When he was a teenager, John Guare saw a production of Tamburlaine the Great in which the title conqueror unrolled a map of the world and walked across it. “That one image so overwhelmed me,” he writes in the preface to his anthology The War Against the Kitchen Sink, “that I could no longer watch TV miniatures like the original Marty set in living rooms like mine … I wanted attention to be paid only to Tamburlaine or his mirror, the hilarious fools who thought they were Tamburlaine striding over the map of their own private world.”
In A Free Man of Color, a glorious cancer of color, language, history, and amalgamated nonsense (some of it thrillingly inspired, the rest mostly entropic), Guare is Tamburlaine — albeit the latter-day, ADD version. He’s not so much “striding” as dashing back and forth over a molten map of his own rapidly metastasizing imagination, while director George Wolfe plunges after him, doing his damnedest to keep the playwright inside his own ever-dissolving borders.
Free Man certainly can’t be called a success, even a qualified one, but its collapse is inspiring to behold. Mirroring its fractious milieu (“the freest city in the world,” pre–Louisiana Purchase New Orleans in 1801) perhaps a bit too deliberately, the play has been force-fed everything from the rococo conventions of Restoration comedy to hanks of Shakespeare and Stephen Ambrose to the contemporary racial politics of the post-Katrina Big Easy. Here’s Napoleon in a bathtub sporting ordnance as a codpiece, a fat Infanta gnawing a turkey leg, Thomas Jefferson charging macaroni to the White House tab — it’s an off-kilter carousel of historical sketch comedy. The results are, by turns, uproarious, cornball, breathtaking, incoherent, deeply moving, and often just unaccountably silly. Free Man’s bones never quite knit, and its history as a commissioned epic, crazy-quilted out of lavish, loving research, can be detected at every bumpy seam. (It lacks the strong unifying conceit of, say, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, its blood brother in historical Cuisin-art.) What this beautiful boondoggle possesses instead is language and ambition, a sumptuous table set with brocaded poesy, luxurious allusion, hallucinatory imagery. It’s a dazzling mess, no doubt. But like all great, mad manifestos, there are sweet rewards for those willing to take the plunge.
Appropriately for a text so overgrown and unnavigable, Guare’s fictional hero, the Über-rich mulatto power broker and indefatigable womanizer Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright), is obsessed with maps. With help from his wry Jeevesian slave, Murmur (Mos Def, Wright’s Topdog/Underdog co-star), Cornet collects cartography, always searching for a fabled river passage to the West — the better to obtain his silks from Shanghai. (He prefers a certain splendor: the velvets, hosiery, and wiggery that will soon go out of style.) Cornet is an explorer, of sorts, but his terrain isn’t physical: He wants the world to come to New Orleans, the better for him to conduct it like a symphony orchestra. Having obtained his white father’s blessing as well as his cash, Cornet now more or less runs the town, bagging the wives of the city fathers (blowhard Spaniards, wheedling Englishmen, naive Americans) even as they come to him, on bended knee, pleading for his money and his favor.
Like everyone else in Free Man, Cornet speaks in lilting verse, rhyming couplets hither and thither to round off his thoughts. Most of the characters address the audience, or speak as if they’re declaiming to the gallery. No one really seems embedded in the story. Which is fortunate, because for a very long time—the entire first act, really—there is no story. There are facts, characters (real and not), glistering epigrams, meticulous erudition and farcical bric-a-brac. But Cornet himself barely makes an impact on his own plot practically until intermission, where he picks up a plot thread lifted affectionately from Wycherly’s The Country Wife. Wright is a performer of matchless poise and power, but you can feel him struggling to find something to hold on to beneath Cornet’s brave fripperies. He’s telling his own story, or so Guare’s prologue would have us believe. “What would it be about?” asks Murmur. “The sanctity of surfaces,” answers Cornet. “The value of veneer.” Yet both actor and audience clearly yearn for more, and, for a long, long while, more is not forthcoming.
The second act significantly more engaged and engaging, and nervous pastiche gives way to pulsating nightmare as Cornet is dispossessed by political upheaval: Feydeauian bedroom farce becomes life-or-death politicking. The young continent is growing older, grimmer. Cornet is cut adrift in a measureless wilderness that is now suddenly and arbitrarily America, by way of the Louisiana Purchase. It’s an “alien whiteness” that calls to lost souls like explorer Meriwether Lewis (a haunted Paul Dano), and Cornet, a great savorer of color, finds himself marooned in negative space, this endless blank-page oblivion of awful possibility called the Future, much-talked-about but stubbornly not yet arrived. He appeals to an American God, tetchy Thomas Jefferson (the great John McMartin), who’s bothered by the sudden engorgement of his nation to tumescent, ungentlemanly proportions. “I really don’t like confrontation,” he demurs, when Cornet, suddenly faced with the prospect of compulsory, legal bondage, presses our Third President to define what he meant by “All men are created equal.” “Sometimes I curse writing those words. I did write other phrases I thought as winning.”
By the time Cornet and Jefferson have their dialogue (one of only a handful of true, respectful exchanges between two characters on an equal intellectual footing), we’re deep in the second act. Guare resorts to some very literal and op-ed-ish maneuvers in an attempt to guide us out of the hedge maze he’s created. Cornet himself might’ve been the unifying force, but even he isn’t unified. “I do not live in factions,” he protests, when Jefferson churlishly brings up his mixed-race parentage. Yet Cornet, like the play, is a nacreous combine, lovely and unwieldy, easy to display but hard to manipulate. That’s A Free Man of Color: It’s not a map, or even an atlas, but a huge, misshapen, distracted globe, one that even a theatrical Tamburlaine like Guare can’t quite figure out how to bestride. That doesn’t mean it isn’t exhilarating to watch him try.