“Constantly pummeling us with emotionally raw honesty, American Idiot will resonate with many, especially millennials, who are fans of punk rock or are unhappy with President Trump, our relations with Korea, and the current state of politics. There is much to appreciate and admire about how this musical follows the album from beginning to end in narrative. And in the wake of protests and encouraging people to become aware of everything bad that’s going on, this could be the new anthem of today’s age, thereby fulfilling Green Day’s desire for “American Idiot” the album to be timeless. ”
The level of anger, helplessness and sorrow rises inexorably along with the death toll, like flood waters from a storm surge in Outré Theatre Company’s shattering production of The Normal Heart.
The play documenting the AIDS epidemic in New York City during the early 1980s – how it was side-stepped by politicians and the media, how the gay community divided in how to deal with it, but above all the ineffably tragic human cost – is depicted with scorching and excoriating emotional honesty.
This physically spare production makes a virtue out of the tiny Showtime Performing Arts Theatre in Boca Raton by putting you inside the room where people quake with terror as they are told they have a fatal incurable disease and later as their extended families agonize, mourn and rage. It’s the theatrical equivalent of protracted cinematic close-ups.
Pioneering activist Larry Kramer’s 1985 script has always been a challenge as it drenches the dramatic narrative with an overwhelming torrent of statistics and unrestrained polemics through scenes of pure emotional discharge. No production may completely overcome Kramer’s hectoring rants and massive info-dumps. But this one comes close under the steady helm of Outré managing director Doug Wetzel by cloaking the numbing data in the outrage of those delivering the information
Just as crucial is that Wetzel has elicited some of the most effective performances that we have seen some of these particular actors give.
For instance, regular theatergoers have seen Lawrence Buzzeo in a variety of roles, some barely worth his efforts, some more impressive. But as the even-tempered affable volunteer Mickey, Buzzeo carefully crafts a second act aria in which pent-up lava inside the seemingly dormant volcano surges until it explodes in an all-consuming conflagration of confusion, fear, frustration and anger that encapsulates the crisis’ effect on the entire community. It’s a masterfully executed cri de couer that ends as one friend tries to comfort him with, “Mickey, try to hold on.” To which Buzzeo/Mickey responds with heart-rending hopelessness, “Hang on to what?”
The Normal Heart follows flame-throwing activist Ned Weeks (a fictional, but unapologetically autobiographical Kramer) as he helps found and propel the gay community’s proactive response to the mushrooming spread of “the gay plague.”
Ned (Seth Trucks) is an unrestrained alienating Jeremiah not crying, but screaming in the wilderness as official bodies and his closeted community falter and even ignore this lethal scourge. Over three hours (with intermission) the play charts his efforts along with the determined but disheartened doctor Emma Brookner (Elizabeth Price) and a group of gay friends including the conservative establishment banker Bruce Niles (Christopher Mitchell) who pushes for a cautious approach.
But Ned’s efforts coincide with his finally finding his first truly nurturing relationship with the warm, witty New York Times fashion writer Felix Turner (Conor Walton), who, of course, falls victim to the illness.
Stymied by bureaucratic indifference and politicians’ fear of homophobics’ backlash, this deeply divided group struggles to raise awareness and support, but especially wrestling with the unacceptable-to-some likelihood that the virus is being passed through sexual contact.
Without seeming maudlin or mawkish, the entire spectrum of passion from love to fury to terror suffuse the production from the very first scene where friends make small talk in Brookner’s waiting room while across the stage Brookner silently gives the fatal prognosis to Craig (Eytan Deray) who believably collapses in paroxysms of mute grief. Still, Kramer weaves in humor ranging from witty repartee to standing-on-the-gallows humor.
Being performed 35 years (35 years!) after the first deaths were tracked, The Normal Heart has mild present-day resonances on paper. But it must seem like history or folk tales to a generation-and-a-half of gay and straight audiences born since, something reflected in the Terrence McNally play Mothers and Sons.
One aspect that it’s hard for most people today to realize, recall or appreciate is how little was known early on, how this mysterious “thing” was killing people like the unseen unidentified madman in a terrible horror movie. To begin with, there was no way to diagnose who might be carrying the virus even if they were not affected; and the only way to know someone had it was to observe the symptoms, which meant they were doomed. At one point, Felix asks in extreme anguish, “Can we make love?” Ned shakes his head. Then he asks with pleading incredulity, “Can we kiss?” Ned cannot answer.
A far more empathetic and accepting world in 2016 will have some difficulty dealing with the timidity of some of the activists, but Kramer accurately shows that some people had fought for 15 years for even a modicum of acceptance by some facets of general society – and even by themselves among themselves. They did not want to see that immolated in a too strident effort.
But The Normal Heart’s endurance and even universality as theatrical drama as well as reportage of a specific time is the human element, how real people deal with a real tragedy, divested of all the noble heroics that creative writers gift to their protagonists.
