Tuesday, February 21, 2012

ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF HISTORY - 'Hit The Wall' by The Inconvenience (Steppenwolf Garage Rep)

(Photo by Ryan Borque)

These last few days have packed a wallop for gay rights advocacy. On Monday, Washington State legalized gay marriage, making it the seventh state in the union to allow same sex couples to lawfully marry. Maryland too may soon be voting on their own bill, perhaps becoming a veritable Marry-Land. And on Friday, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie vetoed his state’s attempt at equality, giving the Democratic legislature a two-year scramble to drum up votes. Ups and downs, for sure, but the ball is rolling and rapidly picking up speed. And amidst the panoply of 24 hour-news coverage, too many tweets, and Facebook statuses gone wild, comes The Inconvenience's Hit The Wall, Ike Holter’s fictional account of the Stonewall Riots – reasserting theatre’s relevance by breaking down barriers, social and artistic, as part of Steppenwolf Theatre Company's 3rd Annual Garage Rep.

I’m sure I just lost a few readers to Google at the word ‘Stonewall’. And no, not Stonewall Jackson. Mentions of the Stonewall Riots that, in 1969, lit the fuse of the gay rights movement generally lead to stares of benign bemusement. Most history classes don’t cover gay rights history, and social prejudices combined with the stifling enormity of the AIDS epidemic have suppressed Stonewall from the mainstream consciousness. But that's where it all began – The Stonewall Inn – in the early hours of June 28, 1969.

Stonewall, the bar, is actually a befitting symbol for the ongoing movement. If you’re ever strolling down Christopher Street in Greenwich Village, you could walk right on by. It is unassuming compared to the far more garish Duplex down the street, bristling with bright strung lights and countless rainbow flags. Stonewall looks, from the outside, as though it could be a pleasant, yet dingy bed and breakfast. A place so small that made an impact so mighty. And that truly is the continuing theme of the gay rights movement in America. Small but mighty.

Small but mighty is also the shortest and most accurate description of director Eric Hoff’s production of Hit The Wall, a jamming theatrical experience, bringing people together in the face of adversity with music, humor, suffering, and striking passion for a little under two hours. Playwright Ike Holter confronts the confusion surrounding this historical enigma upfront, and in the process gives life to nine astonishing characters.

Entering the Steppenwolf Garage space, the audience finds its gaze transfixed on a terribly sexy band (Ryan Murphy, Josh Lambert, and John Cicora), evoking the legendary rock groups of the sixties and seventies, playing hard and loud. Theatergoers dance all over the stage without regard for formality or respect, and those of us that sit, still really dig the tight, ultra cool atmosphere. The band, with a tramp’s dirtiness and a puppy’s curiosity, envelops the audience in a performance-specific counter-culture, unique to our moment but expressive of their time. And, without cuteness or kitsch, the band remains part of the action for the entire play – underscoring, observing, and cheering on as the story unfolds.

Before the riots or even Stonewall come into the picture, the play delves first into the personal lives of the nine characters, gay and straight, good and bad, and exposes their fears, desires, hates, and loves with playfulness and pathos. The bonds and relationships formed over the intermissionless play are multifaceted and grounded - accomplished by nine impeccable actors.

Manny Buckley is giving one of the best individual performances of the year as Carson, a drag queen, who perseveres through exceptional hardship with an against-all-odds positive disposition. Buckley embodies Carson with a breathy ease, owning her confidence and insecurity, allowing the audience to partake in her intensely moving struggle.

Peg, a woman who identifies as a man, is done fabulous justice by Rania Salem Manganara. There is titanic power in Manganara’s stance and walk. When she allows Peg to shed her imposing persona and be vulnerable, the teary result stops the heart. Peg’s interactions with Carson could prove to be so eye opening to audiences who perhaps haven’t any transgender people in their life. Holter writes them as wondrously complex individuals with simple desires, easily understood and related to by anyone.
Daniel Desmarais has youthful spunk and adorable shyness as Newbie, and as Cop, Walter Briggs is faced with perhaps the most difficult role – the personification of hate masquerading as law. Briggs plays the part with wise restraint and layered psychology.

The entire ensemble of actors is in fine form as the riots break out. A combination of fight and dance ensues on John Holt’s aptly minimalist set, creating an orgy of movement; a superhuman threat of danger. The stunning reality of Ryan Bourque’s impressive fight choreography forces you to avert your eyes to spare the pain of seeing a loved one hurt. Borque uses his small company of actors to build a battlefield of hundreds - filling the stage with entirely believable chaos.

But even with the needed violence and totally heart-wrenching climax, Hit The Wall is still, through and through, a triumphant celebration of life. The show is, for lack of a better phrase, so much freaking fun, and the fun is shared so openly and completely with the audience that you can’t help but fall in love with the euphoria. I was excitedly reminded of a Pride Parade, and of the powerhouse emotion that such an event can wield beneath its feathered party mask. This energetic cast is so brimming with love and passion for this world, this place, and this story that the joy is completely infectious.

The Inconvenience’s Hit The Wall is a phenomenal production of an important new play by Ike Holter. While explicitly about an event in another time, it is very much of and for the moment; our moment. I sincerely hope that this Garage Rep production will lead to a longer, dedicated run at another theatre – expanding the potential audience size and influential spread of the piece. But what is going on in the Steppenwolf Theatre Garage should be seen right now, if only to say that “you were there” for the first production of a play that will, mark my words, someday find a treasured place in the gay theatre canon – alongside its brothers, Angels In America and The Normal Heart.-Johnny Oleksinski

‘Hit The Wall’ plays as part of The Steppenwolf Garage rep through April 8.