Choir Boy at the Guthrie Theater

John-Michael Lyles and Ryan Colbert in Choir Boy. Photo by Heidi Bohnencamp.

John-Michael Lyles and Ryan Colbert in Choir Boy. Photo by Heidi Bohnencamp.

Easily the best aspect of the Guthrie‘s incisive production of Tarell Alvin McCraney‘s Choir Boy (in the Dowling Studio, through July 5) is John-Michael Lyles‘ performance as the lead, Pharus. Lyles is overtly fey, gesticulating wildly, with a rich tenor voice. He compels. Lyles has that natural performer quality, that mysterious thing makes you want to watch him. In spite of his energy Lyles exudes poise, authoritative control—

—and power, and herein lies the essence of this provocative play. Despite (or, indeed, because of) his obvious homosexuality, Pharus is a natural leader. He controls the choir. His class. Indeed, more than anyone, even the Headmaster (played beautifully by James Craven – more about this in a moment), Pharus controls the Charles Drew Preparatory School For Boys.

And yet…

When Pharus acts on his attraction, when he comes on to David (a measured, slow-burn performance by the gifted Nathan Barlow), when he allows flowery language to segue into sexual action, violence occurs. The ramifications of this brief but ugly episode provide the ending thrust of the play, and I won’t describe it. See Choir Boy.

This tension between static and definable identity and murky and confusing action is the main Choir Boy vibe, and director Peter Rothstein captures it faultlessly. The choir boys all wear the same shirts. The same ties. They sing (wonderful old-style spirituals, arranged gorgeously by Sanford Moore) in perfect harmony. They sit in precisely arranged chairs. They argue about the spirituals: were these simply a source of solace and hope for oppressed slaves? Or did they provide needed instruction on how escapees could evade the slave catchers (e.g., “Wade In The Water”)? The passion behind this argument goes to the keen tension between identity and action, and gives the play great energy. Lyles, Ryan Colbert, Darrick Mosley, Kory LaQuess Pullam, Barlow. All excellent.

Kudos, btw, to Rothstein, Moore and McCraney for using the spirituals to anchor scene transitions, giving what might have been a sprawling and diffuse play focus and power.

James Craven plays the Headmaster with quirky aphasia: he stops in midsentence, in the middle of an angry gesture. He lets fly wordless exclamations. He preens and he puffs. He’s scary and simultaneously ridiculous. Call it stern comedy. Whatever it is, it’s very effective. Robert Dorfman, rumpled, offensively silly, dedicated and wise, all at the same time, is also excellent.

The Choir Boy set soars. Under Rothstein’s guiding hand, designers Michael Hoover (sets), Trevor Bowen (clothes), Ryan Connelly (lights) and Sean Healey (sound) have created a severe but effective set of interlocking platforms. It raises the actors up, something I’ve never before seen in this space, and gives them presence.

Lovely.

John Olive is a writer living in Minneapolis. His book Tell Me A Story In The Dark was recently published by Familius, Inc. For more information about John and his work, please visit www.johnolive.net.

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