There are times when a musical theatre presentation comes up and just grabs you, slithers under your skin, and will not let you go. Shows like Sweeney Todd come to mind, where the fate of the main character(s) is horribly dark and tragic yet you somehow can feel sorry for them at the same time, broken beings that they are or have become. In Boho Theatre’s Marie Christine, an operatic musical take on the Medea myth now playing at Theatre Wit, you’ll be introduced to another such character. Like Sweeney, she is capable of dreadful deeds; like him also, she is drawn to do them by the deepest love imaginable.
Marie Christine is set in the dying years of the 1800s in New Orleans and Chicago. We first meet the title character (played by Kyrie Courter) in a Chicago prison, where she has been sentenced to die without a trial and where, with the coaxing of fellow inmates, she tells her story. We discover that she was a well-to-do young woman, born of a black mother and white father in the Big Easy, and that she has two older brothers who, though basically treated like servants on their father’s estate, have inherited it after his death. Their mother (Nicole Michelle Haskins) was a locally famous practitioner of voodoo arts, and before her death she taught all of her spells to her namesake daughter, who uses the knowledge to work some magic for people she knows: helping them to have babies, keep (or get rid of) lovers, etc. She explains that a lot of it is the power of suggestion, but we can see there is much more to it than just that.
Enter a smooth talking but broke white sea captain named Dante Keys (Ken Singleton), so slick I wasn’t convinced for a long time that he even truly was a sea captain (especially after he mixes up starboard and port demonstrating a storm). But he is, and they fall in love despite his lack of money and the racial issue. Her brothers won’t have it, and soon the two flee to the north, but not before leaving two bodies in their wake, one that of her brother; as she explains, she “sacrificed” him for her man. It will not be the only time she causes death in his name, the ultimate ones being their innocent children—this is the Medea story after all—in order to keep him from taking them after he breaks it off with her.
The play doesn’t seek to enter the heart of a child-killer to see her soul, but we do share a great deal of her pain. As she tells Dante that she will feel what he feels, so do we feel what she feels through the power of Courter’s performance. Her vivid facial expressions, her powerful singing voice, and her strong acting all help create a memorable character, but what sets Marie Christine apart from average fare are the extreme physical movements that choreographer Breon Arzell has Courter go through. As she relives the story of her past, her body goes through twists and contortions and shivers and jerks and all sorts of athletic dance moves that reveal the depths of her agony or the depths of her love, which we come to understand are two sides of the same emotion in this woman. A chorus of women often emulates some of her movements, but it is Courter herself who has the wildest, most outrageously powerful ones, and through them, while we may not exactly understand Marie Christine’s actions, we can at least know why she did them. Still, it’s a much calmer moment that stands out for me: as the ghosts of those she has known or killed haunt her, Marie quakes in a corner. Courter is brilliant in this scene without any histrionic dance moves and without her voice, which elsewhere are her two greatest strengths. Watching her as the ghosts sing “Silver Mimosa/Before the Morning,” can bring tears to your eyes.
Singleton’s’ Dante is a politician (quite literally) and comes across just as smarmy as one expects a politician to. (There is a reason I wondered about him at the start.) At one point, he tries the same come-on song he won Marie Christine with on her servant Lisette…in their shared bedroom. That he drops Marie like a hot potato when her presence becomes politically inexpedient comes as so little surprise that author Michael John Lachiusa doesn’t even bother to build up to it; he just presents it as a fait accompli in a completely matter-of-fact manner as if to say, Of course, you idiots; of course he was going to leave her. Singleton has just the right personal blend of good looks and charm to play the role brilliantly, especially in the song “You’re Looking at the Man,” the kick-off to his political career.
The rest of the ensemble is solid in support of these main characters. Among the standouts: as Mama Marie, Haskins has several powerful vocal moments, though my favorite is a gentler one, “Ton Grandpere est la Soleil (Your Grandfather Is the Sun).” Averis Anderson and Curtis Bannister are very strong as brothers Paris and Jean, respectively (and it’s Anderson’s sweet voice that leads the ghosts in the scene I mentioned above). Neala Barron gets a scene-stealing role as Magdalena and Pavi Prosczko is terrifying as the mob boss Charles Gates.
Director Lili-Anne Brown has balanced a lot of parts here to create this complex and dynamic play. Among them is a wonderful lighting design by Heather Gilbert and Sound Design by Karli Blalock. The costumes by Izumi Inaba are exquisite, whether they are the dirt-stained dresses the prisoners wear, the disheveled suit in which Dante meets Marie, the servants’ outfits, or the white and black lace dress adorning Marie herself. And the actors, working with Arzell’s inventive choreography, are always directly engaged in furthering the story: I saw no dance moves without narrative purpose, which is not always the case and which probably means that Arzell and Brown worked well together. Finally, there is the music: Aaron Benham’s six-piece orchestra provided a rich sound all night long.
Marie Christine is nothing like any other musical I’ve run into, and I feel I have been able to say that a lot lately. It’s a sign that writers and composers are thinking outside of the box, outside of the old formulas, when creating new projects. I think it is a marvelous sign and bodes well for the future of musicals, but for right now this play is part of a glorious present.
Marie Christine is now playing at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, by Boho Theatre until December 10. Performances are Thu, Fri, Sat, 8:00 pm; Sun, 2 pm. There will also be a performance on Monday, Nov. 27 at 8:00. Tickets are $33-35 and are available from Theatre Wit. Find more information about current plays on our Current Shows page and at theatreinchicago.com.