It’s admirable when a playwright takes on depicting a public figure when creating a show that questions history. Putting words in the mouth of a real person, such as the heroic Harriet Tubman, can be a daunting proposition. Will the voice ring true?
In Harry and the Thief, a Strand Theater Company production, playing at St. Mark’s Church in Baltimore, Director Susan Stroupe makes bold choices with Sigrid Gilmer’s script. Go see this show and watch the all characters wrestle with how to take back control of their own narrative, as mentioned in the Director’s program notes.
The cast of 10 deliver a spastic off-the-charts high-energy performance. They are entirely committed to their portrayals of their characters. The play has an unrelenting pace about it, and these actors kept the scenes going with great intensity and precision.
The action toggles between now and 1858, thanks to a time machine offstage. A physicist, Jeremy (the frenetic Mike Smith) puts his thieving cousin, Mimi, (convincingly played by Aladrian C. Wetzel) in a compromising position with the “wolves at the door” so to speak, making his option of going back in time appealing enough to forgo her doubts about the mission of such a time travel: Jeremy’s aim is for Mimi to find Harriet Tubman and supply her with lots of guns to mount an overthrow of slavery and create a Black Republic of which he will be Emperor. He is conniving, full of rage, and power hungry in a maniacal kind of way.
With a “Mammy” doll providing the push button for time travel, Mimi embarks on a series of misadventures to find Harriet Tubman (referred to as “Harry,” brought to life with quiet intensity by Monique Ingram) and the 4 slaves she is shepherding to freedom in the north (portrayed by Javier Ogando, Madison Sowell, Trustina Fafa Sabah, and Zipporah Brown). And of course you can’t have a play about slavery without the stock characters of a condescending Plantation Owner (Frank Mancino) and his bumbling Overseer (Alexander Scally.) They all make for interesting dance partners in a waltz scene in Act 2.
Then there’s Anita, (expressively played by Samy el-Noury) who as God/Director pauses the action at times and adds some narrative in a booming baritone voice like those heard in Hollywood movie trailers. Why Anita is an outrageous cross dresser is unclear, but entertaining nonetheless, especially when one of the costumes is that of a Quaker Woman. I could not stop giggling. It was just such an over the top element of the play.
Like 80s music? Well, get ready to sing along with the cast to Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell,” as well as hear Boy George and WHAM songs. Their lyrics fit the theme, but adding realism? Not so much. There’s a twerking scene set to a rap remix version of “Rock Around the Clock,” and a crazy “game show” scene. Ambitious, but ambiguous too.
The actors’ volume level, to borrow a phrase from Spinal Tap “goes to 11.” Well, make that 15. Since this is a very intimate playing space (just two rows of 10 or so seats on either side of it), the frequent screaming and hollering is on the verge of overkill and really in-your-face. No doubt this directorial choice is intentional, as we witness aggressive racism, and cringe-worthy moments of pain and suffering. The audience is so close by, however, that the excessive shouting diminishes the power of the playwright’s words. That power comes back in the quieter scenes with Mimi and “Harry” (Harriet Tubman), where we learn of a hurtful marriage and the utter aloneness Harriet feels. The woman-to-woman confidences were believable and deeply moving, demonstrating that less hysterics can be more revealing and more effective.
On an up-note, this theater troupe takes full advantage of the many ways to enter and exit scenes. One of the best ones was played up in the wrap around balcony, as the group of slaves made their escape in the Maryland woods. The set was very simplistic, with changeable locales indicated by small drops along the upstage wall. The costumes worked well for each time period.
As intriguing as the plot arc is, Harry and the Thief ran very long at 2 hours and 20 minutes. Strangely, after the curtain call there was another scene, where the Director/God tells the audience each character’s ultimate fate, in a kind of film epilogue. Cool concept, but a little confusing when one is trying to put on a coat and ready to head home.
Running Time: Two hours and twenty minutes, with an intermission.
Harry and the Thief plays through Saturday, April 10, 2016 at Strand Theater Company performing at Saint Marks Church – 1900 Saint Paul Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.