March 18, 2008

Theater: Yes, yes, y’all, ‘the break/s’ smashes it

[img_assist|nid=6459|title=“the break/s.”|desc=Photo by Harlan Taylor Marc Bamuthi Joseph in the Humana Fest’s “the break/s.”|link=|align=left|width=133|height=200](Actors Theatre presents Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s “the break/s” through March 29. Directed by Michael John Garces. Part of the 32nd Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays. Call 584-1205 or www.actorstheatre.org.)“Hip-hop, you the love of my life.” You who whisper those words with the sweaty fervor of a recent religious convert, get thee to “the break/s,” Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s one-man performance currently running at Actors Theatre as part of the Humana Festival.You don’t get down like that? Never fear, this isn’t a concert, and it isn’t even a retrospective of the genre. “the break/s” is a multidimensional performance piece that revolves around the complicated search for, and struggle with, identity. It’s one man’s journey to himself amidst what family, society and history have told him he is or should be. Structurally, the play is tight. When Joseph explores a theme, he does so thoroughly. Take the concept of space, for instance: He travels mentally back to the places that have informed his journey; Stacey Prinz’s inventive choreography flings him up, down, upside down; and his emotional vacillation prompts his girlfriend to leave a note that reads simply “taking space.” In fact, this meticulous approach characterizes every facet of the production. Tommy Shepherd, aka Soulati, asks a series of questions preceding the show, the most significant being, “Have you ever lost your mind?” It references one of the most influential hip-hop songs ever, “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. Joseph repeatedly deconstructs the song’s chorus until it becomes his final, ultimate plea. The most striking aspect of Joseph’s intensely aerobic performance is how it manages to appear both precise and spontaneous. Each breath seems choreographed, yet during a bit in which Joseph mimics walking a tightrope and stumbling, I thought he actually took a misstep. This duality extends to the synergy between Joseph and his musicians, DJ Excess and MC Soulati. That their wordless communication results both in never missing a beat and feeling organic is impressive. Joseph, like the best rappers, flips words and twists pop culture references and slang into metaphors. The most memorable instances are in describing a young poet’s wasted potential and a sexual escapade.My lone question concerns that bit, in fact. While Joseph’s Prince vignette is entertaining, it feels unrelated to the rest of the play. Given the attention to forming a thematically sound piece, surely it has relevance. I just don’t get it. Never mind. “the break/s” broke the Humana mold this year, and it can’t, it won’t and it don’t stop. —Rebecca Haithcoat‘All Hail Hurricane Gordo’ blows(Actors Theatre presents Carly Mensch’s “All Hail Hurricane Gordo” through March 30. Directed by Sean Daniels. Part of the 32nd Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.)A play’s theme should be evident within the first minute. In “All Hail Hurricane Gordo,” Carly Mensch opens with two brothers arguing over Cheerios, with Gordo dissing Chaz’s off-brand purchase of “shitty-o’s.” If there’s a message there, I can’t find it. Mensch’s debut is yet another dysfunctional Cain and Abel tale, and a pale imitation of Suzan-Lori Parks’ “Topdog/Underdog.” The problem is Mensch has nothing to say. Watching this play is like sitting through a taping of “Wings,” a TV show about two brothers whose parents left them. The laughs are just as corny.The 20-something men live like pigs in a dilapidated house their parents left them. Gordo is an obnoxious manchild who yells constantly and can’t stop running into walls. He diagnosed himself with Asperger’s syndrome, but the symptoms don’t add up (except for a fascination with cloth). Chaz is a nervous nerd who constantly writes letters to people he finds in the mounds of phone books littering the living room. At each scene change we hear pop song snippets, adding to that sitcom feeling. Mensch takes the word “conflict” at face value. The characters scream at each other throughout the play. Director Sean Daniels fills out the clunky script with movement. Lots of it. So much that it feels like being slapped repeatedly with a wet oven mitt. When hyperactive Gordo isn’t bashing his head against the wall, he’s bouncing his knee or counting on his fingers. Patrick Lynch should get a combat medal for his portrayal of Gordo if only he could stop mugging. The incidental “Star Trek” fight music is an eloquent accompaniment to Gordo tackling Chaz like a crazed William Shatner delivering double-handed Kirk punches on an anthropomorphic lizard.Interloper India, the young runaway who rents a room in the hovel, hops like a flea from Gordo’s “time-out” chair to the duct-taped couch, shrieking like a one-note banshee the whole time. William McNulty, as India’s father, inexplicably speaks with a Bronx accent while no one else does, not even his daughter. Aside from “Bob” the bunny, Matthew Dellapina (Chaz) turns in the only nuanced performance of the bunch.The play plods along to a predictable climax. When India tells Gordo, “You sabotaged your own brother,” I felt another slap of the oven mitt as if Mensch thinks we can’t figure this out for ourselves. On his blog, Daniels says they changed the play’s ending the night before opening because people stared strangely during the first preview. Although he thinks the new ending “totally unlocked Act Two,” it’s just a distracting bow hastily tied onto a bowl of “shitty-o’s.” The boys’ transformation is simply too meteoric to be believed. —Sherry Deatrick