Time to Burn

By Charles Mee
Directed by Leland Patton
Resonance Ensemble
Manhattan Ensemble Theatre
Equity showcase (closed)
Review by Jenny Sandman

All hail Chuck Mee. He is consistently one of America's drollest and freshest playwrights, using his former profession as a history professor to startling advantage. Works like The Trojan Women and Orestes and bobrauschenburgamerica highlight his weird style. He is simultaneously a revisionist and a deconstructionist, tearing the play apart and then rebuilding it carefully. Few other playwrights can claim such a cult following.

Inspired by Gorky's The Lower Depths, his 1902 play about a bunch of outcasts crammed into the basement of an illegal sublet, Charles Mee's Time to Burn is also about a bunch of outcasts crammed into the basement of an illegal sublet. Mee described Time to Burn as "a conversation" with Gorky, saying, "we're all the descendants of washerwomen. This should have nurtured in us some desire to bring light to the lives of our fellow beings who have known nothing but hardship or hard work all their lives. Some of us were sent on ahead, we were supposed to have the intelligence to find a road to a better life. And we've lost our way."

Presented in rep with The Lower Depths by Resonance Ensemble, Time to Burn is one of Mee's more ambitious plays. Both are about inhumanity and injustices, but also about human compassion in the face of suffering. In Mee's play, a down-on-their-luck group of miscreants and street scavengers are hiding out in the basement of what may be an abandoned warehouse. Not much actually happens, as one might expect from such an assemblage. But each character struggles with his or her own demons as they attempt to interact with each other in meaningful ways and to avoid confrontation with the landlord and his wife. The barefaced optimism of the resident flamboyant queen is contrasted with the deathly illness of one, the grinding poverty of all, and an unemployed actress shooting up between her toes. This in turn is contrasted with Mee's characteristic dark sense of humor, showcased here in a mid-play, full-cast, choreographed dance number to "Islands in the Stream."

Mee's writing works best when it isn't quite so sociological, but this was a fine play and a fine production, nonetheless. Resonance Ensemble assembled a crack cast; standouts included Gameela Wright as Jessie, Christopher Burris as Alejandro, the queen, and Patrick Melville as Tertius, the newcomer. They exhibited one of the finest examples of ensemble acting seen in quite some time. All energetic, their rage and sorrow were expertly channeled by director Leland Patton. He kept the spatial relationships clear and sharp and the pace swift.

Robert R. Sweetnam's set design suggested both a modern dump and Gorky's original play. Paired with Sidney Shannon's excellent costumes and Aaron J. Mason's evocative lighting, Resonance Ensemble scored a direct hit.

Also starring Sean Dill, Tran T. Thuc Hanh, Emily Laochua, Ian Pfister, Annette Previti, Lou Tally, Elisa Terrazas, Martha Tompoulidou, James T. Ware, Maxwell Zener, and Evan Zes.

Box Score:

Writing: 2
Directing: 2
Acting: 2
Set: 2
Costumes: 2
Lighting: 2/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2004 Jenny Sandman