The New York Fringe Festival: Reviews of "The Secret: The Spanish Inquisition in Old St. Augustine" and "The Bloodline of Shadrick Grace" and "Whiskey Jack"

Culture Watch
tags: theater reviews, Jews, New York Fringe Festival 2014, Inquistion

Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at bchadwick@njcu.edu.

New York Fringe Festival:  Reviews of Plays

The Awful Oppression of the Jews in America in the Early 1600s

Thousands of Jews fled Spain during the horrific Spanish Inquisition in the 1500s. The first to settle in the United States, historians generally believe, arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654. Many Floridians contend, though, that thousands may have arrived there, in St. Augustine prior to the arrival of the Jews up north. The Secret: The Spanish Inquisition in Old St. Augustine, written by and starring Lee Weaver, at the Clemente Arts Center tells a vivid maybe story of the Jews of St. Augustine, who hid their identity to leave Spain and hid it for generations in Florida, fearful of being hanged there or deported back to Spain for torture and execution.

In Weaver’s superb one man play, the Jews are depicted as a minority of Floridians, but one large enough to establish the religion in the New World. Jose, a wealthy intellectual who traveled to Florida from Spain for a new Life, is shocked to discover, when he is 73, that his friend of 48 years, Santiago, is a Jew. He shuns him, even after all those years of close friendship, including the times Santiago saved his life, and then learns that other friends are Jews, too. Slowly, ever so slowly, he learns that members of his family have known Santiago’s true identity for decades.

Jose has two choices, he says. He has to report his friends to the authorities, and watch them hang, or welcome them with friendly, if not entirely open, arms. He chooses the latter.

Weaver, a tall, hulking man, does a fine job of setting up the story of the Jews and what they had to do to survive in America, which is exactly what they had to do in Europe for a hundred years, too., It is at once a sad tale of oppression but at the same time a triumphal story of perseverance. Weaver shouts and thumps his chest at some points and cries and wrings his hands at others. He is a superior actor and his skills carry the story, that reminds you, yet again, of how difficult the lives of Jews have always been.

The play, like the others in this review, opened last week. It is a fine work but has some problems. It runs two hours and is a bit long. The actual story is not revealed until the last twenty minutes of the first act. Weaver should just cut the first half hour of the play to make it sharper and give it more of a punch. As is, though, the play is a good one, especially for the history of early Florida that is wonderful.

PRODUCTION: The show is produced and directed by Lee Weaver.

There’s Diamonds in Those Thar Hills

Nobody wanted Shadrick Grace. His father abandoned him as an infant in the 1890s and his two aunts cringed at the thought of raising him. He was shuffled off to an orphanage, where he grew up. As an adult, the smooth talking Shadrick became one of Arkansas’ finest moonshiners in Prohibition during the early 1930s. He was a good producer of liquor but pretty bad at marketing – he was arrested 32 times.

His rather salty wife, tired of his antics and dreadful occupation (where’s the future?) leaves him and settles in to a life of comfort in a convent two towns away The lonely nuns there brag about the fact that convents can get red wine during Prohibition because it is used for mass. They are g lad to have her; she fits right in.

Meanwhile, Shadrick builds his business and visits the worthless land his father willed him thirty years earlier. He meets a beautiful Caddo Indian girl there who explains to him that there is a diamond mine on the property (today Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro), the only one in the United States. Shadrick becomes very rich and suddenly has a silo full of friends.

There is a lot of solid history about Arkansas and the U.S. in the 1930s in this play that opened last weekend at the Clemente Arts Center. The playwright gives a good description of those in the illegal moonshine business, right down to how the liquor was made. The cast has the Arkansas accent down right and the costumes are perfect for the era. There are numerous references to President Roosevelt (who makes a brief appearance).

`The play, smooth in some sections and bumpy in others, rolls along nicely. The story has an absolutely shocking ending, something you never expect and an ending that makes your jaw drop.

Maya Contreras’ drama is a good one. It moves along at a nice pace under the direction of Kristin Skye Hoffman and she gets fine performances from Rory Adair as Shadrick, Hannah Margaret Allen as his wife Maria, Conteras as the Indian girl and others.

The one problem with the story, a big one, is that the end, that is such a surprise, is downplayed by everybody. It should have been a jolt and wound up as pretty lifeless. They need to build it up and put a little zing into it.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Vic & Oliver and the Fringe Festival. Lighting: Catherine DiGirolamo, Stage Manager: Sarah Chichester.

Whiskey Jack, about a 1929 Logging Company, is an Empty Bottle

It is 1929 and a lovable southern logging executive has rounded up a large crew of men to travel with him to a Canadian forest to cut trees and make money. As soon as they arrive in the wilderness, men start to get sick. They come down with fevers, their bodies shake and they are incapable of getting out of bed. What is it? Is it an epidemic? Is someone poisoning them? Are they victims of an ecological warp? Heavy doses of mercury in the fish they eat? A man in the group has the answer. He says it is “whiskey jack,’ a mysterious malady that strikes loggers. It is a sickness with no definition and no cure.

That start to Daniel Carroll’s Whiskey Jack at the Clemente Arts Center takes up an hour and sets up a great storyline. Then, all of a sudden, the doctor at the camp decides that he knows what the problem is, and how to cure it. What follows is the most inane, bizarre, ridiculous finale in theater history. I won’t tell you what happens, but let’s just say that those in the audience were counting down the minutes until the show ended.

The tragedy of Whiskey Jack is that playwright Carroll had a good idea and director Conrad Kluck did fine work in creating a logging camp on a small stage with few props. Tee is some good music and a camp ambience. Everything about the play seemed right, and then the second act just ruined it. Whiskey Jack turned out to be an empty bottle of story.

PRODUCTION: The play is produced by Saint Fortune and the Fringe Festival. Sets: Cecilia Durbin, Lighting: Jake Fine, Costumes: Sam Seerman, Sound: Gavin Price. The show is directed by Conrad Kluck.

The Fringe Festival runs through August 23.

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