HEAD OF PASSES
It was a totally full audience at the Mark Taper Forum last week-end for the opening night of Head of Passes. I haven’t seen such a packed house at this theater in a long time. People in this town are really excited that this well-thought-of play is finally here. (It’s already played in Chicago and New York.)
I really identified with several situations in this family dramedy. First of all, Mr. X and I had begged my widowed mother to move in with us, but she insisted on staying in her own house. And last year, our own roof leaked into our living room during those torrential rains, so other audience members may deem that part of the script too unbelievable, but trust me—it happens! (I’ll share the biggest similarity at the end of this review.)
Even though the playwright, Tarell Alvin McCraney, and I grew-up so differently from each other, and he’s a young, gay, black man from Florida while I’m an older (ugh,) straight, white female from Brooklyn, so much of what he wrote in this play mirrors my own experiences. That’s sort-of odd and sad yet wonderful at the same time. (By the way, I predicted his Oscar win(s) the second I saw Moonlight. But I have a feeling that I’m not alone in that prescience.)
(I’ve heard that this play has a biblical basis, but, since “The Bible” is one of the few categories that I cannot run on Jeopardy, I’ll leave that discussion to others.)
Head of Passes is a play of two very different halves. The first has tons of humor, while the second is essentially a monologue (which I have to admit lost me on occasion, but is still wonderful.) It almost felt like I was seeing an evening of two one-acts, with some shared characters. But they’re both excellent, so I just went with it, especially because of Phylicia Rashad’s tour de force solo performance that is the highlight of Act II.
During that portion of the show, you could literally hear a pin drop! And for the first time ever in a theater, I don’t think anyone even coughed! Or breathed! That performance was something to witness. Phylicia has sure come a long way since her days as Claire Huxtable!
I’m a big fan of excellent stage acting, and Head of Passes is full of that, and not just on the part of Ms. Rashad. All the actors are excellent, especially Jacqueline Williams, whose comic delivery is spot-on. Also of note is Alana Arenas, as the daughter, Cookie, whom I could see being a series regular on television in the near future, just as Francois Battiste, (playing son Avery here,) will be in the upcoming TV show, Ten Days In The Valley.
But the biggest star, (after Phylicia, of course,) is the incredible set! At the beginning of the show, I made a note that it was outstanding, especially the rain coming down outside the rear window. But I didn’t know at the time that it was just going to get better and better and better as the play went along. It was truly a sight to behold. So, major props to the designer, G. W. Mercier. (What I mean by “major props” is “big kudos,” but the set also has some actual big props!) I could not take my eyes off it during Act II. For perhaps the first time ever, I wish I had stayed put in my seat at intermission to see how they manipulated the set. So you may want to do that when you see it.
Okay, all that goodness being said, there are a lot of holes in the story, and I don’t mean just in the roof! But who am I to judge an Academy Award-winning writer, and recipient of the MacArthur “Genius” Award, (when he was just thirty-three, no less!)?! So, this is less an actual review and more a case of “here are the thoughts that ran through my head while watching the play.” These issues definitely don’t take away from the experience, but you know that I always have to be honest and tell it like it is. So, here are a few of the things that bothered me about the script:
— I felt a bit like the whole thing ended abruptly, like the writer forgot to finish it, or just got tired of writing and added “The End” in the middle of the monologue. But this is one case where “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish” does not apply. This show is all about the journey.
— I still don’t know who three of the characters are to the family matriarch! I think the female is just a friend, and the young guy is the male’s son (maybe,) but I have no idea who the grown man is supposed to be. My friend thought maybe he works in the house, but I’m not so sure.
— You already know how impressed with the monologue I am, but for the life of me, I cannot figure-out why the character had to take off her dress to talk to God. I do that activity all the time, but I’m always clothed for those occasions.
— Most egregiously, the story in the second half got a little over-dramatic, bordering on becoming an SNL skit. (Not the monologue itself, but the events that preceded it.) But those events are the impetus for what follows, so I had to overlook them in the whole scheme of the narrative.
But that’s it for my few problems with the script. I really enjoyed Head of Passes as an entire entity.
Now here’s that final similarity my life had with the story, without giving-away too much: In a weird parallel, Mr. X had pointed-out something I said when my mother died…on Christmas…while I was making dinner. (Thank goodness it wasn’t after! Who would have wanted to live with that guilt forever?! And yes, I myself cannot believe that I can joke for even one second about that worst day of my life, but humor helps–as long as it’s five years later!) It’s a long story, but the short version is that my mother wound-up in the hospital that day because a medication the docs shoved down her throat made her throw-up, for I think the very first time in her life! My niece came there to relieve Mr. X and me for an hour or so, so that we could go back home to feed my nephew. Once there, the phone rang, and the awful news came. So we had to rush back to the hospital because my niece was alone with her just-deceased grandmother, and I couldn’t do that to her. Mr. X told me later what I shouted as I drove like a lunatic to the hospital. I loudly yelled, “Are you kidding me, God?!,” which amuses him now. So, the family matriarch’s soliloquy in the second half was basically that, but with more words. And about twenty minutes longer.
So I definitely sympathized with the character, while being in awe of Phylicia Rashad’s performance. I felt her searing pain, as I’m sure the entire assemblage did.
I have a feeling that everyone who sees Head of Passes will find some common ground with the story. Or a character. Or even recognize a set decoration or two. And if it’s true that misery does love company, I hope those feelings of simpatico and empathy will bring comfort to others in similar circumstances. And that’s a whole lot for two hours of theatre to accomplish!
Head of Passes running through October 22, 2017
Mark Taper Forum 135 N. Grand Ave. 213-972-4400 www.centertheatregroup.org