Whipping, or the Football Hamlet has rushed into CUA’s Callan Theater with Kathleen Akerley calling this play as writer and director as she does most every humid DC August. As a theatergoer, it’s an exciting time. Just before the mass of September openings that signal the start of the theater season, Akerley often offers a new play of her own devising that sets the bar for the rest. Frequently, I find that the whole remainder of the year never quite measures up to the absurd work of the playwright whom I consider to be the best writer putting page to stage in DC. Read on to find out whether that will continue to be true.
Curiously (an adverb easily applied to Akerley’s plays), Whipping, or the Football Hamlet is not really football and not really Hamlet. What it is, however, is a whipping, delivered via Akerley’s pen to the audience, society writ large, and even herself. Social and economic justice is the theme here, while football and Hamlet exist in Whipping mainly as sources for wordplay and reference, rather than overall structure.
Each of these elements exists here as they might be described by a slightly intoxicated person unfamiliar with these cultural icons, which makes for amusing fodder for someone familiar with both. For football, there are self-hating announcers, a coin toss (gone wrong, of course), the national anthem sung in operatic style, and various men in tight pants yelling and hitting each other while a referee with an inferiority complex calls penalties.
For Hamlet, there is a kind of super intense ghost who appears in the beginning, a main character (Ham the quarterback) who wrestles with self-identity, and eventually everybody dies. I swear I’m not being intentionally vague here. This play is more a strung-together series of vignettes about social justice using the characters of Hamlet (mostly the titular character) and a football game (the coach, the beer man, the sideline reporter, etc.) that get more meta and more hilarious as the play goes on. Football and Hamlet are the thin string which binds them together.
And that’s the biggest struggle of this play. Akerley refers to Whipping within itself as both absurd (a technical theater term we’ll get to in a moment) and “lasagna,” referring to the layers of vignettes that refer to each other, like a halftime report trying to figure out how the play will end or a recasting of the play in the second act.
“Absurd” is a term that could be applied to much of Akerley’s work, meaning (beyond just silliness, which Whipping has in spades) that the world of the play has an established set of rules different from our own, and the characters either follow or resist those rules until they are broken or create a new set of rules. One of the clearest examples of this absurd genre is Ionesco’s Rhinoceros where the rules are that: “1. Fascists are rhinoceroses. And 2. When you become a fascist, you turn into a rhinoceros.” The play eventually becomes overrun by rhinoceroses.
What does this have to do with Whipping? In Whipping, those rules are never established. So as the play progresses and gains even more distance from the source material, the work lacks totality, cohesiveness, and ultimately a strong ending. Less like lasagna, whose disparate parts gel into a single dish, Whipping tastes more like the stir fry one makes right before payday. Full of necessities, healthy for the body, but hardly a dish one would make from choice or with the idea that the ingredients would coalesce.
But like that stir fry, Whipping is the kind of play that speaks to immediate need, and, even if it isn’t restaurant quality, it has some delicious nuggets. Akerley is an impeccable artisan of theatrically compelling moments, and her cast follows up well on these. Kamau Mitchell as Ham the quarterback carries the show by showing great range: from sympathy tinged with reproach toward Seamus Miller’s working class white Beer Man to fury touched with fragility when standing up to Scott Ward Abernathy’s Ruff-eree.
Whipping, or The Football Hamlet
closes September 10, 2017
Details and tickets
Akerley also gets quite a few bright lights from DC’s theater scene to play onscreen, which is fantastic, since video takes up a good portion of Whipping’s playing time. Video/projection design, also an Akerley credit, is the design element that hauls this production up a notch in the visual appeal department.
As far as the best of the various vignettes, Emily Whitworth, who shows off skill with both movement and comedic timing as she slots into the Desdemona/sideline reporter role, asking her male castmates to show off their favorite feature was the pinnacle mix of poignant and funny. Though I have a soft spot in my heart for Beer Man’s “What’s The Thing Everyone Assumes About You Because of Some Bullshit Profiling and How Much Would You Like to Punch Them in the Head When They Do,” and Mitchell’s obvious excitement for that game.
As a Kathleen Aklerley show is wont to be, Whipping is filled with great moments like these, and if you are looking to watch a good group of actors play with this hyper-current material lambasting race, class, and gender unfairness, you’re going to have a good time if not a wholly satisfying one. If you’re going to find some football Hamlet, you might be surprised to find a heavy helping of social justice spinach in your absurdist lasagna. If that’s the case, try to enjoy it for what it is and appreciate the masterful moments that Akerley has made.
So I return to the question of the first paragraph of this review: “Will Whipping remain the undefeated best new play of the 2017/2018 season?” My gut says no. But is Kathleen Akerley still my favorite DC playwright? Absolutely. If Tennessee Williams can have his Kingdom of Earth and Sam Shepard can have his The Unseen Hand, surely Kathleen Akerley can be allowed her Whipping.
Whipping, or The Football Hamlet, written and directed by Kathleen Akerley . Live performances: Kamau Mitchell, Scott Ward Abernethy, Ryan Tumulty, Seamus Miller, Emily Whitworth and William Hayes . Lighting Design: John Burkland . Music Direction and Composition: Tom Carman . Costume Design: Heather C. Jackson . Asst Director/Dramaturg: Linda Lombardi . Set Design: Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden . Sound Design: Neil McFadden . Properties Design and Stage Manager: Solomon HaileSelassie .
Video production: Kathleen Akerley . Video appearances: Seth Alcorn, Tracy Olivera, Chris Davenport, Matthew Pauli, Justin Weaks, Jenna Berk, Vince Eisenson, Gerrad Taylor, Annalisa Dias, Dave Gamble, Madeline Burrows, Ashley DeMain, Tom Carman, Thembi Duncan, Michael Dove and Kimberly Gilbert.
Produced by Longacre Lea . Reviewed by Alan Katz.