblical quotations and themes which bestow a timelessness upon their story. If talk of the land especially resonates in the beautiful vastness of development-free City Park, the authors are nothing if not clear-eyed; “Small town life is not Romantic,” says Laurel.  Amidst mostly declarative lines (“Farming is a labor of the Lord.” “This is the place your body belongs.”), the phrase describing the family home before lighting struck it, “A house decorated like a ballad,” was particularly poetic. Connelly’s occasionally eerie and consistently phenomenal score is played and sung to haunting perfection by Renee Anderson, Daron Douglas, and Eli Timm who mostly stand, sheltered, off to the side but are an integral part of Oxblood Arceneaux, Cramer, and Gabel give fearless, committed performances that fully convey the complexity of their intertwined relationships. I did not envy them having to roll around in the muddy field, but they seemed to hold nothing back. Joan Long’s statuesque hulk of the burned family home, with its fireplace chimney looming, forcefully conveys the monumentality of what was lost. Despite a running time of only an hour, Oxblood might benefit from a little nip-and-tucking here and there; a ritualistic section involving all six performers did break up the narrative flow. And observations about slavery and what the Europeans did to Native Americans, while completely valid, come off as somewhat preachy in a way the rest of the text avoids. Such quibbles aside, however, Oxblood is one of the most impressive works to be created in New Orleans since another City Park resident five years ago, Loup Garou. Ducks flew overhead in formation, as rain gave way to a Turneresque sky of grays, whites and blues, and a rainbow appeared above. Can any other theater here offer that? Rain or shine, you’d be wise to make the trip to City Park for Oxblood.