If there’s one thing you can count on at Subversive Theatre, besides the lumbering climb up those Pierce-Arrow building stairs (or a forgiving ride in the entertaining old service elevator), it’s their commitment to the worker.
Every production over the last 16 years, whether self-derived or a revived classic, has proudly waved the flag of laborers, freedom-fighters, activists and rabble-rousers. Programs are wracked with puns about the proletariat and helpful histories of union organizers and picket lines. Their performance space is named for the late Manny Fried, arguably Buffalo’s most revered revolutionary.
As the capitalists would say, they are “on-brand.”
Their latest production, “Tales of the Driven,” once again hammers into this same impenetrable block of metal, but achieves something even more profound, something softer around the edges. A parable of biblical scope.
The program explains, in so (so) many words, that the story has been brewing in the mind of company founder and artistic director Kurt Schneiderman most of his life, taking a decade to develop and produce – and a whole career to “(put) the pieces together,” his note reads.
That much is apparent. The production benefits greatly from Schneiderman’s shepherding, from spinning some of today’s biggest social crises into a seemingly simple morality tale, to blending age-old story craft like acrobatics and pantomime with contemporary humor at home with “Monty Python” and “Drunk History,” to managing to eek out fully formed characters and impressive tableaus from a 20-person cast. It packs a punch, and hits most nails on the head.
But there are drawbacks that slow the evening’s momentum. At just over two hours, with a 10-minute intermission, this could very easily be trimmed to a seamless 90 minutes (all the rage these days). I’ve found that short and sweet is more to a parable’s point than long and angular, especially considering that as adults we understand where this is going before we even sit down.
The cast is full of spirit and knows their places, even those for whom this is their first theatrical venture. Everyone is always welcome here. Chris Wilson's versatile set works nicely in Hasheen DeBerry's moody lighting.
Many of David Wysocki’s scenes as the ambitious leader of a traveling theater troupe, hell-bent on shocking local puritans, are over-wrought and, though well-delivered, simply too much.
Young Nigel Williams leads this large ensemble as a floppy-haired Boy, whose sister has just drowned and whose metalsmith father is hard up on TLC. The Boy wants explanations about the world, and truths for his trauma. (Hint: He wants to be a storyteller!) Williams does a wonderful job carrying the heavy weight of his lines. If he appears flustered amid the story’s period setting, or rushing through his lines, it’s evident in his determination that he’s excited to get it all right. That’s the spirit, Nigel!
A few other actors tripped up on their lines the night I attended, which fair enough, happens — but actually, it shouldn’t. There’s some fat to trim here in this story, and some honing to do in the staging, but where it matters most, where this is a story that its creator so badly needed to tell, it does so with great heart, commitment and purpose.
“Tales of the Driven” by Kurt Schneiderman
3.5 stars (out of four)
Runs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, through Feb. 23, in Subversive Theatre, The Manny Fried Playhouse, 255 Great Arrow Ave. Tickets are available online and at the box office, at 462-5549. Tickets are $30 general admission, $25 members, students and seniors.
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