The apparition that floats through Whipping, or The Football Hamlet is not that of a fatally poisoned monarch nagging his slacker son to avenge him, but rather one of a famous former quarterback—one more given to alliteration than to dad jokes, though his name is Old Ham. Played with dire conviction by Justin Weaks, he materializes in the first quarter of a matchup between the New Yorick Jets and the Seattle Handsaws to warn his brooding young successor against mistaking privilege for freedom. Watching him, I thought of Colin Kaepernick but also of Dave Chappelle.
The kid to whom he’s delivering his admonition is the dashing Kamau Mitchell, in the sullied flesh. But Weaks’ ghost is one of more than a dozen characters who appears only via prerecorded video, an economical means by which writer/director/choreographer/videographer (with cast member Séamus Miller) Kathleen Akerley has expanded her live-on-stage cast of a half-dozen to a company of more than 20—among them, several ringers who’d likely be too busy or expensive to be had any other way.
Besides Old Ham, the video complement includes two different sets of color commentators, as well as advertisements for apocalypse insurance and the identity-shrinking medication Simplifica. As halftime—intermission—approaches, one of those two sets of headset-wearing talking heads breaks down the dramaturgical stats: “Seventeen Hamlet lines quoted correctly, if wildly out of context, and 11 perverted somewhere in the line, deliberately misquoted.” This follows a debate over whether the playwright has done right by paring away so many of Hamlet’s recognizable goalposts, including its most famous monologue. (It’s Not To Be, folks.)
“You waste time stating the obvious when you’re doing absurdism,” says Vince Eisenson.
“You need to state the obvious when doing absurdism, to prevent the audience from thinking about how much they hate you,” replies Gerrad Taylor.Clearly, Akerley is both artist and critic.
Of the many floggings referenced in the title of her dense, occasionally incomprehensible, but ultimately rewarding meditation on race and representation, the lashings she’s sometimes endured from people paid to explain—to reduce—her plays are the gentlest. Akerley bristles at the prospect of being, to quote an ancient TV show that seems congruent with her sensibilities, “pushed, filed, stamped, indexed, briefed, debriefed or numbered” (Hey! Football players wear numbers!), as an artist or as a person. The question of Whipping, voiced by three of its characters, is not “To be or not to be,” but “Who do I marginalize?” That a play with so unimpeachably worthy and didactic an agenda manages by a safe margin to be more enjoyable than insufferable counts as a coup. Maybe it’s all the puns.
Some of Whipping’s pleasures, like the really quite substantial distance Akerley is willing to travel to for a not-so-substantial joke, will speak to a self-selecting audience of dorks who consider a wildly lopsided ratio of setup-to-punchline to be funny all by itself. (Hi!) Other elements will likely appeal more universally: Her actors are energetic and convincing, with Mitchell and William Hayes (as “Free Safety,” one of Ham’s opponents on the field) radiating easy athleticism along with sensitivity. (I just said this about one of the actors in another Hamlet-inspired show, but Mitchell would be great in a conventional Hamlet, by which I mean one that uses the script for Hamlet.)
Emily Whitworth, as a sideline reporter, has a big job to do as the only woman on stage (the video-cast is more balanced) in a piece about representation. The way she modulates the register of her voice when she’s “reporting” on camera versus when she’s interrogating her own prejudices is as disciplined and specific as any actor on any stage in this town. Several slow-motion interludes give her the opportunity to put her dance training to work, too. Séamus Miller plays Beer Man, who hawks $5 cans of Miller Lite and increasingly sour jokes in the show’s prologue, then sticks around as the embodiment of what our president calls “the forgotten man.” And Ryan Tumulty is all exhausted virtue as the coach.
The video element really is integral here, and its production values are strong, ducking the budget patina these enhancements often seem to have even when made by theaters with deeper pockets than Akerley’s got. And its performers are all game: Weaks is haunting in his few minutes onscreen. Chris Davenport and Matthew Pauli are droll as a pair of commentators whose delivery reminds us that cadence and inflection sometimes count for more than word choice—in sports and in Shakespeare. You also get a leopard-printed Jenna Berk as a bubbly game show contestant playing Kiss, Marry, Kill with the players onstage as the candidates. All this stuff is fair recompense for a couple of set pieces in Act Two that sailed right over my head.
I don’t begrudge Akerley for that, though. In its second decade, her company, Longacre Lea, has evolved from a place for her to direct the work of the metaphysical pranksters she so loves—Pinter, Stoppard—to a platform for her own work as a playwright. That’s a good thing. I don’t understand everything she says, but I understand enough to know her voice isn’t marginal. It’s original.
At Catholic University’s Hartke Theatre to September 10. Whipping, or the Football Hamlet is at 3801 Harewood Road NE. $15-$20. longacrelea.org.