Whenever someone sits down to watch a play that has such a controversial title, one does so expecting anything. The performances in “The Mother Fxxker with the Hat” live up to this expectation. The play is mostly a high-octane shouting match that has the actors’ foaming mouths showering the front row audience with spit.
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The shouting matches aside, the comedy rich play is still a beautiful ensemble of talent. The title of the play should not lead anyone into thinking that the performance in this play is reckless.
“The Mother Fxxker with the Hat” was scripted by Stephen Adly Guirgis and it is now showing at the San Francisco Playhouse. The staging at Playhouse marks the West coast’s premiere of Guirgis’ play. The play premiered on Broadway in 2011 featuring a star-studded cast. The production is done under the direction of Bill English.
In the production’s program, the director notes that Guirgis’ characters are always meant to be on the path of discovering their spirituality. English makes references to actors in another of Guirgis’ production known as “Judas Iscariot”. In this latest production, the supposedly spiritual characters are struggling addicts who are embroiled in a fusion of jealousy, love, and addiction.
The performances in this play are supposed to be comical all through save for some moments near the end of the play. The cast of this play is magnificent to say the least. The actors bring out Guirgis’ comedy with starling prowess.
The main character is Jackie a former drug dealer who is being released from prison after a two-year sentence. Gabriel Marin presents a very likeable Jackie who is determined to finish his parole without incident. To accomplish this, Jackie joins a twelve-step rehabilitation program.
Gabriel Marin is able to shift his performance from the calm Jackie we first meet to the out of control Jackie who suspects his girlfriend of cheating. The shifts in his emotions are seamless and he is able to carry his audience through a journey of emotions, anger, and raw comedy. As the performer who has to interact with most of the other characters, the success of other performers depends a lot on his performance.
In this play, Marin the main performer is taking a comically charged and adventurous journey. He is on a quest to look for the “mother fxxker” left a hat at his girlfriend’s house after a probable illicit liaison. The lovable Marin’s first lively performance is witnessed when he goes to see his addiction sponsor about this matter. When he gets to Ralph’s place, he discloses to him that Veronica has been having an affair behind his back.
Even though Veronica is still the one doing drugs, her overall composure seems better than that of both Jackie and Ralph. Marin and Lumbly’s performances are top notch as far as their explosiveness is concerned. Jackie is going to seek his sponsor’s help because he suspects that a shock like this is enough to make him relapse. However, when Jackie gets to Ralph’s place, Lumbly delivers a very mixed performance.
On one side, he presents the audience with a caring sponsor who has his life in order. On the other hand, he is still able to communicate his innermost struggles to the audience. When this play premiered, Ralph’s role was assigned to Chris Rock, a very seasoned actor. This initial casting might have been by chance or by design. However, it is clear that this role is very important to the play. Ralph is by all means the epicenter of all the themes in this play.
For instance, through Lumbly’s Ralph the audience is able to grasp the two-sided nature of addiction. Ralph exemplifies those people that do not get into drugs because of their under achievement. His performance also shows that addiction is mostly as a result of inner struggles as opposed to outer struggles. Through this scene, it is also clear that although both Lumbly and Jackie are on the right path, their battle is far from over.
Carl Lumbly’s Ralph is one of the people who interacts with Jackie the most. As Marin’s sponsor, Lumbly has to tune his performance with that of Marin. Ralph’s character is akin to the play’s success. When the play premiered, Chris Rock took up this role and it has remained popular since then.
The expletive-filled conversations between Jackie and Ralph are supposed to be both emotional and comically vulgar. The actors portraying these emotions try their best to maintain this balance but eventually their performances end up being more vulgar than comical.
The supporting cast in this play does a good job that warrants a nod of approval from the audience. In most productions, the performances of the supporting cast are easily overshadowed by those of the main players. “The Mother Fxxker with the Hat” features a supporting cast that bears striking resemblances with the main cast. Julio is the only supporting actor whose performance stands out.
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One of the supporting performers in this production is Isabella Ortega who assumes the role of Veronica, Jackie’s long time girlfriend. Veronica and Jackie have been on a journey of love since the eighth grade. When Jackie is arrested for selling drugs from their New York apartment, Veronica waits for him to serve his two-year sentence. Ortega’s performance is good enough to confuse even those who are keen among the audience. She is able to exemplify a loyal and faithful girlfriend until the hat incident.
This is where she is able to deliver a confusing performance. Half of the audience believes her performance as a faithful girlfriend while the other half questions her faithfulness. Her foul-mouthing techniques are also hard to forget. The most notable performance by a supporting actor is by Ruddy Guerrero who plays Julio. He is able to deliver a macho performance and at the same time deliver the play’s funniest performance.
The scene with Jackie and Ralph seeking his help when they are hiding a gun is exceptionally funny. His performance is basically the “other type of performance” in this play. Margo Hall who plays Victoria, Ralph’s wife was billed as one of the most seasoned actors in the play. However, her performance did not have a lasting impression on me. It is mostly lukewarm and a bit too procedural.
The director of this play is blessed with a huge stage that can make any stage-designing dreams a reality. English does not let this advantage slip through his fingers. Instead, he makes use of the huge stage by putting together three different scenes. All three scenes are at different places. One is a bedroom, the other is a living room, and the third one is the scene of a balcony.
The stage is designed to depict New York in the most realistic way possible. The exterior brick-wall design on either side of the stage makes it feel like a real city. The difference between Ralph’s middle class apartment and Veronica’s colorful low-income house is emphasized by the stage’s design.
Although these two live in different worlds financially, they both have to deal with the demons of addiction. The placement of Julio’s apartment is meant to liken him to Jackie’s guardian angel. This is because Julio is always prepared to offer his help to Jackie.
“The Mother Fxxker with a Hat” is a play that focuses on the addiction theme. Guirgis meant to portray addiction as the unifying factor in this play. Jackie paints the picture of a lovable under achiever while Ralph is a diligent man who has accomplished a lot. Both men are judged differently from the outside but they still have to fight similar battles.
The playwright does not wish to engage the audience in an emotional roller coaster. Instead, he knows that after all the laughter dies down, deep thoughts will inadvertently take over. This play is like one of those movies that have you laughing at one moment, and then have you depressed the next.
This production is almost like a comedy marathon because its emotional bits are very few. During the entire show, the performers use gestures, loud voices, and physical expressions of emotions. The elegant nature of this stage makes this production seem elegant. The wideness of the stage and the height of the ceilings seem to be the only things protecting the audience from the type of language being exchanged at the stage.
English’s superb directing is mixed with accurate portrayals of Veronica’s highs, Victoria’s repressed anger, Jackie’s controlling nature, Ralph’s slyness, and Julio’s good nature to make this play a success.