A plantation owner with the pop-culture-reference-loaded name Orry Main Scarlet looks out over his domain:
"It's a beautiful day," he says, with great warmth of feeling. "A beautiful day to own slaves."
Welcome to "Harry & the Thief," the surreal-comic play by Sigrid Gilmer receiving its regional premiere from the Strand Theater Company.
The Los Angeles-based Gilmer has devised a scenario about time travel and Harriet Tubman that puts a fresh, mostly effective spin on the past and present, and even has a little time left to conjure up the future.
In addition to a whole mess of historic references, "Harry & the Thief" steals liberally from fictional folks and places (I especially like the mention of television teen drama "Dawson's Creek") as it goes on its wacky way. Issues of race, gender and justice are turned upside down and inside out; perceptions of heroes and villains get spun around, too.
There is so much going on in this long, loosely structured play that some points can get lost in the whirl. For that matter, Tubman, called "Harry" here, gets lost, too. She's not as central to the action as you might expect.
As Susan Stroupe, who directs the Strand staging, writes in a program note, Tubman is surrounded "with outrageous characters more associated with road trip movies than slave narratives." One of those characters, named Anita, underlines that cinematic allusion, serving as a narrator and godlike figure who sets up scenes with movie-speak ("jump cut," "freeze frame," etc.).
If "Harry & the Thief" could benefit from trims and tweaks, it does boast a good deal of clever, delightfully dry humor ("It's my day of reckoning, I reckon"). And the piece certainly makes for engaging theater. After all, it has one heck of a novel set-up:
Jeremy, a pompous guy with a Ph.D in physics, talks Mimi, a female thief, into using his time machine to deliver advanced weaponry to a famous abolitionist in the middle of the Civil War in order to overthrow the government and establish a Free Black Republic.
Of course, things don't turn out as planned. For one thing, the time machine (controlled by, yes, a mammy doll) lacks precision. Mimi winds up in 1858, searching for Tubman in the woods of Maryland. And Tubman isn't all that welcoming. She has her hands full with a talkative group of runaway slaves who need to be reminded by her: "I'm the hero. Me."
There's something almost Marx Brothers-ish in the ensuing antics, particularly since Stroupe sends the cast gamely cavorting through just about every inch of floor space not occupied by audience members in an upstairs hall at St. Mark's Lutheran Church. The action takes over the room's narrow balcony as well.
The pacing could be tighter and faster; some of the acting needs more confidence. But the production, designed by Kate Smith-Morse and costumed by Mika Eubanks, makes a solid showing for the woman-centric Strand Theater.
Mike Smith brings a vivid range of voice and gesture to the role of Jeremy, nearly walking off with the show. Monique Ingram is a low-key Harry, with a good knack for deadpan in her final scene. For the most part, Aladrian Wetzel neatly conveys Mimi's mix of resolve and skepticism. Samy el-Noury captures the camp humor in Anita, if not the authority.
Frank Mancino does droll work as the evil, yet sentimental, Orry Main Scarlet, especially when the character's own bit of time travel leads to a pronounced and amusing change of heart. Alexander Scally, as a plantation overseer plagued by guilt, also scores strong points.
The play calls for music periodically. Billy Idol's "Rebel Yell" makes an apt appearance, for example. And the vintage French song "Parlez-moi d'amour" pops up here, as unexpected as it is charming — one more way this unusual adventure keeps you continually off-balance.