Wednesday 27 January 2016

MoFo With The Hat is serious soap comedy

Quicky version

Playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis admitted to Harry Haun of Playbill that he would easily have been persuaded to change the title of his comic sizzler The Motherfucker With The Hat to something more marketable. Because as George Carlin noted in 1972, the "mofo" word is one of seven that wouldn't pass the censor's click at NBC even on the irreverent "Tonight Show" of Johnny Carson. Didn't then, wouldn't now nearly 45 years hence.

Fact is it's a throwaway line repeated countless dozens of times about a bunch of beautiful losers in New York who do or did drugs, who do or did love their mates, and ultimately confess they do or want to or did one another along the way. Can an ex-con still trust his AA sponsor once he learns the smooth-talking "clean" guy slept with his girlfriend whom he's loved, deliriously, since high school? Where is trust, where is faith, where is release from life's impulses and scams both external and inside us?

This show is like David Mamet meets Lewis Black meets Spike Lee : intense, visceral, layered, profane, silly, riddled with stupid human tricks. If you like comic drama that gives nods to truthiness about human nature, Firehall's production that continues through Saturday is definitely for you.

Wordy version

From the footlights :  The Firehall Theatre stage in DTES Vancouver is the perfect venue for a show about druggies, past and present, and the co-dependencies they thrive on with one another. The title that is routinely censored with asterisks is intentionally spat in your face, designed purposely to make you wonder how an object as simple as a man's summer hat would ever link to such a profane subject & noun.

Fact is playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis admitted to Harry Haun of Playbill that he would easily have been persuaded to change the title of his comic sizzler The Motherfucker With The Hat to something more marketable. Because as George Carlin noted in 1972, the "mofo" word is one of seven that wouldn't pass the censor's click at NBC even on the irreverent "Tonight Show" of Johnny Carson. Didn't then, wouldn't now nearly 45 years hence.

What Guirgis manages is to cluster a bunch of lovable low-life together in the heart of New York City. They venture out of their walk-ups in search of coke or quicky sex or maybe some Kentucky Fried, when what they really are looking for is a beacon to point them to new horizons away from the sketchy lives they lead.

Ex-drug dealer Jackie (Stephen Lobo) has just been paroled from prison after 26 months and has scored a labouring job with FedEx. Sobriety is his main hope, along with quickly bedding long-time girl friend Veronica (Kyra Zagorsky) who still has a jones for cocaine. Earnest to achieve the second objective, he spots "the hat" and launches into a tirade about which "mofo" it belongs to that he should mess up. The guy downstairs is chief suspect. 

Jackie's AA sponsor is RalphD (John Cassini), 15 years off the sauce and into veggie juices and body-builder powders he sells. His wife Victoria (Lori Triolo) finds all this has become tedium and tether. She knows he's been unfaithful (those tell-tale MasterCard onion skins!) and she's desperate to be fulfilled once more, casting lusty eyes at Jackie. Rounding out the bunch is cousin Julio (Francisco Trujillo) who is Jackie's life coach, b.s. detector, and wannabe macho defender like Jean-Claude Van Damme.

How it's all put together : A homegrown New Yorker with an Egyptian dad and an Irish mom, Guirgis likes catchy grabby titles with religious, racial and/or colloquial-ethnic NYC hooks. Previously was Jesus Hopped the 'A' Train, followed by Our Lady of 121st Street, a very popular bio-uptake on the New Testament's baddest dude The Last Days of Judas Iscariot, also an intriguing slap at p.c. called Dominica the Fat Ugly Ho that he mounted as artistic director of LAByrinth Theatre troupe whose company co-founder and periodic director was the late Philip Seymour Hoffman.

The sting and bite of sardonic humour are always part of Guirgis's stylistic action. In MoFo the show opens with Veronica rolling a dollar bill and snorting coke while she cleans her apartment and yaks with Mom on the phone. Mom is also strung out on coke, it seems, or perhaps abuzz on booze, or both. Veronica feels the need to give her some daughterly advice in dialogue that only an exceptionally acute and sensitive ear could ever imagine :

"Ma? O.K., look, for the last time, my opinion, you are still a good-looking' woman with a huge, loving' heart and you're not hard to please -- clearly -- but you're dating a fuckin' big-time loser with a head like a actual fuckin' fish!...O.K., like, please, alls I'm gonna say, Ma, when you see him tonight take a moment. Take a breath. Take a real good look and just ax yourself in all honesty, 'Do I wanna fuck him or fry him up with a little adobo and paprika and feed him to da barracuda?' O.K., ma, gotta go!"*

Shortly Veronica confesses that she's been seeing someone while Jackie's been in stir after Jackie spots the hat and does a snifferoo worthy of a CSI send-up. "The pillow smells like Aqua Velva and the bed smells like dick!" he rants. They have the first of uncountable blow-ups. "Maybe I overreacted because you questioned my integrity... Look at me, I would rather kick a 3-legged cat down the stairs than say 'I love you'," Veronica retorts.

