At the intermission of a play, it's not a good sign when members of the audience are poring over their playbills, trying to figure out which character is which. Alas, that was the case last Sunday when I saw Aleshea Harris' Rip.Tied, which is being given its world premiere by freeFall Theatre in St. Petersburg.
Not only are the identities of the seven characters in the play unclear, but at least three of them are not even alive. Instead, they are the Ancestors, who occupy a different time and place than Viola (Shereen Macklin) and Donis (Jose Rufino), a brother and sister trapped in a house overflowing with the floodwaters of a Category 4 Hurricane.
There's another character, the elderly Papa Keith (Lawrence Evans), who appears to be an Ancestor — ritualistic white paint is applied to his face at one point — but apparently he is not. And did I mention a guy in waders named James (James Martin Roberts)? He's definitely alive, judging by the drunken passes he makes at Viola.
None of the Ancestors are identified as such in the playbill, which might have helped a little with audience comprehension, but the real problem is the language of Harris' play, a hapless, often densely poetic stew that is almost completely absent of drama or narrative drive. Whenever the Ancestors — played by C Niambi Steele, Ayana Major Bey and Timothy O'neal Springs — appear, whatever story might be struggling to emerge from the crisis of the hurricane and its aftermath is obliterated by an impenetrable mix of African-American historical references, myth and folk tales.
There's an essay on the "Myth of the Flying Africans" in the playbill that may be meant to provide a clue. As an escape from the pain and hardship of slavery, it's a beguiling concept, which Toni Morrison evoked in her novel Song of Solomon, and several of the characters in the play do seek to fly away to a better existence. One of the Ancestors even has a Jetsons-style power pack strapped on his back, which is a clever touch but doesn't make much sense.
One thing you can credit Rip.Tied with is that it has inspired a beautiful production, highlighted by Greg Bierce's set, which is built around a large pool of water, with a wood walkway on the sides and front. Before the play is over all the actors are drenched. Upstage, flanked by abstract hangings, is a roof, where Viola and James perch and wave frantically for rescue by helicopters. With Lydia Fort directing, the company has some fine talent in the all-black cast, though it is hard to engage with them in such an opaque work. A pair of musicians play African percussion, winds and stringed instruments.
FreeFall isn't doing Harris any favors with such a lavish staging when what her play really needs is a strong dramaturge and a workshop. Rip.Tied runs through April 1 at freeFall. $37, $44. Students, teachers, seniors and military receive $3 discount on nonpremium seats.
More freeFall: Lark Eden, a play by Natalie Symons about the relationship of three women from childhood to old age, has two performances at freeFall at 7 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday. Roxanne Fay, Julie Rowe and Bonnie Agan tell their stories through letters. $15. (727) 498-5205; freefalltheatre.com.