The Countess Cathleen

Arden Theatre Company, 40 N. 2nd St., through Feb. 23, 922-8900.

Unlike Ozzie Jones'Black Nativity, the joyous elation of his Countess Cathleen is anything but contagious.
Ablaze with African drumming and swirling choreography, the joyous elation of Ozzie Jones' adaptation of William Butler Yeats' miracle play The Countess Cathleen at the Arden is -- unlike Jones' earlier productions of The Sanctified Jook Joint and Black Nativity at the Freedom Repertory Theatre -- anything but contagious. It's all just too much a murky, incoherent mess.

Jones has reset Yeats' 1892 allegory about culture, landlordism and faith from a semi-mythic Irish past to an equally mythologized African-American community in the South immediately after the Civil War. Not a bad idea, that: both milieus raise issues of spiritual and economic exploitation; and both cultures feature an odd and interesting combination of Christianity and deeply rooted pagan faiths -- the heroes of ancient Celtic history on the one hand, and African religions and rituals on the other.

But the storyline itself is less pliable. In Yeats' play, the title character is a saintly patrician landholder who returns to her manor house to find that the starving peasants are selling themselves to the devil's henchman, and, in an act of transfiguring self-martyrdom, sells herself to the devil in their place.

Jones' challenge is clear: how, in a post-Bellum sharecropping milieu, can the play's heroine be both a patrician landholder and a woman of color? Jones tries to explain this in a 15-minute choreographed prologue, a cartoon-like TV-miniseries-saga-in-pantomime of bullwhip-wielding plantation owners, benevolent white matrons, suffering slaves, rape, miscegenation and Civil War carnage.

When the play itself starts, this prologue has explained too much and too little. If the Countess Cathleen (Lisa D. White Jones) is the product of the master's rape of his slave, then has the plantation-owner's wife (Sally Mercer), now her foster mother Oona, actually given her the old estate, not to mention an exquisite wardrobe (a cream-colored hoop skirt with lilac trim and a spiffy silver and purple turban)? And are the devil's henchmen (Peter Pryor and Jennifer Childs) the ghosts of the executed plantation owners from the prologue, or are they just generic embodiments of white exploitation? Either way, Jones is on dangerous ground, equating different types of economic exploitation (are slaveholders and carpetbaggers functionally identical?) and generalizing villainous whites as culture-thieves: the two put on black-sambo masks and chatter away in Ebonics when they take on their various disguises, and force the enslaved peasants (Robert Anu and Kareem Diallo Carpenter) to wear the masks, turning them into gesticulating minstrel-show coons.

Nor does Yeats' language work in this new context. It's not that the able actors don't or can't serve Yeats' Gaelic-inflected poetry; it's that the poetry doesn't serve them as a channel for the linguistically rich vernacular culture celebrated in the production.

It's all just an excuse for Jones, his choreographer Faye Snow, and his composer-musicians Damon Rodriguez Bennett and Vincent W. Rutland to create the type of theater Jones does best: choreographic celebrations. As Cathleen sets herself on her path to martyrdom, she strips off her hoop skirt and turban, embracing her African-American identity. After her death she strips down to her leotard, and the actress is transfigured into a dancer, joining Oona, her dancer-ancestors from the prologue (Anthony R. Burrell and Hollie Wright), her attendant bard (Sabela), a long-suffering peasant woman (Lenny Daniels), and the two musicians (clad in grass skirts and feathered headdresses) in 15 minutes of distinctly non-contagious joyousness.

I danced (with the wonderful Lisa D. White Jones, not coincidentally) at The Sanctified Jook Joint; I clapped along at Black Nativity (and, like everyone else, sprang to my feet with joy at the excerpts that exploded onto the stage at the first Barrymore Awards ceremony). I'll sit this one out, thanks.

-- Cary M. Mazer