Turns out the part-time lover (six sex events over two years) is none other than RalphD. But the onion skins wife Victoria tells Jackie about reveal much more than just the odd motel jiggery for sure. Jackie toggles between murderous and mesmerized by befuddlement. In her head, Veronica bellows -- a la Saul in Henderson The Rain King -- "I want! I want! I want!" but is instantly all mental muddle when trying to understand just the "what" is of that pained and insistent urge. Maybe it was that 2-bedroom house in Yonkers and the Dick-&-Jane kids Jackie promised her before he became a drug dealer. But that likely wouldn't have been enough either.

Rehab, recovery, release from dynamic demons of all sorts, these are the questions Guirgis poses poignantly, tellingly, loudly, profanely. And love, too, can be just such a demon, he suggests, as tenacious and futile as booze and drugs. From its grip many never succeed at liberating themselves even after 12 steps or another dozen or more.

What the show brings to the stage : As noted infra, this script of Guirgis brings to mind David Mamet meeting Lewis Black meeting Spike Lee : intense, visceral, layered, profane, silly, riddled with stupid human tricks. RalphD preaches the clean life : French classes, archery, surfing, flossing his teeth. He claims in perfect AA lingo how Veronica is stuck "in a cycle of self-sabotage". 

When confronted at last by Jackie -- shortly before they exhaust themselves in a fight-to-a-draw -- Ralph tells him "If you need money for rehab, or an exorcism, get in touch." Victoria probably nails it by telling Jackie, who spurns her come-on, "Ralph is not your friend, Ralph always wanted a dog and now he has one, you!"
Jackie muses : "Funny how people can be more than one thing..." 

The Veronica he says he loves he labels a "psycho, nasty, twisted, damaged heartbreaker" while cousin Julio reminds Jackie he's no saint either : "You startled me with your bad manners and your stupidity and your ego!" he says.

Pace, cadence, street vernacular, "like" and "bro" and the "man's code", MoFo is a poetry slam, an extended rap in staccato, contemporary free verse with power and verve that bespeak a man (Guirgis) utterly in touch with his times. Like Phillip the Bastard in WS's King John, I came away thinking "Zounds! I was never so bethumped with words!"

Acting pin-spots :  It would be unfair writ large to deny any of the five principal actors a shout-out in this review. 

Obviously the tortured and torturous love affair between Jackie and Veronica was the chief focus for Guirgis. Stephen Lobo positively thrilled with his crescendos both happy and (mostly) angry, but his sad tremolos too. Kyra Zagorsky was equal measure word-for-word, gesture for gesture. Director Brian Markinson deserves unchecked kudos for what talent he drives these two characters to deliver. Verbal hits to the solar plexus and the heart from both all night long.

As the invidious RalphD, John Cassini oozes the kind of smug self-congratulatory faux-wisdom a genuine AA sponsor might in fact 
offer up. His cynical self-indulgent worldview is currently on display in the U.S. presidential sweepstakes. 

Lori Triolo, however, caught this reviewer right in the throat in her confessional monologue to Jackie when her disgust and revilement for RalphD were revealed, and why. My oh my what a moment of sheer pathos.

The ironic, comic commentary of Francisco Trujillo as Cousin Julio was priceless. Somewhere astride "bi" and not-so-ambiguously gay, his acting as conscience for his cousin Jackie was top-rung stuff.

Production values of note : Between scenes Eric Banerd popped and slapped some street bongos and drummed a set of laundry soap pails down stage right. Crisp, precise pieces one and all. Bravo! performance by Banerd and a clever visual / audio interjection designed by the creative team.

Laughlin Johnston as props and set designer pulled off intriguing interconnected contrasts between Veronica's bedroom, Julio's spotless kitchen chromeware and Victoria's aging living room. Better Sally Ann choices could not be made. Costumes by Beverley Huynh were spot on, particularly Veronica's ultimate sexy singlet that proclaimed "Let's Get Lost".

Who gonna like : If profanity ain't your gig, miss this. But if the rhythms and patois of a contemporary blue collar immigrant NYC Puerto Rican barrio sound like they might be worth a listen, MoFo is for you. These humans' touching fretful attempts to find love and meaning and purpose ring true to the heart. For 100 minutes of non-stop energy and yearning and rue and grace, you've got just four nights left to reward yourself this indulgence.

Particulars : The Motherfucker With The Hat.  Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis.  Produced by Firehall Arts Centre in association with Haberdashery Theatre Company. At 280 East Cordova Street (corner of Gore), until January 30, 2016. Box Office 604.689.0926 for nightly & matinee performances.

Production Team : Director Brian Markinson.  Producer Donna Spencer (Artistic Producer Firehall Theatre).  Props & Set Designer Lauchlin Johnston.  Costume Designer Beverley Huynh.  Lighting Designer Gerald King.  Percussion Eric Banerd.  Stage Manager Kelly Barker.  Assistant Producer Jenn MacLean Angus.  Props Coordinator Yasu Shimosaka.  Technical Director Jamie Burns.  Production Assistant Kayla Heselwood.

Performers :  John Cassini (RalphD).  Stephen Lobo (Jackie).  Lori Triolo (Victoria).  Francisco Trujillo (Cousin Julio).  Kyra Zagorsky (Veronica). 

* Not having a script, my thanks to Hilton Als of The New Yorker 110425 for much of this extended quotation.


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