Inis Nua’s Untitled is full of grisly magic and mythology. Bolstered by imaginative design and direction, with a dynamic performance by Keith Illidge, the production crackles with the simple intensity of good storytelling, even as the play begins to falter in its second part.
Not an untitled play
Untitled is not an untitled play, but the name is difficult to write around. Untitled is what happens when you open a Word document, or when contemporary visual artists want their work to speak for itself. The name is the absence of a name, a self-aware, postmodern wink that gives nothing away of what is to come.
In the Nigerian Yoruba culture that makes up the early setting of Inua Ellams’s play, names are foretellers of destiny. “It is believed,” says X, “that a child grows to embody its name.” X and his twin brother Y (both played by Illidge) are born on Nigeria’s Independence Day. When they are taken to the forest for the traditional naming ceremony, Y accepts his own name gleefully, while X resists, crying and screaming. He is eventually left nameless and his family splits, with one brother going with each parent. Twenty-five years later and still without a name, X is living a chaotic, malignant life. In England, Y works at a branding firm, where he specializes in naming. A spirit’s curse drives their two destinies back together in a strange, supernatural tale.
Rooted in African oral traditions and Western poetic sensibilities, Ellams’s work delves into this duality: one of with and without, of sound and silence, of trees and their absence. The play’s main challenge is the equal dramatization of both sides, which director Jerrell L. Henderson pulls off despite some minor imbalances.
Two brothers, one stage
The first half of the play, narrated by X, tells us about his upbringing in the village. He speaks to us from a forest clearing. Marie Laster has designed a stage covered in wood chips that, shifting constantly under Illidge’s physicality, keep flying and settling in the lights like arid storytelling confetti. A tree looms in the upper corner of the set as the sole set piece, its vine-snared roots reaching to the rest of the stage. Immediately, we are cast into a space where, as X tells us repeatedly, the lines between our world and the spirit world are very thin.
In this intimate black box, lighting designer Daniel Schreckengost does not shy away from bold colors that splash vividly onto the set. Complemented by Daniel Ison’s soundscape, the lights conjure with gratifying detail the trembling of a flame, the largeness of night, or the grisly magic of the forest.
Illidge shows great dexterity and energy in both roles, buoyed by the earnestness of his performance. Some minor inconsistencies in accent are made up for with impassioned storytelling, especially in the first half, that keeps the audience transfixed even when the text is thick with poetry and local vernacular.
Unfortunately, the second half of the show falls short of the same enchanting qualities. While X fills the stage, his brother Y remains confined to the very front corner for a good part of his scene, like a nervous performer at an open-mic night. When he unwinds, he brings the mic with him as he walks across the stage. While this detail provides ingenious aural texture to distinguish between the two characters, the mic is wired, so Illidge is constantly looping the cord around his hand. It’s an awkward detail with little character payoff.
Listening and watching
The larger issue is that Y’s part is laden with poetic, somewhat cerebral language, and his constrained blocking means that the audience’s focus is suddenly on the words rather than Illidge’s delivery of them. Perhaps the intention here, in writing as in direction, is to provide contrast—Y, unlike X, is no trained storyteller. But for the audience, this change means more close listening and less rapturous watching, at a time where the plot’s otherworldly elements become more intense.
The ending is a flurry of crossed paths and mythological denouement, and feels a little abrupt and complex. Had Ellams written Y as more than a neat, anxious foil of his brother, or had Henderson given Y a little more freedom to tell his story, the payoff from the show’s first half may have been greater. Nevertheless, the show is deftly designed, with strong acting and direction, making it a satisfying journey in storytelling and magical realism.
What, When, Where
Untitled. By Inua Ellams, directed by Jerrell L. Henderson. Through May 12, 2019, at the Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 341 S Hicks Street, Philadelphia. 215-454-9776 or inisnuatheatre.org.
The Drake is an ADA-compliant venue with gender-neutral restrooms.