By Tristan Lejeune
Are you ready for some football?
Well too fucking bad, because we’re here today to talk about intersectionality.
Whipping, or The Football Hamlet (and I’ll be back for you later, you despicable groaner of a title), takes America’s most violent, multibillion-dollar team sport and uses it as a palate to paint pictures of the ongoing U!S!A!, U!S!A! tragedies that are current crises of race, gender, class and other special teams up to and including punt return.
At least, at first it does, but this experimental pinball machine of a show (sometimes things light up pretty-pretty, sometimes everyone misses and you watch the ball fall away) written, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Akerley with the Longacre Lea theatre company eventually abandons the DFL (“Denmark Football League”) and becomes a riff on itself by the second act. The play calls itself out on being painted into a corner, so it drops the Shakespeare dialogue and the touchdowns and just starts playing Calvinball. Sound confusing? Well that’s half the point. These discussions of identity are disorienting because they each want to say different things, and using different languages. Trying to do too much is just one of Whipping’s problems.
Kamau Mitchell stars as Ham, a young, black quarterback making his career debut in the playoffs after his father (because that makes sense) mysteriously retired. Ham refuses to be owned by the league, the fans, or anyone’s damn expectations, dammit. We’re given no real reason to believe he’s great at football.
Séamus Miller walks the stands as Beer Guy, whose tattoos and foul mouth identify him as a card-carrying member of America’s forgotten white proletariat. Beer Guy is probably a Trump voter, possibly a little condescending as a Type, and definitely up among the audience too much.
And Emily Whitworth holds the mic as Reporter, the only live woman in sight for this gridiron gab-fest. She doesn’t have a name (hey, who does?), but darned if she won’t try to subvert your expectations about women while projecting her own, too.
Also along for the “fun” are a pumped-up Free Safety (William Hayes), embittered coach (Ryan Tumulty) and stickler-to-the-rules “Rufferee” (Scott Ward Abernethy).
Some of the games this sextet plays are more rewarding than others. I loved the reclamation of Howl — hitting Ginsberg right in his “negro streets” — but none of the pre-recorded commercials (statements on fear-mongering, or personality homogenization courtesy of Big Pharma) are really worth their time. The show, running through September 10, has some good ideas, but fumbles with how to spend its coin.
Clock management, in fact, is one of Whipping’s biggest problems. Both acts could be 10-20 minutes shorter. It’s not a coincidence that the ref calls two delay-of-game penalties before the game even starts. Speaking of football: sacks have to cost yardage. There’s no zero-loss sack.
Much of this is a result of simply trying to do too much. With so many messages, it can’t help but feel like lecturing. With so many modern concepts, Hamlet is actually a really weak jumping-off point. That train wreck of a title is only the first of many clues that this is a horse designed by committee.
By the end there’s neither football nor Hamlet, but you’ll sure feel the whipping.