At its center are relationships, especially of people who love each other. At one moment, in that kind of truth-telling moments that only happens with committed couples, Felix quietly asks, “If I had it, would you leave me?” Ned says no. Ned asks Felix, “If I had it, would you leave me.” Felix answers with pained sorrow, “I don’t know.” And then Felix shows a cancer spot on the bottom of his foot.
One of the insightful aspects of the script and this production is Kramer/Weeks’ anguished efforts to persuade gay men that their sexuality is far more than carnal urges, but something akin to ethnicity – a multi-faceted existence that should be accepted as normal by society and yet whose differences should be honored by the members themselves.
But the heart of the production are the performances that are not just deeply felt but feel like credible depictions of genuine people rather than actorly moments emoting in the spotlight.
Trucks, a mainstay at Evening Star Productions and frequent essayer of Shakespeare, inhabits the demanding central role of Ned. He succeeds at the difficult task of keeping Ned from being an unrelenting shrill, but instead someone uncontrollably compelled to fight. His initially modulated but growing outbursts reflect varied stages of ire from disappointment to wrath. But between eruptions, Trucks and Wetzel have Ned drive his anger into an almost impassive mask which provides needed variety but fails to convey the rage simmering beneath that surface. Still, he is totally believable when straining and failing to deal with Felix’s illness. Trucks is heartbreaking when Ned ends up on the floor emotionally devastated holding his decimated lover in his arms.
Walton, whose range has been seen from the cold killer in Thrill Me to the fey narrator in Into the Woods, superbly charts the deterioration. He begins as an upbeat urbanite who enjoys living with elan and who deeply loves Ned with all his imperfections. But Walton convincingly portrays the emotional gauntlet from determined hope to hopeless husk as he discovers the illness and his body deteriorates.
Price, who floored audiences as the troubled dollmaker in Arts Garage’s Reborning, wisely keeps her performance in check in this tiny space. While she doesn’t have the crusty fury that her predecessors have invested in the part, she opts for a deceptive calm that comes from long weariness, sadness and frustration of having dealt with the tragedy face to face and the bureaucracies for a very long time before Ned and company join her crusade. It’s only when she has her funding request rebuffed that she allows that anger to flow out.
Among the moments Price nails to the wall is after she gives pole-axed Felix the bad news, he insists that he will be the one to beat this. Her face and carefully measured response try to gently communicate the unlikeliness of the reality. She says with seeming sincerity, “I will do my damnedest.” Then Felix regains a bit of his bravado and makes a weak joke, “I bet you say that to all the boys.” Price/Brookner gives a small smile in appreciation of the joke. Then she turns her head away from him and her face shows the sad truth: Indeed, she does say it all the time and has all too often.
Almost everyone gets passages to expose their ability. Notable are Mitchell whose reticent oh-so-careful leader finally reveals his personal grief and Michael H. Small as the mayor’s aide whose feelings of guilt are hidden under the unaccustomed affront being insulted by Ned’s uncensored tirades. A nod, too, to Robert Fritz as Tommy and Ben Prayz as the straight lawyer brother Ben Weeks.
Wetzel’s commendably varies the intensity of the emotional pitch, but the stately pace only changes occasionally, such as a frantic phone bank scene or an elegiac farewell.
The only significant shortcoming is the lengthy draggy scene changes in which furniture is carried on and off stage in half-light. Some of this is due to the logistics of the shoebox-narrow performing platform, but perhaps some of the set pieces could have done double duty. It is, in fact, the simplicity of the set that admirably focuses our attention on the people onstage. We can also carp that while Wetzel moves people around the stage deftly in some scenes, sometimes he just lines up four or five people across the shallow stage.
The set is simple: a black box with chalked statistics on the back wall charting the annual growth of the fatalities and a large odometer-like tote board whose cumulative number start at 658,207 and grow through the evening.
But the overall production is harrowing – harrowing as in those phalanx of razor-sharp spinning discs ripping up the frozen ground to unearth the raw earth beneath. Outré, after a spotty life at the Broward Center, has moved at least for this season to the Showtime space which serves during the day as a youth conservatory. Seating is extremely limited and there are only four shows a week, so order your tickets now.
“Medea is a Floridian in chilling ‘Violet Hour'”
by Christine Dolen
Before Susan Smith and Andrea Yates, before the too-frequent tragic headlines about murdered Florida children, there was Medea.
Created by Euripides in 431 BC, Medea is among Greek tragedy’s most horrifying yet complex characters, a spurned wife who exacts vengeance upon her faithless husband, Jason, in multiple ways, including the unfathomable murder of her children.
Fort Lauderdale’s Outré Theatre Company has created a new, taut version of Euripides’ tragedy set in present-day South Florida. Adapted by Shannon Ouellette and Outré artistic director Skye Whitcomb, “The Violet Hour: A Modern Medea” takes its title from a phrase suggesting dusk in T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.”
Starring Outré managing director Sabrina Lynn Gore as Medea and her real-life husband, Tim Gore, as Jason, the production in the Broward Center’s Abdo New River Room runs barely over an hour. But what an intense hour it is.
