Whip­ping up pas­sion but not much else

Tim Rob­bins and a ded­i­cated Ac­tors’ Gang cast give voice to the op­pressed in ‘Break the Whip,’ but where’s the drama?

Los Angeles Times - - Calendar - CHARLES McNULTY charles.mcnulty-@latimes.com

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 showoffy 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.

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, pre­mod­ern 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.

Ryan Sheffer

HEART­FELT: Jes­sica Sil­vetti and Giselle Jones delve into the saga of the Jamestown colony with zeal.

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