So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!" Abraham Lincoln famously commented upon meeting the novelist Harriet Beecher Stowe. More than a hundred years have passed, but Stowe's magnum opus, Uncle Tom's Cabin: or, Life Among the Lowly, still has the power to enflame - though perhaps for dramatically different reasons, as a pugnacious new production from the New York collective the Drama Dept. vividly demonstrates.
Since its publication in 1852, Stowe's impassioned novel about slavery has furnished some of the most popular theatrical material in American history. The adventures of the piously suffering Uncle Tom,'the mischievous and unschooled Topsy and the angelic Little Eva have been played for melodrama, for tragedy, for spectacle, in good taste and bad, and reshaped for every passing vogue. At the turn of the century, nearly 500 traveling productions were simultaneously touring the country.
Many of these versions, as well as those that made it onto film, treated African-Americans in an insensitive fashion that would appall modern audiences. Knocking around this idea of Uncle Tom's Cabin as an ephemeral, mostly objectionable cultural icon is the Drama Dept.'s ambitious, meta-literary staging, "derived by" Floraine Kay and director Randolph Curtis Rand. An ensemble of superbly versatile actors (three men and two women), swapping roles every few minutes with no relation to race or gender, interprets more than 20 discrete scenes, many of them based on excerpts from older dramatizations. Stage directions, read aloud, draw attention to the artifice of the texts themselves.
Intriguingly, the style of production also varies to reflect the historical kaleidoscope of Uncle Tom. Farce, vaudeville, minstrel shows and numerous other genres all reign briefly on a bare-bones set occasionally gladdened by colored lights and textures in stark geometric shapes (the set design is by Rodney Cuellar and the lighting by James L. Vermeulen). Across the whole, parody holds sway, the actors flaunting absurd accents, over-the-top mannerisms and exaggerated movements to skewer both racial stereotypes and theatrical fashion.
The anti-naturalistic, almost mechanical quality that characterizes the play's striking silent prologue - posed in front of wooden chairs, the actors twitch and sway as if they were automatons or inflatable dummies tethered outside a circus tent - permeates the evening with mixed results. Their faces rouged and daubed with dots and lines that make them look like exotic marionettes, the actors turn themselves into manic cartoons of slaves, slave owners and abolitionists. A cavorting urchin, Topsy, bursts into a '90s breakdance; Uncle Tom's wife, Aunt Chloe, grins grotesquely as she crows about her own cooking; the prim New England spinster, Miss Ophelia, squeals her favorite criticism - "How shiftless! …