The themes and thrust of “The Violet Hour” follow Euripides, though the language is largely contemporary. Here, Medea and Jason have just one son, who’s played by Nathanael Schultz, a particularly adorable kindergartener. The boy is watched over, fretted over, by Nurse (Beverly Blanchette), a nanny who is rightfully worried that the raging Medea is descending into madness.
And no wonder: Middle-aged Jason is about to wed the “barely legal” (as Medea puts it) 18-year-old daughter of wealthy developer Kreon (Jim Gibbons). It’s hardly surprising that Medea — who, as it turns out, rejected her family and gruesomely murdered her brother in order to be with Jason — isn’t handling hubby’s rejection well. Maybe he should have thought about her fratricide before taking up with the new squeeze, whose daddy orders Medea to get lost and leave her boy behind.
Whitcomb, the play’s director, and Ouellette (who serves as its dramaturg) have turned the Greek chorus into wedding guests. Liz Dikinson, Rachel Finley, Daryl Fortson, Kitt Marsh and Sandy Stock have some interaction with Medea, but they also observe and comment, whispering or chanting or gossiping from different spots in the Abdo. That staging helps to make “The Violet Hour” one of Outré’s better uses of what can be a challenging space.
The cast, which includes Jovon Jacobs as a tutor still loyal to Jason, dives ever more deeply into a tragedy that becomes nearly unbearable to watch, particularly as it nears its end, when the unhinged Medea and the child she is about to turn into a sacrifice sing “You Are My Sunshine” as part of a pre-bedtime ritual.
As in Euripides, Medea’s crimes occur offstage, but mournful recorded music from cellist Andreina Kasper and a shift to blood-red lighting by designer Julia LaVault underscore the emotional horrors of her actions.
Medea is a role that, like Hamlet or King Lear, is an aspirational test for a serious stage actor. Gore’s skills are suited to this present-day, reshaped version of the play, as she persuasively communicates Medea’s cunning, deceptiveness, rage and deepening madness. For a time, she stirs some sympathy for a woman scorned. And then, as does a seemingly endless line of modern-day Medeas, she makes us recoil as the tragedy hits home.
by Christine Dolen
All the buzz in New York theater this season has been about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s hip-hop Hamilton, the scorching hot hit about the United States’ first treasury secretary, which will land on Broadway in mid-July after its sold-out run at the Public Theater.
But before Hamilton, in 2010, the Public sent another mash-up of 21st century music and early American history to Broadway: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
Fort Lauderdale’s Outré Theatre Company has brought Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman’s emo-style musical to the Abdo New River Room at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts. The pumped-up show about a divisive president — his historical rep, the musical argues, runs the gamut from great leader to perpetrator of genocide — adds to a spring surge in intriguing productions in a county that hasn’t been as hospitable to theater as Miami-Dade or Palm Beach. But as the surge demonstrates, Broward theater is on the upswing.
With echoes of Spring Awakening and American Idiot, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson offers an in-your-face, anachronistic yet resonant take on America’s seventh president.
The score, performed by musical director-keyboard player Kristen Long (who also sings beautifully) with Wayne Rediker on guitar, Martha Spangler on bass and Walt Brewer on percussion, presents Jackson as a rock-star military leader and politician (Rock Star is one of the songs). The haunting Ten Little Indians suggests the ruin of Native American lives, with plenty of blame going to the territory-acquiring Jackson — who, as the show argues, put “the ‘man’ in ‘Manifest Destiny.’” The music thunders and softens repeatedly through the course of the show, and it’s all impressively sung.
Outré and director Skye Whitcomb include a full page of warnings in the show’s program, for good reason. Bloody Bloody contains profanity (some defacing portraits on the set), offensive language, sexual innuendo and stinging political satire that will remind audiences of just how little down-and-dirty politics have changed from Jackson’s day to the nasty, paralyzing present. The show is a wild, pointedly provocative ride, and those who like their entertainment pleasantly inoffensive shouldn’t think about hopping aboard.
Robert Johnston plays Jackson with an emo broodiness mixed with volatility and a populist appeal. He bonds with Kaitlyn O’Neill as Rachel, Jackson’s controversial wife (she wasn’t actually divorced when they first married), through the song Illness as Metaphor, and O’Neill has a powerful song about political sacrifice in The Great Compromise (though its fleeting reference to the Jacksons’ slave owning is a jarring reminder of that particular presidential fact).
Rick Peña as Henry Clay, Conor Walton as a lollipop-licking John Quincy Adams, Geoff Short as John C. Calhoun, Michael Mena as James Monroe and Noah Levine as Martin Van Buren deftly ride the satirical waves in their roles. Mena also plays Black Fox, symbol of Jackson’s treatment of native Americans. Jennipher Murphy has a kooky, surprising role as a historian lecturing about Jackson. Elvin Negron, Jordana Forrest, Christina Groom and Erica Mendez amplify the show’s vocal power and, along with young Leo Valentine Kaplan as Jackson’s adopted son Lyncoya, go full out with its brashness.
The set, costumes and choreography, all by Sabrina Lynn Gore, are of a creatively anachronistic piece with a musical that has its 19th century characters using cellphones, ordering pizza and using street language. Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson takes plenty of liberties. But a stodgy history lesson it is not.
by Bill Hirschman
When critics write that they can’t wait to see a full production of a musical viewed in a concert version/tryout, as we did in 2013 about Outré Theatre Company’s Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,the truth is that we hold our breath wondering whether the reality will match expectations.
Well, no need to fear here. With bracing anger, profuse profanity and biting satire that is more slashing than surgical, this edition ofBloody will not to be everyone’s taste but it is more assured and more easily understood than the admirable but messy concert version we saw earlier.
Ostensibly a biography of our seventh president, the satire is a punkish Emo take on this country’s bottomless hubristic pursuit of Manifest Destiny via a genocidal campaign against the American Indians. It draws parallels to broader modern American know-nothing arrogance exemplified by, but not limited to, the George W. Bush Administration and the rise of the Tea Party. By reimagining Jackson as a jingoistic not-too-bright rock star, it depicts politicians as shallow as celebrities for a mob that demands substance from neither.
The show is no kinder to the populace than the politicians. The voters are ignorant sheep led wherever a demagogue wants to take them. Even when Jackson deigns to asks the people’s opinion, they have no idea what issues he’s polling them about.
Staged as sort of a small town high school history pageant, the style is intentionally sledgehammer broad in every category from the melodramatic acting to the Green Day brand of music.
Much of the humor is beyond sophomoric; it’s intentionally dumber than a Saturday Night Live skit. Faced with the red tape of the bureaucracy, Jackson proclaims, “I’m federal Metamucil; I’m here to unclog the system.” Similarly, the punkish costume design gave Jackson a Bowie knife in a large scabbard located precisely where a codpiece might end up and for good measure, he jiggled his hips on occasion to underscore the point. Somehow, that excess doesn’t quite go over the top in a production where “the top” is located somewhere in the ionosphere.
But mostly, Bloody it’s about how History is horsepucky. In that intentionally lampoonish broad approach, authors Alex Timbers and Michael Friedman seem to say that history is so perverted by lies and rationalizations that it doesn’t deserve to be depicted seriously.
The earlier tryout benefited this iteration with insights and lessons learned. Artistic Director Skye Whitcomb and Assistant Director Sabrina Lynn Gore have located the precise gonzo groove the work demands for much of the evening and yet smoothly change gears when the horrid truth of what Jackson has wrought finally comes clear even to him -– and to those in the audience who see tragic parallels to the current socio-political scene.
They and their cast have tweaked the script even with a reference at Sunday’s matinee that Game of Thrones would be broadcast that night.
To be fair, some folks may feel a bit burned out that the overall nose-thumbing vibe is really just a couple of wry jokes played out over and over for about two hours. But others will savor each thrust of the saber.
The focal point was Robert Johnston’s portrayal of the arrogant, dimwitted Jackson. Johnston, who was the naked victim in Zoetic Stage’s Clark Gable Slept Here and the hero in High Fidelity, has enough charisma and rock swagger to make Jackson almost likable in his simultaneous self-absorption and insatiable need for adoration. He starts out with a boyish face leavened with a three day-growth of beard. But as Jackson discovers the pragmatic requirements of running a government and the compromises requiring selling one’s soul, Johnston depicts the war between Jackson’s troubled conscience and his blithe rejection of any transitory qualms.
The rest of the 12 cast members slipped in and out of characters that encompassed textbook names like Henry Clay and Martin Van Buren plus a kind of Greek chorus. Standouts included Kaitlyn O’Neill as Jackson’s wife Rachel, Michael Mena as his Indian ally Black Fox and Conor Walton as a hilarious dazed and brainless John Quincy Adams. The ensemble of chameleons included Christina Groom, Elvin Negron, Erica Mendez, Rick Pena, Geoff Short, Noah Levine, Jordana Forrest, Jennipher Murphy and Leo Valentine Kaplan.
Musical director/keyboardist Kristen Long led the rock band of Wayne Rediker, Martha Spangler and Walt Brewer. She also pinch-hit as a sometime narrator and sang one of the atypically lovely ballads, “Second Nature.”
This is the second show that Outré, formerly performing at Mizner Park, has mounted in its new home in the Abdo New River Room at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts, which has a bit of a shallow stage. Outre has wisely extended the stage and added a runway into the auditorium for the actors to invade the audience’s space. Actors make entrances and exits through the audience and might stop off at some patrons’ tables for a chat. A major improvement in the new home is the sound quality; at Mizner Park, the lyrics were often unintelligible.
One last time, there is something to offend almost everyone, the music is aimed at a younger demographic and it even runs a tad long. But for those whose preference run more to Rent thanMamma Mia, this is your acidic cup of tea.
by Mary Damiano
Anyone who goes to see BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON expecting a bio-musical about our seventh president is in for a rude awakening.
