The powerful Rip.Tied. hits St. Petersburg

A family drama unfolds amidst a natural disaster in a thrilling new play at freeFall.

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If you walk into the dark intimacy of a small, black box theater and find that half the stage is a pool of water, you can be pretty sure that — whatever the next two hours may hold — it will not be boring.

Rip.Tied. is not boring. In fact, it is thrilling.

In its world premiere at the freeFall Theatre Company, the production, directed by Lydia Fort, washes over its startled audience with all the power and energy of a tsunami or, more specifically in this case, with the power and energy of a deadly flood pushed ashore by a massive hurricane. In its wake, the storm leaves shattered lives, death and destruction, as well as redemption, transformation and rebirth.

Billed as “a play with music,” the family drama explores the intergenerational relations among the living and the dead as they are revealed through the anguish of Viola, an enormously sympathetic, young black woman desperate to help her family escape the rising water, but burdened by their present and haunted by their past.

As Viola, Shereen Macklin gives a powerhouse performance and, truth to tell, she is matched in every scene by the rest of the cast, including James Martin Roberts as her lover; Jose Rufino as her brother; and Ayana Major Bey, Lawrence Evans, C Niambi Steele, and Timothy O’neal Springs as other family members. The cast often moves as one, and their dance, as well as accompanying live music, is an integral element in the production. By the time it is over, the actors have proven that indeed the whole is far greater than the sum of its individual parts and the power of the ensemble acting magnifies the dramatic and sometimes startling impact of the script.

Because music is so important in the production, however, it would have been nice if the program notes had revealed a bit more about the two musicians who are identified only by the names Ngaire and Rain. Their primal drumming at times set the theater to a deep, throbbing reverberation and carried the business on stage to another, higher level.

Written by St. Petersburg playwright Aleshea Harris, Rip.Tied. is presented in two acts somewhat dissimilar in style and content, even though they are chronological in their telling of the immediate and contemporary story of Viola. The play moves through history, flashing far back into the past — all the way back to the story of a slave revolt — and then returning to the very immediate problem of the storm and the waters rising around and even within the family homestead.

The second act bears the burden of resolving the family secrets and mysteries presented in the first act and it is, in that way, the more accessible and satisfying of the two. But those secrets and mysteries — horrific though some may be — are at the tender heart of Rip.Tied., although, at play’s end, some remain a bit unsettled (most particularly, for my taste, the death of Viola’s brother at her hands).

It may well be that a bit too much is going on at times in this play. Some of the scenes — most notably the opening of Act Two — are a bit too long and at times a bit overwrought and indulgent. The first act runs a full hour; the second some 55 minutes, and the play could benefit if were tightened and shortened. It could also benefit from a new name, as the current one seems somehow inadequate and even confusing.

Having said that, I hasten to add that this production and the theater company that has dared to produce it honor the first and most important rule of theater: Get the audience into the house and thrill them.

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