The epic sprawl of Tim Robbins' staging of his new play, Break the Whip, may be justified by the scale of its ambitions. He is, after all, dramatizing creation myths — three, to be precise: that of the Powhatan tribes that once flourished along the eastern seaboard of what's now the United States; a Christian creation myth as held by English settlers of the Jamestown colony in the early 17th century; and a creation myth from Angola, as embraced by the first slaves brought to the Jamestown colony. Each of these myths is depicted in a shadow-puppet playlet designed by Johnny Burton, and interspersed throughout the main drama that unfolds in the years between 1609 and 1621, in Jamestown where the three cultures converge.
The drama entails a series of fragile political negotiations and liaisons among the cultures for food, security and some crude vestiges of civilization. Each actor dons a commedia mask so that, even when the English settlers are cannibalizing their own spouses, or burying them in pieces wrapped in cloth, the stylistic treatment contains echoes of an Italian clown show. In one scene, a squatty English buffoon (Stephen M. Porter) rages by "beating" his indentured servant (Chris Schultz) with fey humor — merely swaying his torso so that his limp arm barely scrapes the victim, ostensibly because he hasn't the energy to employ more severity than that. In another scene, an African slave woman (Giselle Jones) gets whipped for having an affair with that same servant. Nothing fey there. We see the lashes as red cloth taped to her back. Upon seeing this, other characters — her fellow slaves and members of the local tribe — recoil in horror. Stylistically, these are mixed messages. Are we supposed to be emotionally estranged — for the comedy — or engaged by the horror? One scene is in the style of a Monty Python sketch; the other, lifted from the TV epic Roots, but in harlequin attire.
If Robbins is attempting to carve the three legends into an alternate American creation myth, inspired by the writings of the late Howard Zinn, as he claims, the decision to replace human faces with symbolic caricatures through masks is, again, justified. After all, this is Big Stuff, bigger than a soap opera, which this play might be were it not for the expansive stylization. (The ensemble of 23 is onstage throughout, retiring to the sides of the stage to change costumes for their next scene from racks that line the stage, also in full audience view.) Similarly justified is the use of onstage musicians to offer juxtapositions of the dialogue with sweeps of live violin (David Alpay) and percussion (Ken Palmer). But the cumulation of these decisions has its costs.
Add to this Robbins' very political decision to give voice to each culture in its native tongue, with English-language supertitles of the Algonquian and Kimbundu languages simultaneously projected onto a screen above the stage. That choice does inspire respect for the fastidious research it must have entailed, the cost being yet one more layer of emotional distraction: huge swaths of text delivered to English speakers on a suspended screen, as though this were an opera with music overtaking the primacy of language. It isn't; the music here is accompaniment rather than an engine.
Roping us back in is the story's sentimental heart, a story of elopement whereby the beaten African slave and her forbidden English lover join a band of rebels to find refuge with the deeply skeptical natives, who are in the midst of their own internal strife. The performance by Scott Harris as a slightly bewildered, very thoughtful and ultimately compassionate tribal leader grows increasingly endearing.
In his politically charged, agenda-driven plays, Bertolt Brecht combined cynicism with sentimentality, as Robbins does here. In those plays too, such as Mother Courage and The Threepenny Opera, is a deliberate tug and pull between emotional estrangement and engagement — a weirdly effective use of contradiction. Robbins' similar attempt has precedent, but less power.
Though choreographed sequences here (by Wilfried Souly and Lindsley Allen) are wildly atmospheric, the production, with its array of styles and diversions, is largely at war with itself.
Robbins is no fool, and alludes to the foibles in two of his camps — the English and the Paspahegh tribe. (The Angolans, however, are treated as romantic ideals.) Still, his play winds to a view of history driven by an impulse more sentimental than scrutinizing. Perhaps the sentimentality is needed to counter the mix of styles and the diversions, but the result is an inverted rendition of the traditional storybook histories of the Americas that get taught in schools, against which Robbins is reacting.
In Coriolanus, Shakespeare arrives at his view of history through a stark view of the impoverished masses, of those in power, and of those in between. Shakespeare's view may seem more despondent than Robbins', but it nonetheless contains an implicit call to rethink the way we think, and act. Brecht comes close to hitting that mark of sophistication. Robbins' view is comparatively slender and partisan.
The structure of Lynn Nottage's powerful drama Ruined is like that of so many plays set in bars and brothels: There's the owner, the employees and the denizens. They tell stories. A fight breaks out, and somebody gets hurt, or killed. It's almost stock, except that here, the bar/brothel is situated in a rural outpost in the Ituri Rainforest of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Mama Nadi (Portia) seriously believes that her no-weapons-allowed policy, and her open door to both government and rebel soldiers, will somehow protect her from the civil war's inevitable, inexorable swath of destruction. And Portia's performance is so searing and muscular, you almost believe her.
One of her diminutive and slightly oily salesman clients, Christian (Russell G. Jones), arrives with two young women as prospective "employees." Beautiful Sophie (Condola Rashad) has the eyes and stature of a gazelle, which may have been responsible for how she came to be "ruined" (reproductively) by the bayonets of unspecified marauding soldiers, so she needs to be spared from sexual intercourse. She's obtained a marked limp and every move is accompanied by a silent grimace. Her salable asset is her singing voice, which gives flight to her agony. The other woman is Salima (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), a gravel-voiced waif so beaten down, one of her eyes is virtually sealed shut.
The establishment is terrorized by the rebel leader, Jerome Kisembe (Tongayi Chirisa), and his government rival, Commander Osembenga (David St. Louis), who, aside from their political rivalry, appear to be competing in the sweepstakes for self-importance. This is a bar saturated with sexual politics: Salima's husband, Fortune (Carl Cofield), shows up to reclaim his bride from the brothel, after he spurned her following her brutal rape by soldiers. Should she go back to him, and to the village that similarly abandoned her in her moment of degradation and despair?
More remarkable than the trajectory of the story are the tones emanating from the production, under Kate Whoriskey's staging. The first comes from the onstage guitarist (Simon Shabantu Kashama) and drummer (Ron McBee), who juxtapose conversations and arguments with the sway and lilt of Dominic Kanza's original music, Nottage's lyrics and Warren Adams' erotic choreography. Then, the performers themselves generate a layer of protective callousness, the armor of a region where life is always ending, or being mutilated. The larger question is whether that cynical veneer can be scratched in order to allow intimacy to invade these hardened hearts. That's not a rhetorical question in this production, but a visceral one. Derek McLane's set of bright, broken colors and mismatching wooden furniture anchors the locale with the thick trunks of palm trees, like the legs of elephants standing around and watching, bemused.
BREAK THE WHIP | Written and directed by TIM ROBBINS | Presented by ACTORS' GANG at the Ivy Substation Theater, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City | Sat., 7 p.m.; Wed.-Fri., 8 p.m.; through Nov. 13 | (310) 838-4264.
RUINED | By LYNNE NOTTAGE | Presented by INTIMAN THEATRE and the GEFFEN PLAYHOUSE, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood | Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 3 & 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 & 7 p.m.; through Oct. 17 | (310) 208-5454.