The musical plays fast and loose with facts, painting Jackson as a sexy, populist rock star of politics, known for killing Indians and making a point of offending as many of what he considered the elitists of his day. Frontiersman, statesman, soldier, president—the Andrew Jackson portrayed in BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON is all that and much more.
Outré Theatre Company presented a staged concert version in 2013; now they’re back with the fully produced musical at Broward Center’s New River Abdo Room.
Director Skye Whitcomb has assembled several of the same actors as the concert two years ago. Robert Johnston returns as Andrew Jackson, as does Kaitlyn O’Neill as his beloved wife Rachel, Conor Walton as John Quincy Adams, Michael Mena as Jackson’s friend Black Fox and James Monroe, and Jennipher Murphy as The Storyteller.
The book by Alex Timbers is written as an extended skit with modern references and jokes, and dialogue that lends itself to intentionally bad acting. This goes perfectly with the rock music and lyrics byMichael Friedman, whose score is both catchy and ominous, especially on “Ten Little Indians” performed by Erica Mendez while Jackson moves several native tribes from their lands either by negotiation or force.
BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON shows how Jackson evolved from a simple country boy who fought for his country during the Revolutionary War to the man who lost the love of his life due to his own ambition. Jackson’s relationship with Rachel is at the heart of this story or any story about Jackson—his deep love for his wife humanizes him when he goes on the rampage against the Spanish or the British or the Indians or the politicians or anyone else who crosses him.
Johnston is every inch the sexy rock star—physically and vocally—that the creators envisioned when they wrote this version of Jackson. O’Neill is winsome and straight-talking as Rachel, a woman who simply wants her husband by her side. Her full silky voice elevates several songs, including “The Great Compromise”. Walton delivers another hilarious performance as the lollipop-licking, overgrown man-child John Quincy Adams. Mena’s Black Fox is intense and greatly contributes to the tension in the story.
The ensemble cast, which includes Christina Groom, Noah Levine, Jordana Forest, Geoff Short, Elvin Negron, Leo Valentine Kaplan and Rick Pena, is obviously having a great time. Whitcomb’s inventive staging includes a runway, which is often used for comic effect and to increase the intimacy between the cast and the audience. The cast soars vocally, and has fun with Sabrina Lynn Gore’s choreography. They often spill over from the stage, fanning out through the crowd and even sitting down and enjoying a drink at a table in the audience.
Kristen Long, who plays keyboards leads the band, also contributes as The Storyteller for part of the show and sings the lilting “Second Nature.”
Say what you will about Andrew Jackson—some believe him to be one of the greatest presidents we’ve had, responsible for adding more land to the country than any other, while some believe him to be a power-hungry, grudge-holding maniac responsible for genocide of Native Americans. What comes across most in this version is that Jackson was a man of contradictions. Outré Theatre Company’s production of BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON is rollicking and raucous, and definitely rocks the house.
by JW Arnold
Don’t say you weren’t warned. Outre Theatre’s production of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” at the Broward Center contains: strobing lights, profanity, offensive language, political satire, sexual innuendo, sexual out-uendo, taxidermy, corsets, children with tomahawks, bottled water, weasel coats, defaced portraits, twinkies, fake mustaches and a vibraslap. And then there’s the question of revisionist history.
Plenty of modern references pepper the show, which explores Jackson’s youth, rise to prominence as an “Indian fighter” and hero of the Battle of New Orleans, and later, as the populist president who railed against the Washington aristocracy.The rollicking rock musical about our seventh president, a big hit Off Broadway that fizzled on the big, big money stage on Broadway, is the perfect vehicle for Outre and its leadership, artistic director Skye Whitcomb and assistant Sabrina Lynn Gore.
In many ways, the show offers especially relevant commentary today as the public discourse focuses on the one percent and the seeming political power of the monied elite a century and a half later. Stymied by a belligerent Congress, Jackson resorted to sweeping executive actions similar to those taken by President Obama, only to be labeled a tyrant. The book by Alex Timbers and score by Michael Friedman also takes aim at homosexuals, liberals, environmentalists and the other frequent targets of modern conservatives.
Robert Johnston offers a breakout performance, transforming Jackson into an Emo rock star, dramatically delivering the internal conflict the president faced while soaring vocally in numbers such as “I’m Not that Guy” and “I’m So that Guy.” Between the theatrical and musical demands, it’s a tough role to pull off, but Johnston conquers, guyliner and all.
The strong ensemble cast features many familiar young performers, all with strong voices, covering a number of roles: Kaitlyn O’Neill (Rachel Jackson), Rick Pena (Henry Clay), Conor Walton (John Quincy Adams) and Noah Levine (Martin Van Buren). Jennifer Murphy is the lesbian, wheelchair-bound storyteller, a Wellesley grad student who wrote her thesis about Jackson and often gets sidetracked with her personal historical recollections.
