Review: The Brothers Size Really Matters in Curious's Serial Storytelling

This is theater as community. It is holy theater not because it exalts something on high, but because for the hour or so onstage, the audience and actor are one, and all those people, though each seeing it slightly differently, are believing — following the same course or going on a journey together. — Tarell Alvin McCraney

Curious Theatre Company’s 2013 production of Tarell Alvin McCraney’s The Brothers Size was terrific. The remount that opened this past weekend goes beyond terrific: It’s electrifying, inspiring, transformative. The play tells the story of two brothers: Ogun, the steel-willed and hardworking owner of a car shop, who has spent his life watching over and protecting his younger brother from his own mercurial impulses, and Oshoosi, newly released from prison and less interested in work than in sleeping, finding a car and getting laid. The situation is complicated when Elegba, a former prison mate of Oshoosi’s, insinuates himself into the scene. He’s dangerous, ambiguously sexed, a trickster and shape-changer, and the play ultimately becomes a battle between him and Ogun for Oshoosi’s soul and the right to call him brother.

This is the first time that Curious artistic director Chip Walton has repeated a production, and he defines the project as Serial Storytelling — but it’s also simply a way of deepening the experience of theater-going and the audience’s understanding of some of our most important contemporary playwrights. This season and the next at Curious are grounded by two trilogies: McCraney’s The Brother/Sister Plays and Pulitzer winner Quiara Alegria Hudes’s The Elliot Plays. This past spring saw McCraney’s In the Red and Brown Water; written after The Brothers Size, it’s a prequel in terms of plot, so that we encountered Elegba as a goofy, candy-obsessed kid and Ogun as a young man just starting his business. Size repeats now for continuity; Marcus; or the Secret of Sweet, the third play in McCraney’s trilogy, opens in November.

Walton has never hesitated to challenge his audiences, and so far, they’ve risen to the challenge. “We’ve developed a reputation for doing work that pushes people, that’s provocative,” he says. “If you want a nice evening of escapist entertainment, I don’t think Curious comes to your mind. We’re blessed to have the opportunity t o program shows that stretch our expectations and our experiences.”

There are difficulties to ambitious projects like this. “It’s a blessing and a curse that we started with Size,” says Walton. “A blessing because it really inspired us to do the whole trilogy and [got] audiences interested in Tarell’s work. It’s really the perfect play — a three-hander, a linear story compared to other two, the humanity and heart so rich and moving. Obviously, Tarell grounds all of these plays in West African Yoruba myth, and he does so in Size seamlessly. You sense it, but it’s not an aggressive construct. Red and Brown Water is a little bit the opposite; audiences wanted to go deeper into that play but found it challenging.

“The big audacious idea that still is kind of in progress — we’ll see whether it comes to fruition — is that over five seasons, audiences will see three trilogies. As a subscriber, you’d have a five-play season; maybe two would be Serial Storytelling. You still would have a sustained experience of following longer story arcs over a five- or six-year period,” he explains. “Our commitment to Serial Storytelling stretches beyond The Brother/Sister Plays, and I believe it will take two to three years before we can really assess the outcomes. One aspect that we are definitely committed to improving on is increasing the auxiliary content that we are able to offer audiences: video, behind-the-scenes clips, live and interactive audience events, and community partnerships.

“Overall, we’re on a very high — and exciting — learning curve.”

The Brothers Size is directed, as before, by Dee Covington, and it stars — again, as before — Laurence Curry as Oshoosi, Cajardo Lindsey as Ogun and Damion Hoover as Elegba. This second production of the play validates Walton’s gamble: McCraney’s unique dialogue and way of telling a story feel simultaneously richer and more familiar and accessible. As before, Covington’s direction is skillful and assured, and the set and lighting are evocative, including a forest of poles that can either appear metallic or evoke trees in the thick air of the Louisiana bayou, where the play is set, and skies that darken, turn bronze or glow with color. Objects and set elements are transformed by the actors into musical instruments that ping, vibrate or thrum. Seeing The Brothers Size for a second time is like re-reading a wonderful book: You find yourself focusing less on plot and externalities and more on the mysteries at its heart.

“I have never had the opportunity to do a play, then turn around and do the prequel and then come back and do the original play again,” says Cajardo Lindsey of his return to the role of Ogun. “I am discovering that there are various dynamics — some understood and others totally perplexing to me — that inevitably come into play. As a character, I’m not the same guy I was when I was in my twenties. Life has happened. There’s a hardness that’s developed around Ogun that he didn’t have when everything was new and he was young and in love. Also, these characters are patterned after deities. The way I viewed it, he hadn’t gotten to the fullness of that deity. In Water, he speaks with a stutter, which indicates insecurity. But there are several occasions in Size where he is referred to as hard, which tells me there has to be change.

“When I juxtaposed Size against Water, I discovered that Elegba was more of a threat than I had played in the original production. I’m not sure if that will be observable to an audience member, but I feel the difference in my body and my responses,” Lindsey continues. “Also, there’s a slightly different climate now with regard to the media publicizing excessive police force and abuse of power, which makes certain aspects of this play a little more poignant than in 2013.

“One thing I’ve learned from working with my brothers Damion and Laurence is that the discovery process never truly ends. They are consummate professionals. We are always asking questions — not necessarily bent on getting an answer, but always asking questions. So, yes, there are definitely new discoveries. My goal for The Brothers Size is very similar to what it was in 2013 — to express something on stage you don’t often have an opportunity to see: heterosexual love between black men that is expressed. It may be dysfunctionally expressed; however, it is expressed. That’s the hope: for the audience to see men who love each other on stage.”

While the script is brilliant and the tech and direction supple, it’s the acting that makes this revival so exciting. All three actors perform with authority, commitment and an exhilarating freedom. They have made the required drumming, repetition, chanting, stylized movement and singing their own, reminding us that we’re watching a play even as they move us to the depths. Sliding in with the moon, Hoover’s Elegba feels part human and part almost supernatural. Lindsey’s watchful, hardened-in-flame Ogun holds up the entire structure — and then melts your heart in a rare moment of playfulness. In a stunning performance, Curry gives us a physically and emotionally expressive Oshoosi, a complex mix of power, sorrow and terrifying vulnerability.

The return of The Brothers Size creates one of those rare theater experiences that makes a significant mark on your psyche, coloring your subsequent days and nights and lingering in memory afterward. And it bodes well for the Serial Storytelling project that after a few moments of profound silence on opening night, the Curious audience — usually far too sophisticated for the ubiquitous Denver standing ovation — rose to its feet as one.

The Brothers Size, presented through August 1 by Curious Theatre Company, 1080 Acoma Street, 303-623-0524,