THE MOTHERF**KER WITH THE HAT- Regional Premiere
by Stephen Adly Guirgis
Kitchen Dog Theater
Direction by Jaime Castañeda
Technical Direction by Alex Lorrain Hill
Stage Management by Jeremy Escobar
Scenic Design by Bryan Wofford
Lighting Design by Aaron Johansen
Sound Design by John M. Flores
Costume Design by Jen J. Madison
Properties Design by Jen Gilson-Gilliam
Fight Choreography by Bill Lengfelder
Dialect Coaching by Sally Vahle
Christopher Carlos as Jackie
Michael Federico as Ralph D.
Christie Vela as Veronica
Liza Marie González as Victoria
Anthony L. Ramirez as Cousin Julio
Reviewed by Richard Blake
Be prepared for one hell of a “motherf**king ride” with this comically dark, in-your-face play presented exquisitely by Kitchen Dog Theater.
The play centers on Jackie who has just been released from prison to join the American workforce. Struggles with addiction, friendship, love, and the challenges of adulthood are at the center of the story. Jackie, a petty drug dealer, is just trying to stay clean. He's also still in love with his coke-addicted childhood sweetheart, Veronica. Ralph D. is Jackie's too-smooth, slightly slippery sponsor. Ralph is married to the bitter and disaffected Victoria who, by the way, has the hots for Jackie. And then there's Julio, Jackie's cousin…a stand-up, "stand by me" kind of guy.
Kitchen Dog presents this Regional Premiere at the McKinney Avenue Contemporary center [The MAC] in the 2,500 square foot Heldt/Hall Theater. The venue is the perfect space for the play, and the designers take good advantage of it throughout the performance.
Jaime Castañeda’s direction is captivating and unique. There are three distinct scenic locations used in the play and each one is staged perfectly. A lot of action takes place in each location and sometimes that can create problems for a director. That was definitely not the case in this production as in each scene you are focused on the actors, the story, and the authors message. Mr. Castañeda has a strong cast of talent to move the story along and make excellent choices with each character. His actors follow suit by delivering very powerful performances under his direction.
The scenic design by Bryan Wofford is very unique and eye-catching. The theatre space has a unique arena layout with the audience seated on three raised sides above the play space. In this production, one side is not used for seating for a very good reason. There are three individual locales for the characters; Veronica’s studio apartment, Ralph D. and Victoria’s living room, and the kitchen of Cousin Julio. Each room sits independently on floating platforms highlighted by lighting underneath. Each is simply, yet wonderfully decorated to represent the character’s lifestyle. The really exciting features are the suspended ceilings above each location in the same style as the room, all hung from the theater’s grid on a slight angle which makes for excellent details like recessed lighting in one apartment, track lighting and a simple hanging fixture in the others. This is a perfect example of superior scenic design in a unique space.
Aaron Johansen’s lighting design nicely highlights the unique set. Each location is individually and tightly focused when action appears and you are immediately drawn to that area as the others fade away from your primary sight, even though they are very close to each other. Mr. Johansen uses a little known “trick of light” in the scene changes by going to full blackout, subtlety lighting the upper wall far upstage above the suspended ceilings, then lighting underneath the raised platforms. This trickery of light beautifully allows you to forget the previous location and focus on the next all within the premise of a scene change.
Sound design by John M. Flores is executed with perfection. His design adds a wonderful dimension to scenes, with environmental sounds such as Veronica’s shower running or ambient background noise as the actors are watching TV. Of special note is the use of a practical old-school boom box with a cassette player, in a critical and very poignant part of the production where Mr. Flores opted to use these real things. The scene would have been destroyed had it been a sound cue with actors pretending to use the equipment. It is an excellent choice made by this designer and added a very, very special moment to the action and story on stage.
The costume design by Jen J. Madison and properties design by Jen Gilson-Gilliam work hand in hand, creating even more depth and distinction to the overall production quality. All the costumes match the personality of the character and are presented well. Even some of the more risqué costumes are tactful, yet tell the story with perfection. The props in the show are equally on par and relative to the story each time they are used. Nothing is cheaply presented or lackluster in presentation. From the real food eaten to the pipe being used to get high and the cocaine on the table that is sniffed, you fully believe every item used by the actors, and in this production suspended belief would’ve been a complete failure.
The production boasts a highly seasoned, talented cast. Without this combination, the true grit and passion of the story would fall flat. The excellent cast shines every moment in this very difficult production.
Christopher Carlos as Jackie is exceptional in the role. His character goes through every conceivable human emotion and in every one of them you truly believe he is feeling them. This is a dialogue heavy play yet you are never bored or lose interest when Mr. Carlos is speaking in character with the passion and conviction of a truly talented performer. The final scene of the play is superbly done, with such raw emotion it’s breathtaking!
The role of Veronica, played by Christie Vela, is another fine example of true performance perfection. Her character also goes on a roller coaster of emotion from comedic to full emotional collapse. You are mesmerized by Ms. Vela’s stage presence, and there is never a moment of over acting or pulling focus from another character, just a pure, driven performance. The arc she takes her character on completely involves the audience throughout the play.
Michael Federico, as Ralph D., handles a very complex character with style and ease. There are many twists and turns with his role, and with each one you are fully involved and completely engaged. Ironically, when the primary personality trait of his character is revealed, that’s when Mr. Federico takes it up quite a few notches to really captivate you. It’s an important plot aspect I won’t’ reveal (yes, there are a lot of them in this play) but it is done stunningly by this seasoned professional. I found my own moral values system torn as to how I truly felt about his character. For an actor to infuse their talents into the author’s words so perfectly as to create that type of personal conflict within an audience member is a true example of acting at its finest.
Anthony L. Ramirez as Cousin Julio rounds out this stellar cast. On the surface his character seems lightly written, but as they play progresses you are wonderfully surprised by the depth and plot-driving quality it possesses. Mr. Ramirez takes this well written character to wonderful heights with his acting and presentation. He is commanding both in talent and physical stature, all the while allowing his character to be a bit vulnerable. That’s a tough line to tow; however, Mr. Ramirez makes it look so easy with expert style and grace. His portrayal is real, genuine, and is the one character you might feel for throughout the story. Mr. Ramirez is a star in this role and truly captivates you.
The play is very well written, directed perfectly and performed by a truly splendid cast. Does it have XXX language? Yes. Mature content, action and hard hitting stories…yes. Is it a play you want to miss? Absolutely not! Don’t let the title and/or the adult content warnings push you away from this magnificent Regional Premiere Kitchen Dog Theater has playing. It is a powerfully strong story that leaves you with a poignant message, at the same time making you question your moral compass. That combination is a true example of great live theatre!