The players are accompanied by an accomplished rock band led by Kristen Long, who did triple duty as musical director, keyboardist and the fill-in for the storyteller after Jackson pushes her off a cliff. Yes, a cliff. (We’re thinking that didn’t really happen, either.)
The Broward Center’s Abdo New River Room is an appropriate space for the single set production, a graffiti-covered Antebellum sitting room designed by Gore. She also created the ‘80s punk-inspired costumes that manage never to stray too far from the actual fashions of the early-19th century. And, while the performances were polished and delivered with verve, some of the technical aspects still need some work, lighting and sound, in particular. No doubt the kinks will get worked out over the two-week run.
In many ways, history is still deciding Jackson’s legacy. Did the so-called Trail of Tears make him a visionary who simply enacted manifest destiny or the genocidal murderer of tens of thousands of Native Americans forced to march west?
History is often revisionist and attitudes evolve — or devolve. Just ask the Texas state textbook commission. Regardless, Outre’s production of “Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson” delivers a thought-provoking performance despite the frequent f-bombs, sexual innuendo, sexual out-uendo, taxidermy and the lot.
Outré’s Nightmarish “Back of the Throat” Exposes How Post 9/11 Paranoia Allows Abuses
by Bill Hirschman
The temptation is to describe Yussef el Guindi’s nightmarish Back of the Throat as Kafkaesque or satirical absurdism worthy of Lewis Carroll as Outré Theatre Company depicts an America gone mad.
But it’s not. That’s the real horror. The extremities unfolding before the audience are a logical if artistically exaggerated extrapolation of the paranoia and xenophobia unleashed in tandem against Arab-Americans after 9/11. It’s naturalism not surrealism.
Far more than a rant about this country’s excesses after the Twin Towers tragedy, Back of the Throat is a universal cautionary tale of how fear can trump our ideals, even our humanity in the interest of expedient self-defense.
And Outré, operating on a shoestring and specializing in edgy work with a social message, has outdone itself with the best offering of its three-year history – a production so powerful that the opening night audience just sat stunned in their seats after the lights came up.
Other than theatrically staged flashbacks, Back of the Throat is constructed as a real-time 85-minute interrogation of a naturalized Arab-American suspected for some undisclosed reason of complicity in a recent terrorist attack.
Braced in his own apartment after giving permission to two investigators to look around, the hapless innocent Khaled is at first only uneasy at their enigmatic questions.
Khaled is told in a genial but insinuating tone, “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about.” But the clear message is that he does have something to worry about. The fact that this aphorism is a self-fulfilling double bind means even his mounting anxiety is “evidence” against him.
But genteel inquiries give way to physical violence and shattering humiliation. The noose tightens until he realizes that he is predestined by the feds’ rationalized guilty-until-proven-innocent logic in extremis.
The performances under the sure guidance of artistic director Skye Whitcomb are perhaps the best we’ve seen from everyone involved, especially Rayner G. Garranchan as Khaled, and the always superb Jim Gibbons as Bartlett, the iron fist in a velvet glove interrogator, and Tim Gore as his terrifyingly implacable and methodical partner Carl.
What is especially unnerving about the public servants created by Gibbons and Gore is that while you cannot excuse their abuses for five seconds, the internal logic of their thinking charted by el Guindi is unassailably consistent. Therefore, it has a weird integrity. Right is on their side and there is not a milli-second’s doubt in their mind; that empowers them to violate every American and Judeo-Christian tenet in the book.
That also allows them to indulge in the most backwards thinking processes possible. As Carl gets ready to beat viciously kick Khaled, he says calmly, almost regretfully, “This will take away from your humanity, which is not good for us.” and later, “If you’re innocent, why did I kick you?”
El Guindi, an insightful playwright from Seattle, is not out to demonize the institutions with a one-dimensional screed. The play is an object lesson in the consequences when society’s tacit approval or even indifference enables abuses that counter what we profess to believe in.
In fact, an interesting resonance arises when the interrogators have jettisoned their humanity with almost the same ends-justify-the-means we-have-been-driven-to-this logic that the terrorists themselves use – each extremism engendering the other in a symbiotic dance of death.
El Guindi takes it one step further. The play ends with an eloquent speech by the dead 9/11 plotter who has appeared as a mostly silent ghost or in flashbacks. In a frighteningly calm and measured performance by Freddy Valle, the terrorist explains his rationale in a way that would be seductively persuasive if not for the horror of what we know he plans to wreak.
The playwright carefully constructed this dance with ever-morphing tempos and Whitcomb has matched it step for step. His verbal and physical staging is appropriately fluid. Whitcomb and assistant director Sabrina Lynn Gore have not paced the journey in the sense of it being fast or slow, so much as tightening and loosening and then tightening again the feeling of encroaching doom. With his actors, he has created tones that range from pleasant to threatening. The evening feels like a blind man desperately trying to find an escape from in an ever shifting labyrinth. He also moves the action cinematically between the interrogation and flashback scenes with very different witnesses, all inhabited convincingly by the wonderful Faiza Cherie.
