nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 28, 2008
The subtitle of American Badass is "12 Characters in Search of a National Identity," and that encapsulates this terrific show quite nicely. In it, writer-performer Chris Harcum portrays these dozen different people (plus a few more in inter-sketch interludes), and he zeroes in on much of what constitutes the "American character," circa 2008. For its wit, its intelligence, its fearlessness, and the great skill with which it is executed, this is a standout show, not just at FRIGID New York, but of this still-new theatre year.
Harcum begins by disarming us, portraying some supposed acquaintance of his who is reacting to the idea of a one-man show called American Badass. This armchair performance artist proceeds to explain what would be good and what would be lousy in a show like this, and it's hilarious but it's also way too true for comfort as he talks about how the show needs to be somewhat, but not too, relevant because you don't want to bore the audience or risk offending them.
Luckily, Harcum disregards his own first character's advice and treads boldly into terrain that seldom gets play on stage or screen these days. One of the vignettes is about a retired George W. Bush in the near future, playing golf and reminiscing about that fateful day when the Twin Towers were hit by airplanes and he was trying to decide what he ought to do in that Florida classroom. Another is about an American mercenary who works for Blackwater, back from Iraq and trying to pick up a woman in a bar by impressing her with tales of his bravado in combat ("I'm Superman," he tells her, bragging that bullets never seemed able to penetrate him). A third depicts a one-time military interrogator who is trying to repent his acts of torture via the services of a dominatrix.
Some of the pieces are much more lighthearted, such as the one about a "competitive eater" in training for the Coney Island hot-dog-eating contest. And in the first segment, Harcum demonstrates some really dazzling talent as he explores the notion of a one-man stage combat show—this bit is not just spectacularly impressive physical theatre, but extremely funny as well.
But American Badass is purposeful theatre, and the last piece—in which a character who may well be Harcum himself announces to a small but swelling crowd on the sidewalk that now that he's old enough to be President of the U.S., he feels like he needs to figure out what needs to be done to fix our obviously ailing Union—brings this socially conscious artist's concerns right to the fore. The show is always provocative but never polemical, reminding us that political/protest theatre still has the power to arouse us.
Harcum, a fine actor and writer, is well-supported by director Bricken Sparacino and a design team that provides him with appropriate quick-change costumes and a projected backdrop of drawings, graphics, and video to keep the piece flowing interestingly. (There's also a short film by Evan Stulberger in which Harcum talks about his real-life day job as a teaching artist in a Bronx public school; sort of a gentle rebuttal to Nilaja Sun's No Child, it seemed to me.)
It's not easy making an audience laugh and think at the same time, but Harcum accomplishes exactly that throughout American Badass. It's a combination that I highly recommend.