Thomas Burns Scully
To say that the post-colonial landscape is complicated is… well, it’s an understatement. And saying that it’s an understatement is an understatement in of itself. In this short preamble paragraph, I am not going to kid anybody in to believing that I can sum up the pain, confusion and torturous ambivalence that has followed in the wake of the Empire’s collapse. Suffice to say, there’s a lot of hurt, a fair helping of twisted nostalgia, and a large penny jar full of mixed feelings. As the TV guide might say: a volatile combination. Probably the reason, then, that this landscape has inspired so much art, literature and theatre. With that, we take another foray in to the post-colonial jungle, with a look at the NYC Fringe’s ‘Virtuous Mongrels’.
Set in a burnt out never-space that seems to resemble a bar in a post-empire African state, we see two men, one white, one black, crawling on the floor, desperate for the simplest essentials. Standing aloof above them are two more men, one white, one black… spiritual father-figures with deadening spirits. The two crawling men are joined by a young woman; a daughter of Isreal… the scene starts to get heated. The unhappy five are joined by an unhappy sixth, the girl’s father. What follows is a surreal verbal and psycho-physical brawl between warring ideologies and generations. The younger characters trying to find ways to work together and failing; and the older characters, those remnants of a bitter past, spitting on their failure whilst resting in the filth of their own idle vehemence and faded glory.
‘Virtuous Mongrels’ is not an enjoyable watch, but then it’s not meant to be. It’s the kind of play that indecently assaults you, rather than entertains you. Writer-director Yaya Zeevi has created a piece here which plays with the viscerality of difficult parentage and drinks a cocktail of nine different kinds of anguish. Awash with dystopian semiology representative of the collapsed British Empire, the troubled new Africa and the insular hyper-defensiveness of the modern Jewish state, ‘Mongrels’ is a nihilist, symbolist’s wet nightmare come to life.
As the title suggests, the play has a strong animalistic bent. The actors throw their whole wretch in to the movement, displaying a degree of animality unheard of outside a second-year drama school movement class, or a Trump family reunion. They crawl, stalk and prowl about the stage like the dogs suggested in the title. Their lines are not spoken, so much as thrown, spat or gently pushed between the ribs. In their rare moments of peace, Christopher Wharton is the voice of unquestionable British authority, Matthew Stannah is Kenya’s own adopted wunderkind, Robert Vail is the world’s one true heir and lion-child, Jean-Francois Ogoubiyi is the resolute spokesperson for a disenfranchised race, Alice Van Heuven is a kosher Oasis, and Daniel Gadi is the ghost of Isreal’s Spartacus. But these are rare moments of peace. Most of the time, they are just fighting animals.
I have to be judicious here and say that this play is definitely not for everyone. It’s certainly not a play to bring your local Church book-club to. Even though it runs in at just under an hour, it’s dense enough that it feels longer. It’s also esoteric to a fault, so don’t go on a night when you’re tired or unfocused. However, if you are prepared for the rigor that awaits you, by all means enter the jungle, and sample the strange poisonous fruit that ‘Virtuous Mongrels’ has to offer.
‘Virtuous Mongrels’ has two shows remaining at the NYC Fringe:
Wednesday August 26th at 7:30PM
Saturday August 29th at 3PM
It is playing at Venue #6: DROM, 85 Avenue A, (between 5th and 6th Street). Like all Fringe shows, tickets are $18 (plus fees).
Tickets available via fringenyc.org and Eventbrite.com
This review was written by Thomas Burns Scully, a New York based writer, actor and musician. His work has been lauded in Time Out NY and the New York Times, and his writing has been performed on three continents. He is generally considered to be the thrifty person’s Renaissance man.
Follow him on Facebook (as Thomas Burns Scully), and on Twitter (@ThomasDBS)