So many of the twists of the garrote are subtle but clear. During the opening scene, Bartlett exudes faux cordial banter with Khaled, “apologizing” for being intrusive even as they blithely violate his space. Carl methodically searches the apartment, paying special attention to the bookcase. Carl removes volume after volume as if he has discovered clues; Khaled becomes increasingly concerned that the titles can be misconstrued. Carl assures him not to worry; they will be out of here in five minutes. Shortly thereafter, with the confiscated books accumulating, Carl takes off his jacket and rolls up his shirt sleeves. Chilling.
Later, an alarmed Khaled, fearing that he is being railroaded, says to the staring men, “I’d like you to leave.” The men don’t even blink. Then, after a second or two of silence, Bartlett says with feigned sympathy, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” It’s now clear that the point of no return has been crossed. But in retrospect, Khaled and we realize that line was crossed when he agreed to cooperate with them. And as we learn later in flashbacks of possible witnesses against him, that line was crossed long before the men arrived.
Occasionally, the lawmen explode in invective and violence – although you wonder if that isn’t just another calculated use of a tack in the interrogators’ toolbox. Gibbons in particular has an unnerving venting speech about how immigrants have the unmitigated gall to invoke Constitutional rights when they are destroying this country—even as he acknowledges that he is the proud great-grandson of immigrant. “Yesterday, it was the Irish and the Poles; tomorrow, it might be the Dutch,” he says.
Garranchan creates a protagonist so breathtakingly ordinary that we cannot help but identify with him. He starts a bit apprehensive as his apartment is inspected. But bit by bit, with Whitcomb’s guidance, Garranchan ramps up the anxiety with a literally open-mouthed expression of amazement and fear as his visitors ignore questions about what he is being accused of. Garranchan’s Khaled hollowly pushes back, invoking his rights, already knowing that these men have no intention of honoring them. By the time Khaled gets angry, it is way too late.
But the play’s success is rooted in the measured performances of Gibbons and Gore as the bureaucratic functionaries who have heard every lie so often, dealt with traitors for so long and who are so convinced of their righteousness that their terrible pursuit is conducted with a surgeon’s dispassion, later revealed to harbor festering rage. These are not slobbering sadistic monsters – which is what makes them all the more frightening.
Gibbons has been one of the region’s best and underused actors for a decade and a half, notable for his honey smooth Louisiana accent with a bourbon kick. While he has played similarly menacing roles (e.g. the policeman in Infinite Abyss’ Project’s The Pillowman in 2011, his talent has just deepened over time. Tall, courtly with piercing blue eyes, Gibbons smoothly changes gears emotionally.
Gore seems transplanted out of a police detective bullpen somewhere. Taciturn and preternaturally all business, even his explosions of violence seem calculated. He seems resentful that this ungrateful slime has forced him to these extremes – although he has no compunction about it at all. The two actor/characters have a nice chemistry of long-time partners, especially the way they exchange glances when Khaled says something neutral that they take as confirmation of their suspicions.
Outré is moving later this season to the Broward Center’s Abdo New River Room, but it has been given temporary quarters at the tiny Sol Children’s Theatre in a strip shopping center in Boca Raton. The space is intimate, ratcheting up the claustrophobic feeling. But it also has a limited number of seats and Outré has had to cut back its schedule, so get your tickets now.
Outre’s An Iliad electrifies the stage
by Jesse Leaf
This isn’t THE Iliad, it is AN Iliad, and what an Iliad it is. Avi Hoffman delivers an electrifying performance as a hardened war correspondent covering the Trojan War, which turned out to be one war too many. After he reports on the outsized characters in the Greek epic who die outsized deaths in outsized battles, he puts that conflict in historic context, reeling off the wars mankind has fought through the ages. Soon, he crosses that dangerous line separating his humanity from objective observer. It is a devastating onstage moment as Hoffman almost physically shrinks under the onslaught of our insane and bloody history, crying out not for the unfathomable waste of people and treasure, but for the individual kids from small towns and large cities who have lost their future and their contributions to humanity. Just your everyday youth erased by forces bigger than themselves.
The intertwining of the abattoir of war with ancient Greek beliefs is brilliant. Why are wars fought? In fear that the blame would be laid at the doorstop of the ruling elite, the Greeks invented a panoply of imperfect gods – jealous, thoughtless, envious, petty – and dumped the blame on them. We humans are pawns in their games – and games they actually are to the gods who plant seeds of discontent and then sit back and watch the fun, taking one side or the other, in a sort of cosmic video game. This is a much more interesting explanation of the dynamics of civilization than any we’ve ever come up with.
