Attention Tea Partiers, and others nostalgic for some Arcadian vision of a long-ago America. Writer-helmer Tim Robbins and his Actor’s Gang would love to yank your chain with “Break the Whip,” their metatheatrical colonial critique inspired in workshop by Howard Zinn’s critical-historical leftist bible “A People’s History of the United States.” Loaded with masks, puppetry, multicultural musical numbers and extensive supertitled dialogue in three languages, this production lacks a canny editor to determine when enough is too much, or to shape the sprawling, obvious story. Even the choir is likely to be exhausted after almost three hours of self-congratulatory preaching.
The 23-member cast certainly gets an A for effort as they act in uncomfortable half-masks and prowl Richard Hoover’s enormous open stage. Even when they’re off stage, we see them on the sides sorting through a truckload of costumes to impersonate either the Paspahegh (the local tribe when England settled Jamestown circa 1609), the Bantu (America’s first black slaves) or the white settlers themselves.
These quick changes become, at times, more eventful and captivating than the pageant itself, because 10 minutes into “Break the Whip” you can tick off what will transpire, chapter and verse.
Playing like a stage adaptation of Terrence Malick’s “The New World” (which will qualify to some as a recommendation ), “Break the Whip” features more song and dance but the same self-importance and funereal pace. We’re told instantly not to expect a John Smith/Pocahontas brotherhood fable, but for sure the Native Americans’ dignity, mystic rituals and reverence for Mother Earth will complement the Africans’ august nobility as they’re brutalized by the bigoted, effete ruling class. Check, check, check.
The only surprise is that the tale digs no deeper. The central liaison between a slave and a white indentured servant is as idealized as a Harlequin romance, and each culture gets stereotyped more or less in lockstep. Robbins sets up an interesting clash within the aborigines – shall we accommodate the white man or wipe him out? – but that’s set aside for long stretches and given no strong payoff.
Meanwhile the English are one and all flaccid, hypocritical morons, the slaves basically united in their passion and patience. Scene after scene becomes a tedious playing out of predictable attitudes rather than a narrative with muscle and drive.
The spectacle elements stand apart. You can sense the workshop participants’ enthusiasm for their full ensemble Bantu chant and response, or chase scenes through rippling, handheld strips of blue fabric. But all this pageantry outlasts both its utility to the drama and its welcome. An overall Commedia dell’Arte look promises physical expansiveness and wit or, at least, knockabout humor, which the thesps never quite deliver.
One hopes the Gang will keep working on this material, and perhaps take something like Peter Shaffer’s “The Royal Hunt of the Sun” as a model for building suspense when a melancholy outcome is inevitable. It would be a shame if the ensemble couldn’t apply its prodigious, and clearly hard-earned, proficiency at two gorgeously exotic languages to a tale as complex as the tongues themselves.