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Friday, March 6, 2015 |  Madison, WI: 5.0° F  Fair
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Ti-Jean and His Brothers fight the devil in University Theatre's unsatisfying production
Yeng Kong Thao, left, and Alejandro Ortiz in University Theatre's <i>Ti-Jean and His Brothers</i>.
Yeng Kong Thao, left, and Alejandro Ortiz in University Theatre's Ti-Jean and His Brothers.
Credit:Brent Nicastro

University Theatre's Ti-Jean and His Brothers is complex. Unfortunately, it's not complex in a way I expected and wanted it to be.

Ti-Jean tells the story of three brothers - one strong (Alejandro Ortiz), one educated by books (Patrick Reed), one young and pure (Yeng Kong Thao, as Ti-Jean) - and their attempts to outwit the Devil. The story is set in an unnamed, colonized Caribbean nation, a place where the native people suffer while the plantation owners live in luxury. Nobel prize-winning poet and playwright Derek Walcott based the play on a Caribbean folk tale that attempts to examine a broad range of issues, from political to spiritual.

Most of the cast are undergraduate students at UW, and for many of them it is their University Theatre debut. Well-rehearsed and eager, they've poured their hearts into the show, which opened Friday in Vilas Hall's Hemsley Theatre. But they are doomed by directorial choices and a script that proves repetitive and unclear.

The literal bright spot is the imaginative set and costumes. Giant flowers built from recycled materials glow in jewel tones, and the stage floor is painted in swirls of color, conjuring the Land of Oz. Costuming is equally carnivalesque. Made of reclaimed items like soda bottles, bubble wrap, bottle caps and patches of colorful fabric, the costumes are intricate and bright.

However, the whimsy of the costuming and set is in awkward contrast to a play that wavers strangely between silly and disturbing. Ti-Jean is also boring - really, really boring. Despite the bright colors, innovative costuming and animated characters, much of the audience watched with glazed eyes and drooping heads. The woman sitting next to me literally fell asleep.

One major misstep is the use of a pseudo-Caribbean accent by all members of the cast, most of whom seem to have no ethnic connections to the French-speaking Caribbean people they portray. Unlike actors assuming an accent in a Shakespearean production, these cast members take on the voices of an oppressed people. Looking around at the audience members, I wondered if any of them had connections to the Caribbean and how they felt about the portrayals. I felt uncomfortable.

In addition to the possible negative political implications, the accent gets in the way of the script, muddling it. For me, about 25% of the content was lost due to the accent. In the remaining 75%, I failed to find the poetry I had expected from Walcott. The plot unfolds predictably and methodically.

In an enthusiastic cast, Ely Phan's portrayal of the Devil deserves special mention. As the many faces of the evil one, Phan demonstrates an incredible flexibility onstage. From the most subtle movements to the most exaggerated, Phan is focused and precise. Limited by a repetitive role, Phan's talent manages to shine through.

The biggest mistake is the overloading of a fairly simple, parabolic script with such extreme (though beautiful) costumes, set design and frantic movement. All the decoration feels more like spectacle than substance and simply isn't supported by the script. The lukewarm applause at the end confirmed that I wasn't the only one who left the performance unsatisfied.

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