Nunce more into this Breach at Seattle Rep

Fine performances are set adrift in three intertwining tales from Katrina.
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On the roof in <i>Breach</i>: William Hall Jr., Hubert Point-Du Jour, and Michelove René Bain. (Chris Bennion)

Fine performances are set adrift in three intertwining tales from Katrina.

You know that feeling you get when someone coughs in the first act of a film from the 1940s? Suddenly you know, in about an hour, that person will die of tuberculosis. Maybe at one time, that cough didn't detract from an audience's enjoyment. Now, it makes the whole film ridiculous. A modern equivalent of the act-one cough is a character who appears only as the other end of a phone call. Before you have a chance to know or care about her, and even though you hear only the expository dialog of her lover on the phone, you already know she's dead. Especially if a flood is coming. It is unfortunately thus that a cynical theatergoer registers early disappointment in The Breach, playing now at Seattle Repertory Theater. The three storylines that comprise the script are the result of a collaboration among Catherine Filloux, Tarell McCraney, and Joe Sutton. In a video on the Rep website, McCraney says such a collaboration is rare--and, he laughs, with good reason. A risk is that the whole is fractured and goes in different directions. But the writers were actually quite adept at weaving the three stories together, avoiding awkward transitions or unnecessary connections. A problem with Breach, though, is that it tries to do too much. Each storyline addresses a social problem other than the immediate one of people dying due to neglect and, some believe, sabotage by the federal government. A young man trapped on a rooftop tries to explain to his traditional Christian grandfather that he's in love with a man. A (white) cub reporter's skepticism insults (black) people who believe the government exploded the levees to protect valuable real estate. And despite the destruction and need in New Orleans, a survivor can't get his soldier son to help him rebuild--because the US government has decided Iraq is a higher priority. (The son is another character whose existence is introduced in a one-sided phone conversation. Sorry. If you're annoyed that I've just given something away, then you feel what I felt.) Ostracism of gay men in black families, cultural insensitivity in news reporting, and the loss of life in war are real problems -- problems that may well have complicated the lives of many people who endured Katrina. However, in a play that portrays death and survival in the hours and days that immediately followed the storm, these particular anguishes are distracting, and are impossible to resolve in any way that's satisfying for the theatergoer. Granted, any aspect of Katrina would be impossible to resolve onstage. Lack of resolution is part of any play that attacks contemporary social issues. But a play should explore those issues with enough depth that the audience cares more than before about their causes and effects. Judging by the audience's pause before Breach's curtain call, the absence of the traditional Seattle standing ovation, and the "oh well" comments overheard on the way out, the lack of satisfaction was not mine alone. Performers in the rooftop scenes will impress: Hubert Point-Du Jour as the young man, Michelove Rene Bain as his kid sister (even without lines of her own, she is a scared child whose instincts to survive weather and family have kicked in), and William Hall, Jr. as their grandfather. Nike Imoru is bewitchingly beautiful as the evil personification of Water, but her lines are over-the-top. (As one would expect of water in a flood.) Crystal Fox plays several roles, and is most dynamic as a reporter who fears a story on the explosion rumor would make black people look stupid. Many reporters and news organizations won awards for their work covering Katrina, and this snapshot of decisions that guided coverage grabbed my attention. I must credit Breach with something else, and it will sound like a backhanded compliment. I left the show with such a yearning to connect with the people of Katrina that I finally unsealed my dusty DVD boxed set of When The Levees Broke, the documentary by Spike Lee. I watched Act I the next day. I also cracked Voices from the Storm, a collection of oral histories of Katrina survivors published by McSweeney's. I have read only a few pages, but I suspect that a dramatized portrayal of those histories would accomplish what the Rep surely hoped Breach would do: prompt theatergoers to say "you have to see this." Those who see Breach at the Rep will go because they still care about what happened in New Orleans on August 29, 2005. They are haunted by the images they saw on the news, and have a nagging feeling that their understanding of what went wrong is shallow and incomplete. On its own, Breach does little to fulfill that need


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