It’s hard to know where to start… Break The Whip presented by Tim Robbins and The Actors Gang is… a lot. That doesn’t make sense, I know. There’s a lot going on, there is a lot to take in, there is a lot happening before you in many, many different ways. That’s why I say it is A LOT. I don’t imagine that a wildly successful show has ever been described in this manner, and this won’t be the first. Break The Whip isn’t a successful production in my mind, but you might want to check it out anyway.
The show takes place in early 17th Century Jamestown. European settlers meets… slaves brought in from Africa meets… the Powhatan Indians. The perspective is one from “the anonymous, the indentured and enslaved, the muted voices, the vanquished.” It’s a piece meant to enlighten and educate. Not exactly the recounting one would have heard in school or from a history book. At its heart, this is a love story between an indentured servant and a slave newly arrived from Africa who, in seeking safety from the English settlers, finds refuge in the Powhatan tribe.
This ambitious production calls on A LOT of theatrical hoopla. Indonesian shadow puppets, African dance, music (with live musicians), and comedia dell’arte masks… Ensemble members (there are 23!) help to create the picture at various points, from becoming a rock to waving blue fabric to depict water. These things are intriguing, but big picture, it was just too much. Sometimes (often times) less is more. It seemed the thought was: the more theatre tricks/conventions used, the more the passion and ambition of the piece would be conveyed. A few well-chosen theatrical conventions would have served the story telling in a better way.
Let me state for the record that I love Tim Robbins. It’s a given that politics will be involved in his pieces, and that is a great thing. I love political theatre. I was interested in the point of view… the historical story is inherently interesting (and sad, and maddening, and…), but there was a failure to allow the audience to come to their own conclusions, to have an Oprah “Ah-ha” moment. Instead I left with a sore head. Not from too much thinking, but from being repeatedly “hit over the head”. There was A LOT of pounding. Make me think, challenge me to reconsider my preconceived notions, but don’t tell me what to think.
There are things you don’t see on stage in LA very often that are fun (not that the other crazy conventions weren’t fun, just too much). A huge ensemble is a rarity, and this one is filled with energetic and dedicated actors. This experience may be more rewarding for them than it is for the audience, but there wasn’t a weak link. The stage was bare, with the actors on both sides making their costume changes and readying themselves for the next scene. There are 3 different languages used in this show. Subtitles are shown when the Lenape (Native American) and Kimbundu (African slaves) languages are spoken. How often do we get subtitles in theatre? The opera? Wow. As a stage actor, I used to cringe at the question, “How did you memorize all of those lines?” and yet, all I wanted to ask was, “how did you memorize all those lines in those languages?” Don’t worry, I resisted.
The show was too long… it was melodramatic and sappy at times… but it was not a boring retelling of history. When it comes right down to it, The Actors Gang mission of providing meaningful and thought-provoking theatre that is accessible to a wide audience is completely intact. If you have had little exposure to anything outside of super standard theatre, you should give this a shot. There is A LOT going on, and you will likely be on overload when walking out the doors. But it is an affordable (also in the mission statement) theatrical experience unlike you will have the opportunity to see in Los Angeles, very often. It has some great moments performed by some of the best stage actors in the area under the direction of one of the most admirable theatre guys in town. Go on… support a show at a theatre that continues to take chances. We need more of that around here, even if every show isn’t perfection.
Actors’ Gang at the Ivy Substation theatre