Review: ‘The Last American Hammer’ by UrbanArias

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Stick a right-wing conspiracy theorist, a curator at a Toby jug museum, and a rookie FBI agent in the same porcelain-filled room in a no-name town in rural Ohio, then make them talk over tea and cookies, and you’ve certainly got yourself a peculiar situation. Take this equation and set it to the satire of librettist Matt Boresi, and you’ve got The Last American Hammer, the latest production by local champion of contemporary, accessible opera, UrbanArias.

L-R: Briana Elyse Hunter, Elizabeth Futral, and Timothy Mix in UrbanArias' The Last American Hammer, playing through September 29 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
L-R: Briana Elyse Hunter, Elizabeth Futral, and Timothy Mix in UrbanArias’ “The Last American Hammer” playing through September 29 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The Last American Hammer (music by Peter Hilliard, libretto by Matt Boresi) is a far cry from the beloved compositions of Puccini or Mozart–a strength as far as I’m concerned. Opera is a medium that naturally lends itself to bombast and melodrama, though in modern times so rarely is its potential to magnify the small, often trivial concerns of those on the margins, put to proper use. With its small seven-member chamber orchestra, and a vanilla-matte, un-braggadocious set piece filled with cedar furniture, a few chairs, and of course, an absurd stockpile of kooky ceramics, Hammer gives its story of three individuals, each in their own way ignored or dismissed by society or those around them, an epic (yet not over-the-top) treatment that is sure to grab audiences’ attention.

Enter Milcolm Negley (Timothy Mix), a self-proclaimed one-man militia bent on prompting the revolution by revealing a hidden thirteenth amendment that essentially delegitimizes every law ever written. In the opening number, decked out in combat boots and ragged camo layers, Negley waxes poetic about the abuses of big government, the evils of China, and the inalienable rights of all Americans to weapons, free speech and, most importantly– work. It’s clear Negley lacks willing ears, save for ex-leftist radical turned eccentric curator Tink Enraught (Elizabeth Futral), who offers Negley a soundboard and a place in which to launch his revolution. Sort of.

While Negley expects an onslaught of FBI agents and military drones to meet him as he holds Tink and her museum–a vessel for government handouts–“hostage,” only rookie agent DeeDee Reyes (Briana Elyse Hunter) shows up on the scene, apparently fooled by her superiors into thinking she was dealing with something of consequence.

If anyone is the villain in this scenario, it’s surely Negley, who launches tirades against the “tiny yellow hands in big red countries” stealing American jobs, and his dismissal of “Eurotrash beatniks.” But Mix plays his easily hateable character with a sort of childish delusion that reveals the insecurity and vulnerability behind the vitriol, making Negley more complex of a character than his ilk are often given credit for. His self-seriousness also plays to great comedic effect, particularly his histrionic exchanges with the level-headed Agent Reyes.

As Reyes, Hunter delivers a standout vocal performance, sweet, yet powerful, imbuing her relatively cool character with the needed frustration and potential for empathy. Futral’s character carries the bulk of the emotional weight as the story unfolds, in what is a fine dramatic performance as the impassioned, and at turns snappy and playful, Ms. Enraught, though her vocal performance was at times unintelligible and fuzzy.

Briana Elyse Hunter and Timothy Mix in UrbanArias' The Last American Hammer, playing through September 29 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Briana Elyse Hunter and Timothy Mix in UrbanArias’ The Last American Hammer, playing through September 29 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The Last American Hammer unfolds a microcosm of timely political debate–the revenge of the small-town white working class against the hoity-toity inclinations of the east-coast elite, all met by an honest, but overwhelmed response of someone struggling to understand and instill reason in the factions, if only to keep the peace. While each voice is given ample time to make its case, too often is this done independently, privileging solo performances over ensemble ones in a way that felt musically and thematically limiting. Likewise, the stage nearly grew stale with what became a predictable rotation from one sung speech to the next. What Hammer does bring to the table, however, is a curious premise–quirky, and often hilarious, without diminishing the concerns of its characters into rote stereotypes. When the moot court (which figures literally in one scene towards the end of the play) is brought to a close on a tragic note, it is not without a shade of humanity and the glimmer of desire for change–a difficult, but needed conclusion for these times.

Running Time: One hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.

The Last American Hammer by UrbanArias is a limited engagement, with two more performances taking place on September 28-29, 2018 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, DC 20002. Tickets can be purchased at the box office or online.

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