Politics with a Side of Queso

Gold, chandeliers and, yes, queso saturate the set (designed by Mimi Lien) for The Rude Mechanicals’ latest piece, Stop Hitting Yourself. Playing at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater, Stop Hitting Yourself wildly amalgamates participatory theater, performance art, early musicals and bourgeoisie comedy. In form, it defies genre and is entirely unafraid of going on a tangent. Still, Stop Hitting Yourself does manage to follow a plot line. Its strengths, however, lie not in the storyline, but in the talents of the ensemble.

A group of self-obsessed socialites gathers at the Queen’s Palace for the annual Charity Ball, where one charity case is selected as the Queen’s beneficiary. This year, one socialite (Lana Lesley) discovers a tree-hugging Wildman (Thomas Graves) in the forest, and tries to mold him into a member of the upper crust to win the Queen’s favor. 

If you’re reminded of Eliza Doolittle, you’re spot-on. Songs and monologues about society, wealth, privilege, individualism and charity make the production’s big ideas abundantly clear. As a representative of peace and nature, Graves’ Wildman clearly stands for a cleaner, greener way of life — one that clashes with the socialites’ outrageous opulence. Though there are tiny moments of surprise in the script, for the most part, each character reinforces a binary. The rich are so blinded and isolated by their wealth that they are difficult to like. On the other hand, the Wildman’s final renunciation of all material belongings took things to the opposite extreme. This of course, is all part of the fun and irony, but the social and political message hashed out in Stop Hitting Yourself repeats itself tirelessly. 

One strength in Graves’ final renunciation, however, is when he begins listing the prices of the physical objects around the set — not only their purchase cost, but the cost of shipping them to New York City for this premiere. This encourages some interesting thoughts about the labor, time and skill invested in every object on the stage. Self-referential moments of meta-theatre such as this one could have well replaced some of the heavier-handed social commentary.

Though the political conversation behind the piece felt, at times, a little too black-and-white, the production’s real strength lies in the charm and innovation of the ensemble. As the theater-making darlings of Austin, Texas, The Rude Mechanicals have been creating original, ensemble-based theater since 1995. They are no strangers to New York, however; among the shows they’ve toured here include their acclaimed Method Gun and a more recent re-imagining of The Performance Group’s legendary 1968 downtown performance, Dionysus in 69. In Stop Hitting Yourself, The Rude Mechanicals exceed the usual gimmicks in destroying the fourth wall. Bringing the house lights up to reveal us all in the theater together, their relationship with the audience is playful and present. One recurring “game” requires the audience to close their eyes. Though it’s obviously your choice to participate, the game provides some delightful and hilarious visual surprises. And yes, these surprises involve lots of queso.  

The dazzling ensemble of veracious actors definitely makes Stop Hitting Yourself a show worth seeing. Graves’ Wildman seduces with his trademark coolness and his headful of glorious hair while Lesley’s Socialite is brimming with an untapped wildness herself. As the Maid, Heather Hanna slyly panders to Paul Soileau’s Queen, whose tiara and pink lipstick are so grotesque that it's hard to look away. Joey Hood’s Unknown Prince is sleazy yet somehow persuasive; similarly, as the Magnate, E. Jason Liebrecht mesmerizes with his skillful and exaggerated cigar smoking. As the Trust Fund Sister, Hannah Kenah’s verbal delivery and physical comedy left the audience in laughter. While political and social commentaries are a dime a dozen, this ensemble is one in a million.

Stop Hitting Yourself plays at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater, which is located on the roof of the Vivian Beaumont Theater (150 West 65th St. between Broadway and Amsterdam Ave.) through February 23. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday; matinees are Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 and available at Telecharge.com or www.lct3.org.

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