It was the best of times and it was the worst of times for Jacques Cornet (Jeffrey Wright) in 1801-1806 New Orleans, Louisiana. He is the hero of A Free Man of Color, a sprawling schizophrenic new play by John Guare that is bursting at the scenes with historical facts and trying desperately to channel the style and substance of Restoration playwright William Wycherley’s The Country Wife. Too many styles, too many ideas and too long.
One has to admire the daring of John Guare and director George C. Wolfe to imagine bringing to the stage such an important time in the history of America. But how can you take seriously the story of slavery, race relations and the Louisiana Territory that was being bandied about by Spain, France and Thomas Jefferson when the characters are mostly cartoon figures, buffoons or fops in Act I and then switch gears in the second act to fulfill the ideas and scope of Manifest Destiny? Perhaps there are two plays here. Fraternal twins that might develop to their full individual potential if separated.
The production is magnificent. Eye popping sets (David Rockwell) ornate costumes (Ann Hould-Ward) atmospheric lighting (Jules Fisher & Peggy Eisenhauer) original music (Jeanine Tesori) all help prop up the tale of this one city where anyone could be whatever they wanted to be. A city of mixed races, wealth and promise.
A city where Dr. Toubib (Joseph Marcell) narrates the play within the play introducing us to what seems to be a cast of thousands including: Napoleon and Josephine, Tallyrand, King Carlos Cuarto, The one eyed Infanta, Thomas Jefferson, Meriwether Lewis, Robert Livingston, Toussaint Louverture, citizens of Sante Domingue, slaves of New Orleans ad infinitum.
The main story deals with the fictional Cornet – well played as a man of many colors and dimensions by Jeffrey Wright. He is wealthy. Infamous. And well endowed. There are many references to “the sea monster” and “the arm of a five year old” that all the prostitutes and refined ladies of the area find irresistible to the extent that secrets are let loose between the sheets which enable Cornet to life in the lavish style to which he has become accustomed. He then faces a reversal of fortunes, feigning impotence in the process.
Mos, Cornet’s slave Murmur who doubles as the Haitian revolutionary Louverture gives the most honest and compelling performance in this circus of cartoon like characters and becomes the one person who you can connect to and feel compassionate about.
The all star cast does all that it can to entertain and inform. Notables are: Reg Rogers as Cornet’s half brother, an outstanding Nicole Beharie as his wife who is seduced by Cornet and impregnated, John McMartin as the hypocritical and free spending Jefferson, and the incredible Veanne Cox as Mme. Mandragola a brothel owner, Dona Polissena an uptight scientist looking to discover a cure for Yellow Fever and the stooped Robert Livingston, Minister to France that has to seen to be believed.
www.lct.org Photo: T. Charles Erickson