“Going to the theatre” is always taxing when getting to the theatre, Off Off Broadway on the butt end of West 54th Street, takes longer than the running time of the show you’re traveling to see. Worse, you get to the venue, and the “note from the creators” in the program asks, “Why is that we love to narrativize ourselves in ways that propogate the very violence we claim to upend?” Come again? “Narrativize”? I can’t even.
Fortunately, Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard, the Philadelphia-based creators of Underground Railroad Game, left the “narrativizing” at home, and have come up with one of the most bracingly original shows I’ve ever experienced. The concept sprang from Sheppard’s fifth grade lessons exploring the slavery-thwarting network of the Civil War, which school kids (and some adults, I fear) think was an actual construct. (Colson Whitehead’s new novel The Underground Railroad is about this very notion.) The game, the program notes, saw his classmates divided into Union and Confederate armies, moving or intercepting dolls around the school. I think I would have enjoyed that at age 10. Decades later, with race relations ever more mired and complicated, Sheppard, co-director of Philly’s Lightning Rod Special theatre company, decided the game, “a pedagogical effort to concretize the Underground Railroad,” was also “a glaring example of our predilection to contextualize and teach the system of American slavery in liberally dramatized terms that amplify noble and uplifting narratives.” But let’s put all that “-izing” off to the side (are they trolling our expectations, perhaps?) and concentrate on what this remarkably funny and insinuating play is.
Sheppard (white) and Kidwell (black) are fifth grade teachers in that same classroom in Hanover, PA, divvying us into teams and getting us to participate in that same exercise. (The audience participation, which I find as grueling as “narrativizing,” isn’t awful.) Dispensing teacherly wisdom, they’re relentlessly upbeat, quoting from To Kill a Mockingbird–and, as it happens, involved outside class. Here things get complicated, as we’re pulled into the knottiness of their relationship, which dissolves into increasingly sadomasochistic fantasies involving masters and slaves. The friendly farmer and grateful slave we meet at the beginning of the show, in a typically stereotyped encounter, are revealed to be false fronts, which slip away as we move in and out of the classroom. It’s difficult to say more about the production, in which the n-word is bandied about more freely than I just bandied it, the Confederate flag is raised, “Mammy” appears, and the teachers’ “safe word,” “Sojourner,” is no use for a final turn of events. (The design on the small Ars Nova stage, as marshalled by director Taibi Magar, is amazingly supple, with lighting, set design, and costuming effotlessly creating a variety of environments.)
In short, Underground Railroad Game is the very definition, the most positive definition, of “politically incorrect.” It scorches the earth, without leaving behind the toxic residue of, say, one of our president-elect’s carefully coded, violence-propagating stump speeches. How gratifying to see it in the company of a multiethnic audience, from college age to seniors, who had their eyes and ears opened, rather than shut down, by its content. Yes, it took me longer than the 70 minutes it runs to get there–but I haven’t stopped thinking about Underground Railroad Game since, and if it comes to your city, hop aboard.
The soundtrack of sad-funny British lives courses through the three acts of Mike Bartlett’s Love Love Love. In the “Summer of Love,” it’s the Beatles, as Sandra (Amy Ryan), a stylish Mod, and the carefree Kenneth (Richard Armitage) meet, as Kenneth fumbles with a TV tuned to the live debut of “All You Need Is Love.” That’s all the two opposites require, as Kenneth steals away Sandra from his older brother. In 1990, it’s the Manchester sound of the Stone Roses, as the two, married for decades, have moved up in the world–and have gone off each other, with their children, Rose (Zoe Kazan) and Jamie (Ben Rosenfield), as collateral damage, as a birthday party for their daughter spins out of control. By 2011, matters have long since “Blur”-red–circumstances oblige them to fall back into each other’s lives, as the toll exacted by their selfish behavior on their kids comes into focus.
Or is supposed to come into focus. Bartlett, author of the monarchy fantasy King Charles III, toys with condemning narcissistic boomer culture and selfishness, yet never moves in for the kill. Ryan, missed on our stages these past few years, and Armitage (Thorin in the Hobbit movies) are fun in the first act–Ryan, always gold even with uneven material, is nicely matched by her co-star, who should have a prosperous future ahead of him. They’re amusng playing dress up on Derek McLane’s multifaceted sets, and director Michael Mayer keeps them in constant motion. But they, and the play, become shrill by the second, which is practically an Absolutely Fabulous episode, as the nouveau riche Sandra thoughtlessly mistreats her nerdy, sensitive daughter over cake and Kenneth unburdens himself of secrets. The frivolous air and sour attitude carry over into the third act, by which time our sympathy is at a low ebb for any of these characters. “Love love love”? More like “Run for Your Life.”