Illusion Theater’s Fresh Ink series of new plays is precisely what it says it is: an opportunity to see scripts in various stages of development, before the ink has had a chance to dry. Last night’s presentation of a new play by Marion McClinton, called Beauty Is a Rare Thing, was little more than a reading exercise, with nine actors arranged in a semicircle using scripts bound in black, three-ring binders. Stage directions were delivered by a narrator—“Shatterhand shoots Billy Shakes in the leg”—which, if the actor getting shot was sufficiently in character, might elicit a wince or a “Damn!” but not much more.
The “play” in such readings takes place almost entirely in the audience’s imagination, much the way it does when someone reads a book to you out loud. The difference is that the people doing the reading are professional actors who can infuse their characters with an astonishing amount of depth and nuance, even when they’re just sitting in a chair. Such performances are done primarily for the benefit of the playwright, who uses the experience to help him improve the script. From the audience’s point of view, the thrill is in getting to see a new play in the process of being born. The downside is that quite often freshly born plays aren’t any more aesthetically pleasing than newborn babies; they need to be cleaned up a bit before they’re any fun to watch.
Beauty Is a Rare Thing is about a man named Hercules, who was once the powerful and feared leader of a gang called the Maroons, an occupation that landed him in a hospital for the criminally insane for many years. At the beginning of the play, Hercules is released from the hospital, supposedly “cured,” and heads back to his old neighborhood to reconnect and make amends. Throughout the play it is revealed that Hercules has done a lot of reprehensible things in the past, including beat his mother with a whip, but now he is more interested in finding beauty and hope where he can. Unfortunately, the old neighborhood has slipped even farther into hell—so far that characters named Judas Caesar, Napolean, Medusa, the Queen of Sheba, and a shadowy figure called “the prophet,” are now running the show. The moral of the story, as Hercules discovers, is that beauty is particularly hard to find in places where people spend so much time shooting at one another.
What sort of play this will turn into is anyone’s guess. Sometimes it’s necessary to sift through the grit to find the gold, and in last night’s performance it shone most brightly in Tracie Thoms as Medusa, a defiant, go-it-alone female boxer trying to pull herself out of the muck by holding onto a dream of fame and fortune as a singer. Thoms is better known as detective Kat Miller on the TV series Cold Case, and she has also appeared recently in The Devil Wears Prada, as well as the Quentin Tarantino half of Grindhouse. McClinton has cast her in a number of his New York projects, and it’s not hard to see why. The woman oozes talent, even in a reading, and it was a gesture of her respect and admiration for McClinton that she made the trip here at all. Whatever McClinton ends up doing with this script, he's bound to reserve a spot for Thoms. Talent like hers is a rare thing too, and McClinton clearly knows it. She’s only in town for a few more nights, though, so catch her while you can.
Beauty Is a Rare Thing plays July 13 & 14 at 8 p.m., and July 15 at 7 p.m., at Illusion Theater.