To backtrack, Hoffman plays the part of The Poet, a wandering minstrel who tells the story of Troy (also called Iliam, thus the title) and Greece, and the protracted and devastating war between them. The Poet is clothed in the modern dress of a journalist, with khaki pants and indentifying ID cards hanging from his neck. His stage is an area outside the walls of Troy, a set artfully designed by scenic designer Sean McClelland. There is untold history in this set; flanked by two massive walls is the discarded effluvium of war – cartridge cases, gas containers, cable spools, splintered wood mixed with pieces of destroyed furniture, and an old radio. The future is the past as we are lead to the conclusion that war knows no cessation, it is an unbroken continuum.
This great maelstrom of past and present conflict is further reflected in the play’s constant melding of time to make a point. Hoffman’s assimilation in a dual time milieu is so complete that when he emphasizes some point or another using modern examples, we are acceptingly transported, drawn into the dual milieu effortlessly. So we immediately understand when he likens the inner rage and blood-lust of a Greek warrior to what we feel on the highway when we are cut off by a lunatic driver, or when somebody on the supermarket line cuts in. We are all capable of homicidal rage, whether we are defending a walled city in ancient Greece, or living suburban lives in Ft. Lauderdale.
Without so much as a mock helmet or spear, Hoffman creates in your mind’s eye the sights, sounds, and even the smells of an ancient battlefield, suddenly making war a reality, a close personal experience. The idea is to build a relatable empathy for the moment when the narrative is backed by a series of projected background photographs of war victims at the play’s searingly dramatic conclusion. We graphically see that the child in a Syrian hospital is brother under the skin to a Greek warrior who fought and died in the dust of a battlefield three millennia ago. This, my friend, is theater incarnate.
That said, An Iliad is not so much a political anti-war message, as an argument that blood conflict is built into our DNA, exactly like the transference of blame to the Greek gods who control us as a way of passing time. For if the megaheroes of Homer flail helplessly before the gods, what fault can we find in our daily battles with people who exhibit sociopathic acts with seeming unconcern or, worse, pride? Homer’s warriors are bogged down in hubris, by definition a destructive fault, but it is an engine of action without which there would be no Iliad. But also no war.
A solo show makes special demands on a theater company. It has to maintain interest with few aides from cast, scenery, lighting, sound. I give five stars to Outre’s talented cast of backstage staff: Director Skye Whitcomb choreographed Avi Hoffman’s movement between and around the castoffs of war with fluid grace. Sound designer Danny Butler finessed a background that was this close to subliminal and so powerfully effective. Stefanie Howard’s lighting was ever-changing with split-second timing and a lot more complicated than she will get audience credit for. So here’s credit.
You owe it to yourselves and your relatives and your friends to gather together and see this production – you will not soon forget it.
by Roger Martin
Hey boys and girls, moms and dads! Anyone want to be an actor? Lead a life of riches, glamor and excitement? Great, then scoot right on up to Boca Raton and watch Avi Hoffman in An Iliad. Ninety minutes in Outré Theatre with Avi and you’ll learn it all. Fame awaits.
It’s a one man show, An Iliad, and a terrific show it is. Avi Hoffman is Homer, regaling the audience with this updated version of the classic tale of the siege of Troy. And of course you all remember how that went, Paris stealing Helen from the King of Sparta, thoroughly ticking off the Greeks who then spent ten years trying to get her back. Hero versus Hero, God versus God. Cue the carnage.
So in this updated version by Denis O’Hare and Lisa Peterson, Hoffman is dressed and booted in quasi battle fatigues, unshaven and exhausted, becoming the heroes, telling their tales, strutting the stage, killing and lamenting.
This is a timeless piece, performed 3000 years ago and, in this version, still very much alive, vibrant and utterly intriguing. As Hoffman speaks, voice overs and sound fx delineate the battles old and new and videos flash upstage but nothing detracts from Hoffman’s performance. It’s a rare actor who can enthrall an audience with tales of endless violence and the utter stupidity of war, but Hoffman does this, not with ease but with his belief in himself and the characters into whom he disappears. Hoffman drags us onto the blood stained beaches and before the battlements of ancient Troy and we are there, completely, as Achilles destroys Hector and the gods weave their petty plots. An acting lesson, indeed.
The set by Sean McClelland is a red stained multi-level rendering of the detritus of war, the battlefield and the battlement. It’s well done and effective but seems almost too large for the performance. It reaches far upstage and when Hoffman is up there he is far from the audience. Six inch risers rather than eight inch hinder the sight lines. This is not the fault of Outré but rather that of the theatre designers. So be warned, when you go to see An Iliad, and you most certainly should, go for the front few rows.
Hoffman is excellent from any seat in the house but if you’re close to him you can see the subtleties, the glint of an eye, the lapse of a lip, his true sense of being, that contribute so much to his performance.
Well and imaginatively directed by Skye Whitcomb, An Iliad is a piece that requires attention but offers myriad rewards. It’s a brave choice for a relatively new theatre, the artistic over the commercial, and it’s a choice to be applauded. Well done, Avi Hoffman and Outré Theatre.
The rest of the production team: sound designer Danny Butler, lighting designer Stefanie Howard and assistant director/stage manager Sabrina Lynn Gore.