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Theater review: 'Break the Whip' at the Ivy Substation

September 21, 2010 |  5:19 pm

Break the whip 1a

It’s safe to say that when Tim Robbins is in charge, there’s never going to be a shortfall of political passion. Ideas are sure to run rampant as well, as the engaged mind of this actor-director-writer churns up positions and polemics as profusely as any newspaper opinion page.

“Break the Whip,” the piece Robbins developed through a series of improvisational workshops with his Actors’ Gang company, teems with cast members in a production at the Ivy Substation that’s like a social studies pageant devised by a teacher who lets his sympathies dictate his storytelling. Set in the Jamestown colony in Virginia, the first lasting English settlement in North America, the narrative is told from the point of view of what the play calls “the anonymous, the indentured and enslaved, the muted voices, the vanquished.”
 
Pocahontas, that show-offy flirt, is apparently too famous to make the cut. But my problem with “Break the Whip,” which Robbins wrote and directed, has nothing to do with its politics and everything to do with its sprawl and the way it plays fast and loose with disparate theatrical traditions. This “Avatar”-like epic inspired by Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” is like a fever dream that’s ready to accommodate anything, even a talking bear.

Break the whip 1 The plot boils down to a love story between an indentured servant and a newly arrived black slave, whose only hope as a couple is to be given refuge by a Native American tribe. Because the bad guys (the racist, power-mongering and generally unneighborly English settlers) and the good guys (everyone under their heel) are so clearly defined, the ensuing conflict (unfolding in super-slow motion) is a melodramatic one. The Jamestown movers and shakers are indeed such a bigoted and hypocritical lot that it’s hard to feel sorry that so many under their jurisdiction are dropping dead from starvation.
 
But the dominant note is one of earnestness. “For any story of the transmutable power of the human spirit to survive is almost always a tale of love,” we’re told early on. Toward the end, the tone grows even more pious: “We will make a new family, unknown to the world, a family of all possibility.”

Perhaps to distract us from the sappiness, Robbins presents the saga in the manner of a multicultural carnival. Employing three languages (a stilted, pre-modern English as well as Native American and African tongues) and making incongruous use of commedia dell’arte masks, the production finds endless ways of distancing its material while still belaboring its point.

The staging, enlivened by dance, live music and billowing strips of fabric used to simulate water, can be quite stimulating. And the deeply committed ensemble, darting between parody and sincerity, hyper-theatricality and hushed truth, is unfailingly generous with its emotion and energy. But “Break the Whip” doesn’t challenge its own good intentions, and so there’s little sense of discovery for the audience. The actors seem to be having most of the fun.   

One gets the impression that Robbins was following his intellectual bliss. But drama, which feeds on collision and conflict, requires artists to also go against their own grain.
 
-- Charles McNulty


twitter.com\charlesmcnulty


"Break the Whip," The Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd. Culver City. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. Ends Nov. 13. $15 to $25, www.theactorsgang.com or (310) 838-4264.  Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.

Photos: From top, Chris Schultz and Hannah Chodos; Giselle Jones and Schultz. Credit: Ryan Sheffer


 
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