It’s not the feel good comedy of the year, but Renegade Theatre Experiment’s The Whipping Man is a compelling dramatic journey worth a trip to the theatre. It’s a play that progresses much like a gangrenous wound, but in the good way. I probably need to elaborate on that. Like a festering gash, it hides many of its juicy secrets below the surface. Only after a while, after plot bits have oozed slowly from its core, and when the pressure has built up, and the rotting lies can no longer be contained, the guilt too intense, the pain too much, only then can it burst with Technicolor, cinematic-like impact. This play will likely stick with you, linger and infect your thoughts for a while after the lights have come up, leaving a lot of unanswered questions and possibly sending you to do more research. It’s a dirty, but can’t look away kind of experience and the type of piece that Renegade knows how to navigate well.
I’m not sure why, but I’m always a bit nervous when there’s a single setting and a small stage, but Renegade’s top notch tech team has time and time again proven they can make magic, and this time is no exception. Lighting is particularly fantastic, walking that fine line of it being “dark” but allowing me to see the faces of the actors. It’s seems elementary, but the mark is missed far more than it is achieved and I was really pleased with the consistent result present in this production. In this case the lighting brought an immense power to the other technical elements as well as the acting, and had it not been done well it could have really had a far-reaching disastrous effect on the overall production. All the technical pieces were in place and created a real palate of ambiance for the actors to play in.
There are a lot of very pretty stage pictures and fine emotional acting going on in The Whipping Man. This is a dark, bitter, confused world portrayed expertly by three men. These aren’t easy lines to deliver, but they succeed in giving the audience what feels like a real sense of their relationships; relationships that have weathered significant changes recently and are continuing to transform before our eyes.
The script certainly educates, but there are a few devices I wish had been done in an alternative manner. The “reading of a letter” monologue takes a major hit to a detailed world that has been so realistically built up until that moment. The curtain is used in this production too, and while I know why, it too undid some of the fine work that had been done to entrench me into the present of a past. I rarely ever feel that a show over 90 minutes should go without an intermission, but I do feel that had the playwright (or RTE) been able to chop 20 minutes, this would be a show that really, from a momentum standpoint, could benefit from no break in the action. I suppose it’s a credit to the ensemble and creative team efforts (and okay, the playwright too) that I didn’t want that “commercial” break.
I enjoy learning new things, and this show definitely illuminates a story not previously told, or at least one I had no prior knowledge of. Jewish slave owners and the emancipation of slaves is an interesting story too and while it shows a way of life and a situation, some of which is “new” and intentionally positioned as being hypocritical, I felt like it was either too little or too much. I either wanted less of the back ground and to only focus on the immediate relationship changes or I wanted more of the history and characters. I recognize this is kind of an impossible conundrum and not really a criticism as much as it is just a fact, but while the play left me satisfied, it still somehow left me in limbo.
As a side note, there is a fair amount of staging that takes place on the floor ,so you’re best getting there early and getting a seat in the pit or sitting several rows back in the auditorium if you have to. There are a few dead rows in the front of the general house seating where you just don’t have enough height/angle to see all of the action which by design has to take place on the floor.
So overall, 4 out of 5 jewels in the review tiara for an eye-opening, moving piece of theatre that educates and intrigues. The Whipping Man plays through February 22 at the Historic Hoover Theater in San Jose.