Entertainment » Theatre

Lost Tempo

by Kilian Melloy
Wednesday Oct 11, 2017
Omar Robinson and Evelyn Howe in Cliff Odle's new play 'Lost Tempo,' through Oct. 22 at Boston Playwrights' Theare
Omar Robinson and Evelyn Howe in Cliff Odle's new play 'Lost Tempo,' through Oct. 22 at Boston Playwrights' Theare  (Source:Kalman Zabarsky)

Cliff Odle's new play "Lost Tempo," currently being given a world premiere production at Boston Playwright's Theater, takes advantage of BTP's space having been renovated by creating an immersive jazz club experience in which the audience members sit at small tables and watch the action take place before and around them. This includes the presence of three jazz musicians playing the show's music live.

Most any theater experience is enhanced by this sort of immersive set-up, but the jazz club motif is especially pertinent given that the play takes place within the confines of just such a club. The band that plays there on a weekly basis is fronted by Willie "Cool" Jones (Omar Robinson), an artist trying with mighty effort and crushing frustration to transcend the limits of the genre as it has been played thus far; what Willie is trying to do is define, and explore, free jazz. his bandmates don't get it, but some -- like the always cheerful Sporty (Arthur Gomez) and the world-weary Mack (Mishell Lilly) -- at least make a show of being supportive, or at least go along to get along and see what happens. Overtly skeptical is impatient young blood Lane (Kinson Theodoris), who is just itching to put his stamp on the band's -- and the musical form's -- sound.

Omar Robinson and Kinson Theodoris in 'Lost Tempo'  (Source:Kalman Zabarsky)

Lane is Willie's best friend, and has been for years. Even Lane's failed relationship with Willie's sister Sheila (Miranda Adekoje), while tough on everyone, has not shattered their bond; only their disagreements about music -- the one thing they are both more passionate about than anything else -- can do that, and throughout the play their friendship hangs in the balance. Making the situation even less tenable is the sad fact that Willie -- long a user of heroin -- is "riding the horse" once again, believing that his creativity is linked to his drug habit.

Standing firmly by Willie and Sheila is Barbara (Evelyn Howe), the granddaughter of the establishment's owner and -- or so it's implied -- Willie's sometime lover. Barbara -- "Babs," as she's called -- is smart and tough, ready and able to face down even the volatile Lane in his most enraged moments. If she has a weakness, it's Willie -- and the thought of him going back to drugs is even worse for her than the sight of him bent over and gasping in agony with frequent ulcer attacks.

But ulcers are what money woes, hard drinking, and creative angst will bring a man, especially when those around him look to him for their living (and ensnare him their most intimate and difficult personal crises). What we're seeing is the cost of creative originality -- the hard and grinding flipside of innovative expression.

Omar Robinson in 'Lost Tempo'  (Source:Kalman Zabarsky)

"Lost Tempo" is a memory play, and unfolds in a series of flashbacks while Willie is putting his hard-earned musical insights down on wax. He's not recording from a place of vindication -- that will come later, if at all. His stressed-out producer Mort (Charles Linshaw) screams at him to keep going, dig deeper, and try harder, because he fears once Willie wanders out of the studio he might not find his way back -- and Mort is the only one who believes enough in his musical vision to front the cash to pay for studio costs.

This being a memory play, the question of how reliable a narrator Willie might be is up for debate. Is he really the most reasonable, the most committed, and often the most eloquent of the group? Perhaps; it's just as likely that his recollections slant that way because everyone sees himself as the hero of his own story. From time to time the narrative's flow skips, or stutters, or switches abruptly, and when this happens the inventive (though occasionally overdone) lighting design by Evey Connery-Martin helps us keep our bearings.

Jeffrey Peterson's scenic design evokes a club feel, right down to the tiny lamps on the small round tables and the floor's durable linoleum look. A stocked bar crouches in one corner; the musicians play behind a plexiglass shield nearby. It's a neatly laid-put space, its utilitarian aspects artfully folded into its visual aesthetic. J Jumbelic oversees the sound design, which includes not just the live music but different passages from preexisting jazz recordings; Odle demonstrates a literacy in the genre, but more importantly a feel for it, and the sound design helps the playwright realize that sonic ideal.

Rachel Padula-Shufelt's costumes are dead on, and the actors seem at home not just in their wardrobe but in the place and time -- late '50s Harlem -- embodying and bringing nuanced inflection to their lines, which Odle has composed in a genuine-sounding vernacular. You don't always catch each and every word or phrase, but you never miss the poetry of the writing, or the emotional place of residence from which each character speaks. The script isn't perfect -- there are some dead spots and a few clanging moments in the dialogue ("Listen for once in your life!") -- but overall, this is a graceful, powerful work of theater, and director Diego Arciniegas has brought it all together with consummate skill. This is one of those times that BPT, which specializes in new work, hits it out of the park with the first swing.

"Lost Tempo" continues at Boston Playwrights' Theater through Oct. 22. For tickets and more information please go to http://www.bu.edu/bpt/our-season

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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