Title: The Magnolia Ballet. Playwright: Terry Guest
At: About Face Theatre at the Den, 1333 N. MiIwaukee Ave. Tickets: $5-$35. Runs through: June 11
Ignore the play's title. Ignore the publicity photo, too. In fact, you can ignore almost 15 of the 95 minutes (and exactly which 15 are up to you). Terry Guest allots his self-described "ghost story" and still have enough provocative questions left over for three classical myths, two terpsichoric concerts and half a dozen rounds of slam poetry.
Once upon a time, you see, there were two teenage boysone Black and one whitewho lived next door to each other in the Georgia marshlands, both of them the motherless offspring of fathers sharing a common surname and lineage dating to the 1600s, when the English colonies acknowledged the status of free men of color. Young Ezekiel "Z" Mitchell is aware of his attraction to males, but Danny Mitchell denies his own inclinations, despite their camaraderie permitting a measure of mutual sexual exploration. When the lads propose to work together on a school project involving the war-between-the-states history of the region, however, their search of family relics reveals evidence of painful secrets extending back through generations.
Savvy playgoers will guess the outcome well before the script's Big Reveal, but that doesn't prevent us sitting transfixed in Aristotelian anticipation of the peripeteia whose approach is as fraught with menace as with tragic inevitability. On the way we encounter, among other diversions, gracefully choreographed scenes of fathers barbering their sons with a tenderness forbidden them by masculine decorum; an ancestral specter's chronology of the slavery's evolution from a "necessary evil" to a "natural occurrence ordained by God;" and a comic turn featuring Danny's dad portrayed by the same actor who plays Z's sire. ("I need you to imagine that I'm white," the character reminds us. "I'll give y'all a little while, cause I know that's a lot to imagine.")
This brand of multiple-discipline presentation typically disintegrates into kaleidoscopic chaos faster than a shotgun-shack in the Okefenokee swamp. However, although Guest's ambitious narrative still struggled for uniform coherence in its first performances, the unfaltering guidance provided by director Mikael Burke, his shape-shifting cast, intriguing scenery, Brian Grimm's evocative musical score and Jen Freeman's shadowy movement design only leave us wanting to contemplate its mysteries further.