theater review

Lagos Soaps and Superstitious Hopes: Nollywood Dreams and “The Pool Plays”

From Nollywood Dreams, at MCC Theater. Photo: Daniel Vasquez

In Jocelyn Bioh’s Merry Wives, this summer’s Shakespeare in the Park adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor, roughly half the jokes were by the Bard, the other half by Bioh. Or, to be accurate, half the humor was thanks to Bioh, though she wasn’t always the person writing it down. In re-setting the Bard’s farce in a West African community in Harlem, she provided a frame for the production’s designers to make their own wry commentary. Set and costume jokes were often the best ones in the show — laughter at Merry Wives came at odd moments, as people in one part of the audience noticed the pattern on Falstaff’s bedspread and another saw the light saber on his bedroom floor. Outfits got cheers and applause. And Bioh’s texts need this sort of richly realized world. Her work thrives in a hothouse: It does best in saturated air.

Bioh’s new comedy Nollywood Dreams is no exception. Set in the early ’90s in Lagos, the play is a fantasy about a woman — sweet, funny, ambitious — rising like a rocket into stardom. As in the Ghanaian and Nigerian films that inspired Bioh’s play (Beyoncé: The President’s Daughter is available on YouTube!), the plot leans soap-opera with a hidden side of social anguish. The ingenue Ayamma (Sandra Okuboyejo) auditions for the lead in the latest movie by Nigerian filmmaker Gbenga (Charlie Hudson III), but, as her sister Dede (Nana Mensah) acidly points out, she has no training. Ayamma also has no fear: “It’s like I always say, all you have to have is good looks. The director will do the rest!” Ayamma’s every possible wish is duly fulfilled — even heartthrob superstar Wale (a superb Ade Otukoya) falls for her at first sight — and reality appears only briefly, when her rival Fayola (Emana Rachelle) recalls the betrayals behind her desperation.

This is pretty light stuff. But are we at the theater for plot subtleties? We are not. We are at Nollywood Dreams to revel in detail, to marvel at costumier Dede Ayite’s Nigerian ’90s finery — the platform flip-flops and the jeans as whiskered and distressed as a flustered cat. It’s an immersion experience, a warm bath, a comfort meal. The audience chuckles fondly at jokes hidden in Arnulfo Maldonado’s set (particularly the posters of Gbenga’s earlier films) and the fabulous television host Adenikeh (Abena), whose talk-show couch literally bursts through the set between story beats. Abena played the meek Anne Page in Merry Wives, but here she grasps the play’s reins, flirting with the other actors when she is Oprah-izing them, running cheerfully away with their scenes. Even when she’s not onstage, you wonder how the grand and gossipy Adenikeh will react to each dramatic twist and turn. Ooh, Fayola is blackmailing Gbenga!? You kick off your flip-flops and reach for the remote.

Meanwhile, downtown, the Pool Plays are making do without any spectacle at all. Originally the Pool was a 2017 collective of three playwrights (Susan Bernfield, Lynn Rosen, and Peter Gil-Sheridan), collaboratively mounting their work. They were walking in the footsteps of 13P, another self-producing gaggle, which empowered writers to get their shows up without wading through the long process of institutional “development.” The Pool is smaller — three rather than thirteen — but theoretically longer-lived. After the first group produced their pieces, they passed the Pool’s administrative armature to a new trio. And once these new playwrights finish the microseason now at the New Ohio Theater, they’ll pass the Pool structure on, too.

The current repertory is The Ding Dongs by Brenda Withers, Is Edward Snowden Single? by Kate Cortesi, and Superstitions by Emily Zemba. I admit to having been a little nervous about signing up for the full run. (Isn’t it asking a lot for all three plays in such a project to be good?) But every pitch connects; every at-bat yields a run. All three are a return to what Off-Off was originally for: clever writing, produced on a shoestring, full of the sheer delight of doing things with words. Though let me say that the shoestring is very thin. Designer Masha Tsimring’s flexible repertory set mostly consists of wheeled wire racks that waltz around the low-ceilinged Ohio to create various spaces. Things seem a bit dark — and there’s a furtive vibe, as if the Poolers have guerrilla-seized a corner of an Ikea. But the performances are all beautifully polished, so who needs a pricey set?

The Ding Dongs (subtitled a meditation on homeland security) is an absurdist one-act that could have appeared in the ’60s scene, recalling a Pinterish, Albee-esque atmosphere of smiley menace. A man named Redelmo (Robert Kropf) finds a couple, Joe and Natalie (Jonathan Fielding and Withers herself), on his doorstep. Baffled by their blithe, pushy conversation, Redelmo takes too long to realize that displacement has come for him at last … as, the play suggests, it will come for us all. Director Daisy Walker keeps the pace breakneck, which leaves the way open for Withers’s wonderfully destabilizing banter. Language grows slipperier and slipperier, until, at last, Redelmo trips on it and falls right out of his life.

The playfulness in the exquisitely performed Is Edward Snowden Single? is less linguistic and more metatheatrical: Kate Cortesi has her two best-best-best friend characters Mimi (Elise Kibler) and April (Rebecca S’Manga Frank) address the audience directly, sometimes serving shots, sometimes demanding tips. (Kate Bergstrom directs.) The friends want to tell us a tale about how Mimi “found out integrity exists,” so they play all the parts in a complicated and hilarious story, which eventually includes a teddy bear that speaks with the voice of the whistleblower Edward Snowden. Cortesi is very good at mayhem, less strong with morality, so the play shrinks a little when it nears its end. But the lion’s share of her comedy is a gorgeously tart meditation on questions such as Should you let a cute boy demagnetize your ethical compass? The answer makes your needle spin.

One shouldn’t choose favorites in such an evenly matched and collaborative effort, so I will simply say that Emily Zemba’s Superstitions is the one I’d go back to see a second time. Elegant and weird, it starts with a peculiar conversation between two strangers: the English-hesitant Grieg (David Greenspan) and real-estate agent Nereida (Latoya Edwards). The two chat about American superstitions, and soon wrong-way-up pennies and streams of salt and eerie long-fingered devils begin to emerge. Director Jenna Worsham’s production excels at making the edges of the world seem fuzz into nightmare, as husbands and partners and real-estate clients behave in increasingly odd ways. I have my own little superstitions about going to the theater, actually. If I see one production as crisp and wonderful as Superstitions, my whole week will be good. It’s something I wish for you as well, so cross your fingers, put a nickel in your left shoe — and go.

Nollywood Dreams is at MCC Theater until November 28.
“The Pool Plays” are at the New Ohio Theater until November 20.

Theater Reviews: Nollywood Dreams and “The Pool Plays”