Sometimes you are on the inside, sometimes on the outside; sometimes you are straddling the two. Sometimes you’re before, sometimes after, sometimes right there in the moment. Relatability comes from one side and perspective from the other; juxtaposition of the two creates meaning. Humor, too, and in this case, some really great music as well!
This production had me thinking about it all from many angles after the show. While discussing it in the car ride home, I mentioned that I thought the work must have been written by someone in their early to mid-forties, possibly closing in on fifty, definitely not much past the mid-century mark. I looked it up when I got home, and my analysis was right. Looks like Stew (Mark Stewart) was about 45 at the time.
I noticed that “Passing Strange” is often referred to as a ‘coming of age story’ with ‘strong elements of existentialism’ and I will agree—with one little tweak: it’s a ‘coming of middle-age story.’ It’s a mid-life crisis, basically. Admittedly, one of the more interesting and intelligent and thought-provoking ones I’ve witnessed, and we get to enjoy the nostalgic memories with live action, but a mid-life crisis all the same. I hope that blunt call out doesn’t deter you from seeing this show. It actually works as a pretty good device for exploring more complex material about humanity.
What that framework provides in its wonderfully common way is an access point for most audience members, no matter our cultural background or age, to relate. We are all at some point on that trajectory of life, and will recognize ourselves in Stew and his characters. Young adults, thirty-somethings, middle age. Some of us older folk will be looking at it in the rearview mirror and smile a little knowingly, having already processed and come to terms with our choices and lost youth, and finding joy again in looking ahead. Once we walk a little in another’s shoes, we can see perspectives we might not otherwise have noticed.
In that familiarity, in that empathy with the main character both in his younger and older iterations on stage, is where the more profound questions and connections can then occur. It gives us plenty. Religion, race, class, sex, nationality, love, family, acceptance . . . for starters. Stew may not yet realize he’s going through a mid-life crisis, at least not until he gives us the final scene, but he is acutely aware of the social constructs and expectations that one must navigate through life.
From the moment the ‘Youth’ we see on stage recognizes the spiritual power of music and the truth tasted through art, his search for that truth, or ‘the Real,’ develops a laser sharp thirst for understanding identity in all its convoluted forms and applications. All this through a high-energy joyride of a show (and, it appears, a life, since this is for the most part biographical).
“Passing Strange” offers a brilliant mix of entertainment and intellectual value, and the over-the-top referential layers in this production are numerous. As a fan of foreign films, I especially enjoyed the European cinema injection bridging the move from South Central Los Angeles to Amsterdam.
The talent level needed for a cast to convincingly pull off the many transitions of character here, and add to that singing ability, is extraordinarily high. Happily, they are found in this production.
Titus Hankins plays Youth with an endearing approach to the innocent recklessness found in one his age. Nathaniel Beals plays the Narrator who expertly weaves the story outside and in, through word and song. Marissa Baty is Mother, gliding in and out in many quietly powerful ways. Mastering a commendable amount of personas, accents, and costume changes, all the while playing off each other so well, are Devon Jordan, Alicia Rosario, Darius Colquitt, and Avalon Cutts-Jones.
Joining them on stage from start to finish are the musicians Alex Hamel, Samuel Overman, Jennifer Collier, Brandon Labelle, and Brandon Hill. Through very thoughtful direction by Fred Sebulske, music direction by Duane Davis, along with scenic design by Christian Poquette, and choreography by Torrey Thomas, what could easily deteriorate into complete chaos with all these moving parts instead comes together in a thoroughly enjoyable and inspired evening at the theatre.
Which brings me to another angle in my reflection on the show. This work confirms to me that in live theatre, the audience really is an integral part of the performance. Each night the energy and response from the audience influences the overall experience. I have a feeling it will be different every night, maybe a little or maybe a lot, and for me I am already envious of the night that holds the more participatory attendees.
When the Narrator led a rousing song that brought all characters downstage facing the audience and clapping to the infectious beat, I was surprised I was the only one practically dancing in my seat. How could everyone sit there so quietly through that? When the Reverend came preaching through the aisles, how could they not be drawn to join in the celebration? These actors gave us their all, they didn’t hold back. I was compelled to give back.
So now I’m critiquing the audience! Not sure that’s in the job description. To be fair, there was much laughter, and a respectable amount of applause throughout, including an enthusiastic standing ovation at curtain call. I do think, however, audience response can be as revealing about social constructs and expectations as those that were addressed on stage.
“Passing Strange” runs through Nov. 18 at Spectrum Theatre. Ticket information at Actors’ Theatre. Allow yourself to be drawn in to it!
*Photos courtesy of Actors’ Theatre