Jemma Beggs reviews The Sherman Theatre’s production of Guirgis’ 2011 play, The Motherfucker with the Hat, in Cardiff.
As its name would suggest, Stephen Adly Guirgis’s The Motherfucker with the Hat is a bold and uncensored play, unconcerned with causing offence through its characters’ persistent obscenities or racial stereotypes. Yet this is not an insensitive or vulgar production chasing a cheap shock factor, but a darkly, hilarious examination of the destructive effects of alcoholism, addiction, infidelity and betrayal.
With its strong New York accents and American colloquialisms, there can be no doubt from where this play hails, yet its universality of themes ensures its effortless transference across the Atlantic, under Andy Arnold’s direction. Just out of prison and back in the clutches of his addict girlfriend, recovering alcoholic Jackie (François Pandolfo) is following a dark path sure to lead him straight back inside, despite the encouragement to change his viciously cyclic ways from his sponsor Ralph and cousin Julio.
With such a dark core, it is testament to the clever writing and skilful line delivery that The Motherfucker with the Hat contains as much humour as it does. The comedic element is multi-layered and recurrent throughout the duration of the performance; glaring irony, parodic caricature, physical slapstick, witty word-play and lines which are funny because they’re just so bang on the money, all blend together to make a laugh out loud firecracker of a play.
Taking place across three Manhattan apartments, Kenny Miller’s cleverly designed three-tiered set enables the action to flit from Times Square to Hell’s Kitchen to Washington Heights, without the interruption of set changes to disrupt the momentum of the action or building tension of the performance. Miller’s set and costume design is not striking in and of itself, but crafted with the intent of character development in mind. The detail of each apartment adds to the backstory and personalities of its inhabitants, whilst each outfit reveals something about the person who wears it; a skimpy slip emphasising Veronica’s desperate need to be sexually desired or a shapeless jumper and sweats reiterating Victoria’s loss of self-esteem or yearning to disappear.
Characterisation is the strong driver of this play, with each of the five outstanding actors playing their parts to perfection. Whether it be Renee Williams’ raw vulnerability or Jermaine Dominique’s transition from jaunty optimism to defeatist cynicism, each member of the cast excels. François Pandolfo gives a remarkably authentic performance; equally convincing as a man on the edge overcome with violence and rage, or a near paralytic drunk, slurring and stumbling across the stage with inebriated abandon. Kyle Lima is both hilarious and extremely endearing as camp, super buff Cousin Julio, who highlights the strength of family bonds through his unwavering loyalty to Jackie. Alexandra Riley opens and closes the show but is not seen enough throughout – a shame, as her stage presence makes her highly watchable.
The one significant flaw in The Motherfucker with the Hat is that, throughout the performance the tension and emotion builds and builds, gathering all the ammunition to utterly blow the audience away with the ending. And yet, despite all its potential, it never truly breaks your heart. At the last moment the gut punch never arrives, instead softened into something slightly insubstantial – a disappointing finale to an otherwise high-octane, brilliant production.