Steel Hammer, the latest production in the 38th Humana Festival offerings is different than all the rest.
Different in that instead of being produced through the normal avenues of auditions, casting and rehearsal, the production is being developed by a separate entity, the SITI Company, based in New York, and as part of collaboration with Julia Wolfe, a composer and musical artist for Bang on a Can.
Different in that instead of one playwright, there are four, each of whom has created an individual interpretation of the legend of John Henry. Those four versions are woven into a complex and non-linear fabric with the evocative music by Wolfe serving as the connecting thread through the piece.
On the surface, Steel Hammer is about the legend of John Henry. It takes a handful of the multitude of stories about him and exposes the individual truth of each.
But Steel Hammer is obviously about so much more than the legend of one man. Unfortunately, it is difficult for the audience to decipher just what that ‘more’ is.
The production is not really a play; not really a musical. It is a compilation of dance, storytelling, physicality, symbolism and music, with a large dose of repetition mixed in.
While there are moments where the story is concrete and powerful, the majority of the play is a non-verbal representation of oppression, hard work, suffering, the many levels of truth; and of some themes that remain elusive to the end.
In spite of the evasiveness of the piece itself, the theatrical elements of the production are strong. The ensemble tackles the strenuous choreography with rhythmic precision and it is easy to imagine how demanding both the rehearsal process and performance are for the actors.
The complexity of the choreography and movement, which contains elements of African American Step Dancing, clogging, modern and interpretive dance, is impressive; it is not surprising that at times, one of the actors serves as a vocal metronome, keeping the counts for everyone on stage.
The lighting design by Brian H. Scott is a work of art. Scott not only transforms an all-but-bare stage into a multitude of distinct scenes that cross both time and location but adds elements of imagery and emotion to the piece.
For those involved in the production, Steel Hammer is a powerful, intense and exhausting journey; but for uninitiated members of the audience, Steel Hammer is a little too abstract—a little too disjointed—and a little too long.
Steel Hammer is directed by Anne Bogart and continues through April 6 as part of the 38th annual Humana Festival at Actors Theatre. Tickets are available online or by calling the Actors Theatre box office at 502.584.1205.
SITI Company has published a blog on their website that offers some insight on the concept and rehearsal process of Steel Hammer which may be helpful to audience members.
Image: M.Brosilow/Actors Theatre