BWW Reviews: STOP HITTING YOURSELF Considers Guiltless Wealth and Queso
A nearly naked Wildman of the forest lies seemingly dead on the floor of a shimmering golden palace as the audience enters Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater for Rude Mechs' madcap Brechtian vaudeville, Stop Hitting Yourself.
Wearing a Christ-like wound on his torso, as well as a splash of queso, and clutching a microphone stand like a comedian struck down mid-punch line, he's surrounded by the kind of 1930s opulence you'd expect to see in an RKO black and white musical; a muscular statue, a suit of armor, a grand piano, an art deco fountain and an abundance of hanging chandeliers, all glittering gold. (The excellent design is by Mimi Lien.)
In the form of actor Thomas Graves, the Wildman is a genial and intelligent voice of reason who comes to life just to tell us that he dies at the end of every performance, only to lie there on stage until it's time for another go at it.
He's a guest in the palace of the Queen, played with daffy corporate regality by Paul Soileau, who holds an unusual charity ball every year. Hoity-toity families from around the land seek out worthy causes and compete to have their representative emerge victorious in an undisclosed competition, the winner of which is granted one wish.
Plucked from the forest by the Socialite (Lana Lesley) and schooled in the niceties of her set, Wildman intends to wish for the world to be returned to its natural state and let love and harmony flourish. His main competition is an Unknown Prince (Joey Hood, with charming rascality) who wishes to have restored the nobility stripped from his family name when they were sent in exile long ago. Also enjoying the proceedings is a Magnate (E. Jason Liebrecht), a Trust Fund Sister (terrific comic work by Hannah Kenah) and a knowing Maid (Heather Hanna) who appreciates her elite station.
What falls between the thoughtful set-up and the boisterous conclusion is a grab-bag of scenes, songs, audience participation, tap-dancing and Ayn Rand-inspired social commentary on humanity's conflict between being charitable and looking out for one's self. Kirk Lynn is billed as the author and Shawn Sides directs, but the Austin-based company is a theatre collaborative that creates its work as an ensemble and the loosely structured piece bounces through sharply changing styles.
The evening is most notable for its moments where audience members are invited to come up on stage and be handed money. Sometimes they just have to take it and other times they find out they have to earn it. One volunteer was asked to passionately kiss a cast member for a dollar and another was offered the same reward for taking off all his clothes on stage.
There are a few scenes where the actors come fully downstage facing the audience and, dropping character, offer personal confessions and affirmations dealing with issues of money or class.
The text includes old chestnuts of societal conflict like if you're on a raft with room for only ten more people, but 100 people are drowning, how do you decide who gets to go on? The Unknown Prince ponders why we value bees and trees because they're part of nature, but we don't hold the same regard for hair spray and Styrofoam made by man. ("If bumble bees made plastic you would say, 'We have to protect the plastic.'")
The silliness tends to stand out more than anything that might contribute to the message of the piece, but Stop Hitting Yourself does manage to sneak in a deep thought or two amongst the enjoyable rebellious antics.