Stage

One-man whirlwind ‘Southern Gothic Novel’ full of physicality and nuance

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Frank Blocker plays 17 roles in 60 minutes in Southern Gothic Novel.
Photo: Carol Rosegg
Jacob Coakley

Four stars

Southern Gothic Novel June 26, Onyx Theatre.

Summer has come on with a vengeance, but last weekend the Onyx Theatre reminded Vegas that we’re not the only place with unbearable temperatures, scheming criminals and colorful locals. Southern Gothic Novel, a one-man show written and performed by Frank Blocker, took audiences on a tour of Aberdeen, Mississippi, following young Viola’s search for her latest true love, and the town’s search for what’s behind the recent disappearance of many local girls.

Blocker was fantastic, his physicality both incredibly precise and completely natural, a kind of second-nature inhabitance that was a joy to watch and deeply revealing. Between his work and Cheryl King’s directorial guidance, characters didn’t just exist as gimmicky ticks or funny voices, but appeared with just a crook of his neck, or a drunk’s soft shamble. Small gestures belonged uniquely to different characters, without defining them, extending their reality. And even as he shifted between characters, he kept their spatial relationships intact—moving from one falling character to another gently holding the fallen’s elbow, for example—showing how they related to each other through more than just words, guiding you through purely imagined sets. The only props onstage were the book he started to read from (quickly thrown away as he started to perform) and a stage cube that operated as a bar stool, front seat of a car and even the walls of a moonshine shack.

And his characters were worthy of such close scrutiny. In addition to the comic Viola there was her long-suffering mother, Donna; Viola’s inept suitor, Jimmy; and a host of others, each carefully wrought and brought to life with physicality and language. Blocker’s script, an homage to Southern Gothic novels, lovingly played with the tropes of a Southern novel (trailer parks, moonshine, gruff old judges and rain that never comes) while keeping the poetry and high language of a novel intact. No one would be surprised by the presence of a tough-talking, no-guff-taking large black woman in a Southern story—but having her humorously praise the local dingbat for her “fortitude” (and searching mightily for that compliment) shows that just as much care went into the words of the script as the presentation.

There’s a scene told from the point of view of a june bug as it makes its way up a water tower. It’s a very novelistic technique, but as Blocker narrates the section, describing the town and its late-night goings on, his hand contorts, playing the june bug, flitting its way across the stage and up a water tower. It’s a great synthesis of words and actions, and this physical lyricism mixed with poetic and witty wordplay combined for a show that was a great relief for our own hot summer nights.

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