Heated And Steamy ‘Armature’ Erupts At Island City Stage
You don’t have to get very far into Armature by Andrew Kramer before it is clear that the play is building towards an inflammatory conclusion. Eerie references to a “burning” emerge early on in this world premiere offering from Island City Stage, a burning that, when it finally occurs, seems to be a shocking yet inevitable result of threatening racial, sexual, and political tensions threaded throughout the story.
The play’s metaphorically resonant title, along with being a term that can mean either a metal framework onto which a sculpture can be molded or a device that can charge movement into electricity, also provides the name of the gay bar in which one of the show’s two major subplots is anchored.
There, wizened bartender Mama (Kent Chambers-Wilson) serves drinks to visiting blogger Evan (Matthew Salas), who quickly strikes up a fling with mysterious stranger Shod (Michael Ford). Mama also serves as the play’s narrator figure, leading the others into memorable interludes of dialogue illuminating each character’s interior life and basic backstory.
Wilson lent his role gravitas and presence despite the few minor line stumbles I noticed from him, while Ford is among the most charismatic performers as he takes on the character who is by far the play’s most complex. And though Salas’s flamboyant-ness occasionally veered into caricature, his performance was also overall excellent as the pretty-boy party animal who, as the playbill’s director note puts it, could be “easily recognizable in any bar along Wilton Drive.”
The chemistry between Ford and Salas was also noticeable as intimacy director Jeni Hacker engineers some very steamy sequences after the pair’s flirtation escalates, as well as between another set of lovers whose relationship hints at the connection between the Armature bar interludes and the play’s other major narrative thread.
That would be the story of Blythe Ames (Karen Stephens), a black woman running as a Democratic candidate in an upcoming gubernatorial election, her often overshadowed husband Denson (Keith Wade), and her newly rebellious daughter Monica (Yesenia Ozuna). The actors create a believable family unit of their characters as they imbued each with the appropriate individual energy, from Blythe’s assertive type A vibe to Denson’s understated warmth to Monica’s surface confidence and underlying confusion.
It’s hard to say much more about the story without coming perilously close to revealing the first of two of the script’s major twists, the second and more vital of which came off as a bit emotionally manipulative.
This was mostly due to a lack of clarity in the play’s timeline and the playwright’s somewhat transparent efforts to hide certain key pieces of information from the audience until quite late in the game.
In the end, though, the ultimate impact of Armature’s central tragedy was only slightly dulled by these technical issues with the construction of this topical script, which adeptly and eloquently addresses prejudice not only in today’s world but as a destructive force across generations. Realistically but relatably flawed characters provide an entry point to an unthinkable incident, hinting at the dangers not only of abject hatred but of the everyday apathy that can lead to passive acceptance of some of that hatred’s subtler forms.
Anything lacking in the text itself is also made up for in the precision of the performances and the visually striking design of the play, which includes a set by Robert F. Wolin, lighting by Preston Bircher, and costuming by Casey Sacco.
In particular, two symbolically charged visual reveals—one of a character’s tattooed body and the other a transformation of sorts of the set—have a visceral power that is likely to linger in the imagination perhaps even longer than the play’s poetry. Playing until this February 27th, Armature isn’t the first play with ambitions of inspiring awareness of important issues of our times, but it is a unique and intelligent entry into the canon.