Harry and the Thief- Big Guns
A REVIEW BY ACHILLES FEELS
Sigrid Gilmer’s Harry and The Thief is one of those pieces that is hard to write about on several levels. First and foremost you’ve got race, and I make that statement as neutrally as humanly possible. As a white male writing about race in Harry, I feel simultaneously unequipped to tackle the subject in a scholarly fashion and unable to address the reality lightly. We’ve all got something to say and think about inequality (in a broad sense) and if you don’t, you’re being an asshole. Secondly, the show is emotionally, thematically, and conceptually all over the board. And tertiarily, I’m not sure if it made me feel horrible, offended, happy, sad, or what. It is unclear what the end goal is and, in this play, I think that’s a problem.
Harry And The Thief takes place over several time periods, but we start at present day. Mimi (Aladrian Wetzel), a thief, is persuaded by her semi-psychotic brother Jeremy (Mike Smith) to go back in time in order to give Harriet Tubman (Monique Ingram) guns. Yes, you read that correctly: guns. Poof, the time-travel device works and Mimi is in pre-civil war Maryland where Harriet Tubman is leading an enclave of runaway slaves to freedom. Plantation owner, Orry Main (Frank Maneino), and Jones, the overseer, (Alexander Scally) don’t intend to let Harry and contraband get away. Simultaneously, Orry Main is accidentally sent to the future and enslaved by present-day Jeremy as a sort of reparation. The plot is like something out of a Shakespearean comedy. With Harriet Tubman. And guns.
There are several things here that probably should have been tighter, fleshed out more clearly. Take Anita (Samy e-Noury), for example, a narrator of sorts, who acts as a sort of cinematographer/director/god figure. Anita jaunts around commanding people to change sets, move props, and “act better, people, this is small theater.” Anita also changes costume with every sashay off-stage, but in this production, directed by Susan Stroupe, there is no formal stage. Some of the action takes place in a stage-like place, but it’s also in the balcony, and down a runwayish area. While this is neat, engaging for the audience, and a thorough use of the location, it doesn’t help with tracking the action. It serves at times to convolute an already hyper-dense plot. el-Noury’s character dashes about as though running a movie rehearsal, giving the entire enterprise a farce-like feeling. I’m not sure that’s really wise, but it sure is confusing. My body wanted to laugh, but my brain kind of…didn’t? Harry’s treatment made me feel uncomfortably disconnected, distanced from some of the heavier themes. My emotional response to them was interrupted, nulled, dulled. It’s very post-modern, definitely, for sure, but does it really work? I didn’t know, and I still don’t.
Dictatorially I felt that Stoupe needed to take a stronger hand. Often an actor’s screaming fit, crying fit, laughing fit, or just plain fit caused the show to wander and that, coupled with dance moments, singing numbers, and general nonsense, added way too many minutes to a play already running two and twenty (in the length’s defense, though, the show didn’t feel as long as I thought it would feel). In terms of performance, standouts were Trustina Fafa Sabah’s Vivian (an actor I’ve absolutely loved on every single stage she’s graced), Aldrian Wetzel’s Mimi, and Mike Smith’s Jeremy. I wanted to get on the Samy el-Noury train, but I’m not sure that this is el-Noury’s character (I’m also not sure this character actually belongs in this play, but that’s hardly Samy’s fault). Alexander Scally has some pretty fucking great moments and Monique Ingram truly captures Harry’s steadfast determination.
I attended a preview performance, so some of the technical elements of the production were still in flux. Generally, the lighting design (Adrienne Gieszl) worked okay. With the audience in the smack dead center of the action, it would be courteous to have a bit of glare control on those light fixtures and tighter focus here and there. A few circuit breakers popped during the show but the cast and crew dealt with it without a notice or a hiccup. Costumes by Mika Eubanks were superb. Sound Design by Max Bent (cool name!) needed a bit of level balancing, and I’m not sure the 90’s pop music works out super well, but the effort is there, it just needs a little refinement.
The Bottom Line: I commend Strand Theater Co. and the company of Harry and the Thief, and I do so deeply, and I really mean it. Strand is constantly pushing the boundaries of what theater is and how it’s produced in Baltimore. Those efforts are important, needed in our city, and consistently executed well. But the show didn’t work for me. I felt that the structure detoured the point. I wanted it to be shorter, stronger, realer, and tighter. These people know what they are doing, to be sure, but I couldn’t really get into it. Ah, well.
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