THEATER REVIEW: “Insidious” at Road Less Traveled Productions, Buffalo, New York

Xavier Harris as the titular Insidious

Sex can be deadly. Anyone who came of age during or after the AIDs crisis knows the line, “Every time you sleep with someone, you’re sleeping with every person they ever slept with.” And yet, people persist in making unwise and unsafe decisions when it comes to having sex – and, as shown in Insidious, currently being reprised at Road Less Traveled Productions in Buffalo, New York, unwise decisions can result in unintended, undesirable consequences.

WNY Playwright Ibn Shabazz has constructed a claustrophobic, communal world where NA meetings and HIV tests form the backdrop for betrayal, deception and intimidation. Protagonist Dawud (Greg Howze) and his girlfriend Kara (Adrienne Lewis) plan their wedding; when she leaves for work he goes cruising and picks up Insidious (Xavier Harris) – a tough-talking, tripping psycho. They have (unprotected) sex within minutes – it takes place off-stage – and Dawud quickly learns that self-destructive behavior can have long-lasting and unwelcome consequences.

Originally produced by RLTP in summer 2010, the re-mounting of this production with its original cast and director intact offers some interesting food for thought. For those, like myself, who engage primarily with language, the quick rhythms, slang and vernacular Shabazz uses lend their support to the creation of a vivid world-within-a-world. The claustrophobic nature of David Butler’s set – the entire play takes place in Kara and Dawud’s living room – heightens the sense of being trapped. As the rentboy-turned-menace, Harris has a fine line to walk: his character flips from poetic, heightened language reminiscent of slam poetry to straight-up physical intimidation.

While the play is certainly groundbreaking in its treatment of taboo subject matter (“down-low terrorism in the AIDs era”), there are aspects that may benefit from its next production, coming in 2012. America’s largest professional African-American theater, The Black Rep in St. Louis, MO, has programmed the piece for early 2012  There, it will be directed by theater founder Ron Himes. Given that some of the weakest moments in Insidious seemed to stem from elements of Doug Zschiegner’s direction, giving the play life under a new director may help address some of the less satisfying aspects of the production:

The lyricism of Shabazz’ language is one element which this reviewer felt could have been expanded upon, particularly as there are multiple times in the play when the character Insidious breaks into highly illustrative, metaphorical language. As delivered, these sections of speech ramble and sprawl, without venom or direction, and Harris’ physicality is used as a blunt object to spread his message of menace.

Why did Zschiegner not push his actor toward a delivery more explicitly punctuated, more passionate, more…slam-like? These passages are, potentially, some of the most effective in the play – and yet Harris rushes through them and words are jumbled together, and one never has the opportunity to fully appreciate the imagery and emotion that Shabazz’s inspired word choices could have inspired. Will its next production see this aspect of Insidious drawn further out into the light?

Additionally, while Shabazz’s play is remarkable in its frank treatment of the down-low lifestyle – and perhaps that’s enough controversy for one production – there is something almost too pat about the NA-AIDs-clinic-cruising-scene ways in which the characters interact with one another. They are from the same worlds, they have similar backgrounds.

Although the characters are trying to assert power over their addictive behaviors, there is no powerful center in the play, and there are times when the stakes feel artificial. There is little tenderness between Dawud and Kara, even at the play’s beginning, and aside from the taboos and rejections supposedly faced by black men of non-traditional sexuality, Dawud’s struggle to make his own sexual preferences known comes across as out-of-proportion to the reactions his friends have – basically, jaws drop, are picked up, and folks move on (or don’t, as the case may be).

The exception to this rule is Kara, but even she is more focused (and rightly so) on the potential that she has been exposed to HIV rather than the fact that the virus may have been transmitted to her fiancé through a male rather than female partner.

Recognizing this, as well as the possibility that what I’m about to ask may be extremely controversial, I started to wonder: what added dimensions would the play take on if Insidious was a true outsider among the play’s central foursome? Would the color-blind casting of that specific role have added an extra dimension to the piece as a whole? In other words, what kind of play would we have been watching if Insidious had been cast white? Would the play have gained new dimensions? What might it have lost?

Solidly produced with some pacing issues (primarily in the second act), Insidious runs until July 10th at RLTP in the Market Arcade Cinema in downtown Buffalo, NY. If you miss it there, book your tickets for 2012 in St. Louis.

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