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Review: ‘Whipping, or The Football Hamlet’ at Longacre Lea

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What a rush. DC area playwright Kathleen Akerley has aced her way through the hottest of “au courant” identity politics in her newest work, the penetrating Whipping, or the Football Hamlet.

Justin Weaks (video), Kamau Mitchell. Photo by Kathleen Ackerley.

With trenchant taunts and a flurry of dialogue that fluently picks at the hidden away scabs of supposed oppressors, the visible wounds of assumed victims to how society defines her fictional characters, Akerley gives no quarter in Whipping.

Riffing from The Bard’s soulful masterpiece, Hamlet, playwright and director Akerley takes off from this: “Use every man after his desert, and who should ’scape whipping?” Few of the characters in Whipping, Or the Football Hamlet escape the scorn of a verbal whipping usually for their own swaggering hubris.

Ok, now, so what is the setup for the inventive absurdist tragicomedy Whipping with its football moniker and the name Hamlet?

The time is now. A gabby Beer Man (Seamus Miller is a blissful hoot) is selling his wares along with some low-life sexist jokes. A young black quarterback named Ham (a mournful Kamau Mitchell deep into melancholy) is playing his first game in the DFL (Denmark Football League). Ham is replacing the unexpectedly retired older ghost-like, hoodie-wearing quarterback named Old Hamlet (Justin Weaks as a wisdom rich presence).

New quarterback Ham finds himself up against a whole lot of trouble (and how can I not mention Colin Kaepernick as does one of the production’s actors in his bio). There is a biased on-the-field referee (a cock-sure, don’t mess with me Scott Ward Abernathy) who at first tries to control the game even before it starts. On the playing field are also a befuddled coach (a to-a-T Ryan Tumulty) along with the representative from the opposing team; a tough minded, trash talking free safety (an arrogant, very nuanced William Hayes ) who loves to tackles hard. As an on-flied female sport reporter, Emily Whitworth is a pert presence who must suffer many fools who see only her physical presence.

Up in a press box, created by video projected high on the back wall of The Callan Theatre like a Jumbo Tron, are a pair of opinionated television announcers (the heavenly pairing of Chris Davenport and Matthew Pauli who just are full of delight as they pop off from one other like drum rolls. At half time of the game appear a trio of color commenters each with an axe to use on each other and Ham (Vince Eisenson, Gerrad Taylor and Annalisa Dias are vividly snippy seeing all things through their own personal and very diverss lenses of experience.

Scott Ward Abernethy, Ryan Tumulty. Photo by C Stanley Photography.

What Akerley does with her character and the football game is eye opening. It is as if each wears a tag over the character to become what is seen and defined by the tag. All is way fluid, with gender and personality as two examples.

Beyond that fluidity, there are no agreed upon rules for the game on the field. If there are rules, they change constantly. Everything is quicksand. Nothing is solid and spins. Even the fact of a pre-game coin toss comes under question. What we see is the only opinion. Facts and experience become contextual. Everyone has a humble opinion to contend with (IMHO). No one’s opinion is better or more than another character (except for the wisdom of Old Ham).

The production forms around Ham constantly questions why he is playing the game; he questions himself and his existence. He murmurs that he is alone on the field with no one by his side. He questions himself what he should do, or not do. Should he be the quarterback or not? Are everything and everyone stacked against him? Will he be able to act and not just mutter to no one in particular

The set (Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden) is left mostly to the audience imagination with painted yard lines and some ad signs. That is fine for such a verbally intelligent script. Lighting, including stadium like whites, is by John Burkland. The varied, character defining costumes are by Heather C. Jackson. Video work is first rate with credits to Seamus Miller and Kathleen Akerley.

Whipping, Or the Football Hamlet is a wonder of smart-set invention. Of course, not everyone works perfectly, but what does, on stage or in real life? The production should be very appealing for anyone open to question his or her own progressive views of the world (as I did and especially after Old Hamlet’s final words and a delightful video short take from three supercilious experts on the trigger powers of words within words (Thembi Duncan, Michael Dove and Kimberly Gilbert). Akerley is fearless with her absurdist view of the current world.   I needed that; lots.

Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission.

Whipping, or the Football Hamlet plays through September 10, 2017, at Longacre Lea performing at The Callan Theatre at The Catholic University’s Drama Complex – 3801 Harewood Road NE, in Washington, DC. Tickets are available online.

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