Backstabbings and Bible Thumpings

A review of Colin Jno Finn’s Power Struggle written a few years ago, not sure I ever posted it; so now I am.

By Joanne C. Hillhouse
Colin Jno Finn’s plays take institutions like the church (Power Struggle), the work place (Nine to Five), and the home/family (It’s Too Late) and unmasks them to reveal what he presumably believes to be their true nature – a nature inconsistent with all they pretend (or are designed) to be. Power Struggle, set in the back rooms of church life, is his latest.

In it, we have the story of a popular preacher and the efforts of one vocal church board member to, initially, remove him from his perch, and, when that plan seems doomed to fail, manipulate him to her purpose.
Power Struggle begins with a surrealistic sequence involving dancers that move like ghosts and someone in the throes of a nightmare. How this prologue connects to the central action is never quite clear to me, but it’s certainly an attention grabbing beginning.

The main action begins where most of the action is set, in the place where the church board meets. Right away, it becomes clear that while the church may be about God’s business, the council room stinks of bitchiness – “this woman is always late and always ready to go home early” – and passive aggressive (sometimes outwardly aggressive) antagonistic behavior. The chief antagonist, Sister De Castro enters singing, her self-righteous tone only part of the arsenal in her vocal armory.

Sister De Castro, villain of the piece though she is, delivers one of the more effective performances; the actress inhabiting the role with gleeful venom. And the ebb and flow of the meeting has a realistic rhythm to it. In fact, my only beef with this scene – which establishes well who the players are, what they want, and where their loyalties lie – is the shrill delivery of the actress, revealed to be the church treasurer, who most directly challenges Sister De Castro and the fact that that exchange goes on a bit longer than necessary. It’s ironic though when this same actress later in the play accuses Sister De Castro of “overdramatizing” everything, since it feels like that’s what she does with her loud but not deep performance throughout.

We meet the preacher shortly and he’s a pretty boy, easy enough to see why the women in the congregation are so in his thrall, and why his secretary, also secretary on the board, is practically in heat in his presence. She tips him to the danger he – or at least his job – is in; shifting, as she does so, from flirty to gossipy to aggressive to aggressively sexual in tone and delivery. The preacher is seemingly clueless and dismissive at first then, flip the switch, and he’s a petulant kid in the throes of a temper tantrum. To put it another way, his foot stamping, hand slicing reaction to the news could have been better.

The board chairman’s vote against the preacher in the earlier scene was a bit of a surprise, but it’s no surprise by now that interwoven lives, mixed up loyalties and hidden agendas are the meat of this play. A fact reinforced in the following scene which dwells, a bit more than necessary in my view, on the secretary’s relationship with Sister De Castro, and her divided loyalties as a result. The plot thickens. Except that that particular plot thread is just kind of left hanging.

Let me touch on plotting and pacing for a bit. There are plot points that don’t quite add up, for me, as the play advances, but the early scenes do a good job of establishing the world of the play – establishing character, creating intrigue and tension, moving the story forward.  And I think on paper the play is nicely paced. In execution, the pacing – and mood shifts – are somewhat hurt by the lack of efficiency and precision with respect to the back of stage activity; costume changes, lighting, sound, props. Props though to the set design, a simple split down the middle, separating office and meeting room, that should have allowed the action to move more seamlessly than it did. Another production note, there’re musical asides in the play for entertainment and mood enhancing value. The church re-enactment scene complete with dancers, singing, and over the top preaching work; the scene with the secretary belting out Whitney Houston’s I Look To You would have worked better in my view with an original song more specific to the context. Or should have been cut altogether.

The extended attention given to the secretary in that scene, and the shifting points of view in the play in general make it difficult sometimes to know with whom to ally. The collective dislike of Sister De Castro makes her the obvious villain, though everything is, frankly, always a bit livelier with her around; and among the shrill, jellyfish-ish, fork tongued lot, one would be hard pressed to find a hero, or even a likeable character. The writer does attempt character insight when he breaks the forth wall for one of the play’s more interesting sequences – a series of monologues as the warring board members and preacher, in tableau, serve as backdrop. This means a second (unconvincing) dose of the secretary’s inner life that might have been substituted for a bit of insight on the Preacher; I mean, even the member with his pants pulled up like Tyler Perry’s Mr. Brown who spends meetings reading the paper gets his moment. Knowing more about where the Preacher’s head was at might have helped me sympathize a bit more with his predicament.
The Preacher does come alive during that song-and-dance church session referenced earlier. It was entertaining, the preacher shucking and jiving, and letting his Jamaican accent out – “I’m ready and I’m hable” – and hitting us with the hyberbole –  “a vote for me will secure a spot in heaven” – to comic effect. I like that the humor feels like a natural extension of the action and not an unnecessary diversion for the easy laugh.

The good reverend says something that echo my sentiments during the last scene where Sister De Castro, having won him the re-election, moves in for the kill: “I guess I’m just trying to process everything around here”. I found myself at the end still trying to untangle some of this thought provoking and unrestrained testimony of church life. Overall I thought it was entertaining; I thought the writer was focused in his story telling and paced the story well but could have paid a bit more attention to characterization – though I’m not sure if this is a problem of scripting, directing or quality of actors. Plotting, as I mentioned, was strong in parts, weaker in others; but the unblinking assessment of church life earns the writer/director points for, well, going there. That’s my honest assessment, though I would add that I’m thrilled at this writer/director’s continued growth, openness to constructive feedback, and commitment to the development of his craft; it bodes well for the future of theatre in Antigua and Barbuda.

As with all content on wadadlipen.wordpress.com, except otherwise noted, this is written by Joanne C. Hillhouse (author of The Boy from Willow Bend, Dancing Nude in the Moonlight, Musical Youth, Fish Outta Water, and Oh Gad!). All Rights Reserved. If you enjoyed it, check out my page on Amazon, WordPress, and/or Facebook, and help spread the word about Wadadli Pen and my books. You can also subscribe to the site to keep up with future updates. Thanks.

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