“Brilliantly confrontational and filled with lavish, breathtaking iconoclasm.”
It has been called transcendent, genius, one of the ‘25 Best American Plays in the last 25 years’ — but, to its credit, the unique shine to Underground Railroad Game does not fit a single simple category of ‘high quality theatre.’ What Ars Nova has put together, under the direction of Taibi Magar and through the blistering voices of writer/performers Jennifer Kidwell and Scott Sheppard, is beyond quantification; to ‘decode’ it seems beside the point. Various cacophonous interactions between questions and understandings of race and sex are dragged out bloody and screaming into the light in this production, as it presents a vision of America that is both revelatory and maddeningly intractable. This show is disgusting, but very intentionally; for better or worse, I have never seen a piece of theatre like it, nor even conceived that it could be done.
The ‘plot’ is frenetic and full of hairpin turns away from narrative logic. On one plane of existence, Kidwell and Sheppard are two grade school teachers who craft a convoluted classroom exercise called the Underground Railroad Game. In the game, students must recreate the networks that runaway slaves used to attempt escape from their white American owners in the South, with brown-painted dolls standing in for slaves and other classrooms standing in for free land, et cetera. To achieve this, the ‘class’ — the audience — is randomly divided into the Greys and the Blues (Confederacy and Union) and told to cheer for their side as the game ensues. In the end, there is not much audience interaction with the game itself, for instead, the show quickly pivots towards the personal lives and macrocosmic implications of Teacher Caroline (Kidwell), a black woman, and Teacher Stuart (Sheppard), a white man, as they present disparate, extremely controversial approaches to the sensitive material in the exercise – and woo each other in their personal time.
Underground Railroad Game is at its best when it sadistically presents the two teachers swapping racially charged comments and just lets them ride this politically incorrect train to the end of the line. Teacher Stuart’s raucous white privilege and carelessness with his words, even as he fawns over Teacher Caroline, are tautly written and very effective; Teacher Caroline is played with fascinating honour and unpredictability by Kidwell, who is certainly one of the most memorable performers I have seen this Fringe — both her and Sheppard, in fact, have a gift for breakneck comic timing and riveting onstage energy, even when used for remarkably revolting encounters in the show’s later segments.
The production is brilliantly confrontational and filled with lavish, breathtaking iconoclasm in all its layers. These sharp, vicious parts ultimately combine to serve a true sense you are watching a dangerous piece of theatre – one that kicks the hornet’s nest with merciless rage, one meant to hurt more than to help. Which, in all likelihood, is exactly what a society with problems this complex needs. The play aims for disparate targets — to make one feel confused, hurt, disgusted… even angry, driven, and curious — and hits almost all of them.
I did not like what I saw, but I immediately felt sure that this piece is an essential product of long-standing racial disharmony, and in a sense, exactly what we deserve. Sure, it might be on the surface a distinctly scattershot experience, but the world, to our misfortune, probably needs to be so visually and thematically eviscerated such as the audiences of Underground Railroad Game find themselves; out of the disorientation, some form of budding reckoning is sure to flourish.
Through all the possible profundities of the piece, whether they make you laugh or wretch, there is an overwhelming sense that you are witnessing living, breathing triggers, firecrackers, enflamers — conversations and topics so out of bounds that they earn some mystical quality just from their utterance and thorough dressing-down. These extend to Teachers Caroline and Stuart’s ribald parodies of hatred and interpersonal violence, on racial, intellectual, physical, and psychosexual grounds. Beyond, there is absurdist, surrealistic aberrations of logic and narrative, that erratically leap across time and space with little warning, an approach which pierces and deflates preconceptions of “difficult” racial and social discussions with breathtaking wit and take-no-prisoners abandon. Through and through, this show imbues its ‘relevant’ messaging with a riveting and primal sense of revolt and destruction — less a hold-hands-and-grow resolution than a burn-it-all-down caterwaul.
It shouldn’t work, and in certain ways it does not, but Underground Railroad Game succeeds in this hair-tearing rage through sheer energy and its vicious urge to show itself and all its twisted innards to the assembled crowd. It is one of the most impressive pieces of frenetic art I have ever seen come alive in a theatre, and reaches territory you may never see elsewhere onstage. If you are curious after all this, find a way to see it. But consider yourself warned.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller