Review: “The Last Cadillac” (The American Demigods)

Arch Harmon and Jamarr Tillman in "The Last Cadillac".
Arch Harmon (left) and Jamarr Tillman in “The Last Cadillac”.

Show:  The Last Cadillac

Company: The American Demigods

Venue: The Athenaeum Theatre (Studio 2)

Die Roll: 3

Sometimes a playwright sets out with the intention of writing something profound. Very rarely does the final result meet up with the intention when the goal is so clearly to shoot for symbolism, metaphor, or allusion.  Playwright Reginald Edmund set his sights high in his attempt for profundity with his play “The Last Cadillac”. You can probably tell where I’m going with this.  A forced attempt at trying to be meaningful falls short, sadly.

I say sadly because I have a soft spot in my heart for a number of aspects of this production. The founder of the The American Demigods is a friend of mine.  Rory Leahy has written for my company, and is the person directly responsible for my return to reviewing after a multiple-year hiatus. The director, Samuel G. Robinson, Jr., spent a number of years in Minnesota, and worked at a number of the same places that I did.  I reviewed his play “Same Difference” back in the Twin Cities, and it was a brilliant piece of writing. The playwright is also familiar to me from Minnesota, and I like to cheer on the folks who developed their craft through The Playwrights Center there, as that institution was integral to the development of my own work.  I’d hoped to see a play that allowed me to celebrate the work of these men.

Now, here’s what I did see… This was a play that tried to meld the concept of “old gods” from Africa with the story of the tale of Abraham and Isaac from the Bible.  Quick Spark Notes version for you:  Anansi the spider and the Moon replace Yahweh in demanding that Abraham sacrifice his son Isaac.  The reason they want this?  It will provide the blood sacrifice needed to fuel an old Caddy which can take the gods to El Dorado, the fabled City of Gold, which apparently doubles as some sort of Elysian Fields/Valhalla.  Contained within this constructed framework is a story about a young man who wants to find himself, and old man who wants to protect his own, and a weirdly misplaced love triangle.  That’s the gist of this play.

From the get-go the production is in trouble.  The first scene is a monologue that feels more like a stream-of-consciousness rant than anything else.  Now, that may be because Biggy Daddy (a.k.a. Abraham, played by Arch Harmon) was portrayed as a man who angrily shouts every word that comes out of his mouth.  He’s a one-note man blaring at volume eleven.  Seriously.  The first time that Harmon delivered a line that didn’t sound like he was yelling was an hour and eight minutes into the play.  That’s hard to deal with when, from what I gather, this guy is supposed to be the protagonist of the work.

And yet, perhaps Big Daddy isn’t supposed to be the protagonist.  Perhaps it’s the old gods.  In the second scene which seems to be filled with half-veiled references to things that might be important later, Brother Anansi (played by Johnathan Wallace) and Old Lady Goody (Teresa Champion) rattle off lines of almost-exposition, all the while seeming like they are trying too hard to remain mysterious.  It is clear that their goals may be different from the old man’s of the previous scene.  But, there is little offered to make us care about these two.  So, perhaps they are the antagonists?  Or, perhaps just some character parts for variety?

The third scene involves Isaac (stiffly brought to life by Jamarr Tillman), a young man who has broken into Big Daddy’s shop.  Perhaps it is his story that we are supposed to be following.  Could this be our protagonist?  Who knows?  He doesn’t.  He has a mysterious past that he’s not sharing with the audience.  In this way, he’s not unlike every other person in the play.

Here’s the problem, as I see it.  It’s hard to tell what’s at stake in this play.  In order for an audience to care about the action, we must know pretty early on why any of the play’s action matters.  The manner in which information was presented (or, rather, withheld) felt as though Edmund was deliberately being vague in an attempt to be more clever than the viewer.

I can’t really talk in detail about much of the plot line without giving everything away.  And that in and of itself is a problem, because really something needs to be given away for the play to make much sense.

Quick note:  Some elements of the set design were quite good.  I really liked how Tristan James devised a way to have the front end of a Cadillac on stage.  Charlee Cotton, who played Sam (Big Daddy’s daughter), put forth a solid performance, as did Andrew Muwonge as Elijah, Isaac’s rival for Sam’s affections.  While it probably needed to be trimmed from the current play, this love triangle likely could’ve been a story unto itself.  Also, this show had, by far, the best pre-show, intermission and post-show music I’ve heard in a long time.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  African gods and biblical allusions can’t be united by vagueness.

RATING: d6 – “Has Some Merit”