Matthew LaChiusa’s acting company, American Repertory Theatre of WNY, once peripatetic, has settled into what it hopes to be a permanent home, Buffalo’s iconic Church of the Ascension. So far, it has produced shows in the nave, a meeting space with a small proscenium stage and has recently redone a basement space called Art in a Box.
A short, original play by Buffalo playwright Mark Humphrey, “Little Robert,” a peek into the life and times of blues legend Robert Johnson, has opened in “the Box.” The Mississippi Delta phenom is on everybody’s greatest guitar-player list despite flaming out at age 27 in the late 1930s. Whiskey, women and an itinerant lifestyle did him in – plus a jealous husband’s “gift” of a strychnine-laced bottle of hooch.
Strangely, not much is known about Johnson. He showed musical ability as a youngster and idolized the Delta bluesmen of the day. But after one of his many disappearances, he resurfaced in speakeasies and levee camps and awed all with his bottleneck slides and raspy, poetic vocals. Little Robert was suddenly the best. The legend grew.
The story circulated that Johnson, at midnight at a crossroad, made a contract with Satan: his soul for blues-playing fame. Years after Johnson’s death, the theory was still prominent and mentioned by the many old-time bluesmen recruited to give oral histories on the man biographers have called “well-mannered, soft-spoken and indecipherable.” Shy and forever on the move, Johnson had multiple marriages, a variety of birthdates and questionable gravesites.
But, he was a genius. Buffalo’s blues guru Jim Santella calls him “genre defining.” ART and playwright Humphrey’s “Little Robert” is a snapshot of Johnson’s last day on Earth in 1938. In a seedy hotel room, Johnson is dying, the poison booze hard at his innards. A visitor, oily Woodrow, appears. He’s the same agent of Lucifer that made the soul-for-success deal years before. Pay-the-devil-his-due-time.
Through two short acts, Little Robert (the superb Hugh Davis) and Woodrow (the always surprising Robert Ernie Insana) talk, recall and bargain. Woodrow has all the cards except the ace – extant and aged recordings that forever promise heart and soul. It doesn’t end happily for Little Robert, but Woodrow goes “home” empty-handed.
Gail Golden returns to ART to direct, wisely and well, allowing the story to tell itself out, no hurry, tortured and anxiety-ridden like Johnson’s songs. Woodrow’s description of hell’s fires and pains, and heaven – “Well, it’s pleasant…” – are distractive and childlike. Johnson, remembering with few regrets, has too little to say. His music is heard only in recorded teasers throughout the night, but his words, those repetitive, primitive and poetic lyrics, could tell us more about the man.
Maybe some words from Johnson songs with spiritual leanings – “Sacred Blues,” “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day,” “Me and the Devil Blues” – might have underscored that Faustian theory of Little Robert’s fantastic musical growth.
The always precise Davis, believably combines agony, wonder and eleventh hour contrition. Insana is charmingly despicable. Memorable roles, wonderfully played.
A fine cut-away set has been designed by Lauren Millman. And the Box?
It’s dark, comfortable, intimate – “Kind of Off-Broadway, don’t you think?” said director Golden – just right for the edgy plays the company loves to produce.
What: “Little Robert”
Presented by: American Repertory Theatre of WNY
Where: Church of the Ascension, 16 Linwood Ave.