REVIEW: Harry and the Thief

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Sola Thompson, Ken Early, Burgess Byrd, Darnell Pierre Benjamin, and Keisha Kemper in HARRY AND THE THIEF at Know Theatre / Photo by Deogracias Lerma

If you saw Know Theatre’s production of BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON then you have a pretty decent idea of what to expect from HARRY AND THE THIEF, minus the music.  HARRY, billed as “a hilarious and socially relevant mashup of action movie swagger and historical melodrama, where a mad scientist sends his thieving cousin back in time to arm Harriet Tubman – with lots and lots of guns” lives up to its advertising.

Essentially, the show is an action movie on stage and scenic designer (and Know Artistic Director) Andrew Hungerford makes the most of the space by using a projection screen to set time and place, often with outrageously funny slides and sight gags.  Director Holly L. Derr places her wonderful cast on the stage in just the right places to capitalize on the story, humor, and gags contained in the script.  And the sound design by Doug Borntrager is as excellent as we’ve come to expect as our the costumes by resident designer Noelle Wedig. I especially enjoyed the scientist’s HazMat suit worn by Rico Reid and the various outrageous costumes that our narrator, Meggy Hai Trang, found herself in throughout.

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Jon Kovach and Darnell Pierre Benjamin

This is truly an ensemble piece and the acting is great throughout most of the show.  But what do you expect from Cincinnati stage veterans like the ones cast here?  Torie Wiggins (“Mimi”) brings the right level of sass to her role, holding the piece together but also going over the top when the moment(s) call for it.  Ken Early is a good hand, especially when you need gravitas in the midst of chaos.  He brings that here especially early on, no pun intended.  Burgess Byrd is so much fun; her warmth exudes even when she’s mid-murder attempt and Sola Thompson has exceptional energy as the tough “Vivian.”  Darnell Pierre Benjamin finds his note as “Vivian’s” brother in a role that was a little underwritten.  Good for him for finding his voice in spite of it.  Harriet Tubman is played opening weekend by last-minute replacement Keisha Kemper; I’m gonna go back to see Piper Davis in the role. I’ve been told they each bring a very different take to it and  Davis doesn’t get on stage often.  She’ll be back in the groove after an unexpected illness starting Wednesday night and I suspect her natural charisma will really bring Tubman to life.

The biggest laughs come from the pair of “villains.”  Jon Kovach, one of Cincinnati’s nicest actors, had me guffawing multiple times as he plays a slave “overseer” who has a crisis of empathy.  He’s perfectly cast, especially in Act Two when . .. well, I won’t ruin it, but if you know Jon you’ll laugh as hard as I did.  Brent Vimtrup is the slave owner and plays him as a sophisticated-and-quite-gay-Yosemite-Sam-type and I mean that in the best way possible.  I loved every moment he was on the stage.  The chemistry he has with the brilliant Rico Reid (“Jeremy”) is hysterical.  This is a very, very good cast.

I don’t know if HARRY AND THE THIEF is for everyone; you gotta have a good sense of humor and if you’re offended easily you might not enjoy it.  It’s also a little long; I found the pacing at the beginning to be a little sluggish.  However, I did see a matinee and those audiences bring a different kind of energy.  When I go back, I’m sure it’ll be a whole different experience!  Regardless, I think Know Theatre has mastered this type of off-beat, edgy show and under Hungerford’s leadership, I expect we’ll see more of this sort of thing.  And that makes me very happy.

And don’t forget, Know Theatre is offering free Wednesday night performances as part of the Welcome Experiment all season long, which means if you’re not sure you’d like it you can actually go try it out for FREE.  So, don’t take my word for it . . . go check it out!

HARRY AND THE THIEF runs at Know Theatre through August 30th.  They’re concurrently producing SERIALS! in the Underground theatre space and tomorrow night at 8 PM is Episode 4.  Tickets and more information about all the wonderful things Know Theatre is doing can be found at their web site.

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