When you witness a tautly built ensemble who will gorge on melted cheese onstage, have learned to tap dance, and will strip to their skivvies for a fight scene, you know you have something special. Ten minutes into Stop Hitting Yourself, the Austin-based ensemble theater collective Rude Mechs’ new show at Lincoln Center, I was ready to move to Texas to make theater.
This raucous play about money and morals revolves around the Queen (played with devilish glee by Paul Soileau) and her annual charity ball, which features a mystery challenge: whoever wins it will have his or her wish granted. The extravagant gold set is the Queen’s home, a glistening palace crowned by a mass of chandeliers. You may be so taken in by its hidden treasures—a golden lawn chair!—that it would be understandable if you didn’t happen to notice the mostly-naked bearded man lying downstage center until suddenly he addresses you on his microphone, endearing you to his plight (he’s been kidnapped from the forest by a Socialite in a Pygmalion-esque plot). He explains that if he can successfully adopt the customs of the rich and win, he’ll request the preservation of the forests and the respect of nature by all mankind. Who couldn’t vote for that? (Conflict, of course, will soon arrive with the dubious Unknown Prince who wants his royal lineage recognized and all appropriate privileges granted.)
Just then, the full company (in fantastically kitschy gold costumes) enters and sweeps us away with a glistening, toothy, tap routine. The next 90 minutes will be packed with unabashed dancing, filthy language, audience participation (the “Who Wants A Dollar” game is a quickly escalating challenge provoking glee and occasional disbelief as we witness just how far the average person will go for a mere buck), and intimate actor confessionals. It’s game show meets reality television, and—hold on a second—this is a play about ideas? But it’s so much fun! Look at them dancing! And there’s a cheese fountain!
Stop Hitting Yourself asks: what is altruism and are we truly capable of it? It understands that we like to think of ourselves as good human beings, concerned with each other and the environment. The brilliance and the danger of the play is that it’s all too easy to brush aside noble ideals and instead be dazzled by the parade of truly awful “one-percenters,” with their tacky wardrobes and unsavory machinations. It’s downright fun to watch the talented cast engage in antics with their melodramatic and extravagant characters. We’re right in the middle of guffawing at their first-world problems, when the Prince deftly tears down our illusion with a scatalogical monologue instructing Wildman to find out where the Socialite goes to the bathroom. At first, the speech is so crude it seems like a non sequitor, until you realize that the instruction isn’t meant for him, it’s meant for you. In fact, we’re perilously close to the one percent, destroying the forests one roll of toilet paper at a time.
As the Rude Mechs deftly expose, the attitude of the privileged pertains to us all.
Rude Mechs’ Stop Hitting Yourself, written by Kirk Lynn, directed by Shawn Sides, runs through February 23rd at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater. For tickets and further information, visit http://www.lct.org.
MELISSA MOSCHITTO is the Founding Artistic Director of The Anthropologists, an ensemble theatre company making investigative work, based in New York City. She is an award-winning playwright and director as well as an arts and culture writer and mother to a very dramatic toddler.