Saturday, February 8, 2014

Stop Hitting Yourself: Anything but Cheese

Stop Hitting Yourself is a world premiere offering from the Austin, TX based devised theater troupe Rude Mechs (Rude Mechanicals).  With tap-dancing, torch songs, and a queso fountain, the controlled anarchy of the piece about greed, charity, individualism, and the future of mankind, is a whacked-out delight. 

The story involves a Wildman (Thomas Graves) who is brought to the glittering Queen's Palace by a Socialite (Lana Lesley) to compete for the granting of one wish. He wants to ask that humans take care of nature, because, as he sees it, we would all benefit. But after training for the competition and enjoying the comforts of life in the palace and the attentions of the socialite he starts to doubt his vision of the world.  The Socialite's husband (E. Jason Liebrecht) brings a rival candidate to the competition.  It's a Prince (Joey Hood), who claims a royal lineage which was lost and he wants reinstated.  They become voices of selflessness and selfishness tested by their own commitment to their ideals and this is a battle to the death. 

Told in a Sunset Boulevard-style flashback, with the air of a fast-talking, musically-f1avored 1930's movie, this bent fairytale uses oscillations between excess and stark directness to communicate the themes and keep the audience's rapt attention.  Breaking the fourth wall at times, the cast makes confessions of things they think and do.  There is a game introduced early on that later becomes a strobe effect/staging device --the audience keeps its eyes closed for a few beats and then opens them as the action has shifted. It feels at first like a way to engage the audience and break down some theater formality (which it does) but making it part of the finale of the show adds to the overall structural intelligence that the piece offers. 

For all the sparkle of gold walls, floors, furniture, and mischegoss, this work is deceptively deep. Even if things felt incongruous or over-the-top, they weren't really.  Everything underlying the piece fed into the themes of the work. Written by Kirk Lynn (who later this season brings a new play, Your Mother's Copy of the Kama Sutra, to Playwrights Horizons) and directed by Shawn Sides, Stop Hitting Yourself brings to the forefront how artifice can reveal the truth, detachment can generate intimacy, and want can be both a force for good and destruction. 

It's a strong ensemble but I was instantly charmed by Graves as the Wildman with his Kevin Kline-esque delivery--droll and yet sincere.  Graves's makes the stakes of the Queen's "game" feel very real and his despair as he struggles with his desires is elegant and understated.  That a performance could be so powerfully quiet in a show that has a lot luster and flair means this company is balancing the theatricality with the substance.  And frankly I was surprised when not many critics embraced the piece.  It's their loss because I felt reinvigorated by Rude Mechs.  Here's a great example of how devised theater can shake up the quotidian and offer alternative approaches to story.  Hope they come back soon.

Listen to me talk about this and other shows on the Maxamoo podcast.

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