The minutes before a play begins are usually spent flipping through the program, examining coupons for restaurants you’ll never visit and marveling that one of the evening’s performers was on Law and Order: SVU. Not so at the opening performance of Stop Hitting Yourself at the Wyly Theatre. One of the actors was already in place on stage as the audience wandered in, and a mostly naked guy lying on the stage clutching a microphone, his chest dripping with queso, is pretty attention grabbing. More queso elegantly trickled down a tiered fountain behind him, and it wasn’t the only golden object on stage. A piano, a set of knight’s armor, a dozen chandeliers, a Greek statue, a giant flashing dollar sign — that’s just a start. Who needs a program when you can sit quietly wondering how all of that can be tied together?
First, some background: Stop Hitting Yourself is a production by Austin-based theater collective Rude Mechs and was commissioned by the Lincoln Center Theater in New York, where it premiered last year. Rude Mechs have taken their work all over the country since they began producing original theater in 1995, but these performances at the Wyly — part of the Off Broadway on Flora series at the AT&T Performing Arts Center — surprisingly mark their first in Dallas. Stop Hitting Yourself will take the stage three more times before closing at 8 p.m. Saturday.
Billed as “part Pygmalion, part Busby Berkeley, part self-help lexicon,” Stop Hitting Yourself tells the story of Wildman (Thomas Graves), who’s rescued from the woods and brought to the Queen’s palace by a Socialite (Lana Lesley) intent on teaching him to interact in polite society, which seems to mostly entail saying “How do you do?” and checking one’s watch. If he is sufficiently refined he’ll stand to win the prize at the Charity Retreat Ball, a wish granted by the Queen (Paul Soileau, in drag and riding a golden — duh — Rascal Scooter). Wildman plans to use his wish to protect the forest he loves from devastation, whereas his competition, Unknown Prince (Joey Hood), just wants a title. Along the way, Wildman develops a crush on the Socialite and it all ends in a queso fight. There’s intermittent singing and dancing.
But that’s glossing its meatiness as a satire of capitalism. The play’s message is best expressed in a scene in which Wildman and the Maid (Heather Hanna) discuss a familiar hypothetical: You’re in a lifeboat surrounded by drowning people. What do you do? If you value equality over selfish interest and try to pull everyone aboard, the raft sinks and everyone dies. Wildman has a clever response. Why is there only one lifeboat? You couldn’t have just appeared in the middle of the ocean — a larger boat must have brought you there. So why didn’t someone make sure there were enough lifeboats on that boat for everyone? It sets up a joke about regulatory agencies, but the point stands: We don’t live in a world of scarcity, there’s enough for everyone.
That said, Stop Hitting Yourself is anything but overly moralistic. Throughout the play, characters break away to speak directly to the audience, and sometimes the actors even break character. In one bit, they line up at the edge of the stage and take turns confessing their 21st-century sins. Graves cops to being such a coffee snob that he brought his own espresso machine with him from Austin, and Hanna admits she sometimes throws things out of her car window that she thinks should be biodegradable. Later on, Graves shares some of the play’s expenses, which include a $50 daily budget for cheese alone. Sometimes it’s hard to be reasonable when being unreasonable is so much fun.
And Stop Hitting Yourself is a lot of fun. Audience interaction is a key element: Within the first five minutes of the show an audience member is pulled on stage and a $20 bill is awarded, and there’s a great gag that asks you to open and close your eyes on command, which comes in handy in the final scene. The Busby Berkeley-inspired dance numbers are also a highlight. If the mind ever wanders it’s during the solo songs, of which there are several. They’re sung well — Lesley’s in particular — but don’t match the pace or hilarity of the rest of the show.
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If you can imagine a variety show swallowing your stoned poli-sci seminar in college, you’ve got a pretty good grasp on what the Rude Mechs are offering with Stop Hitting Yourself. It moves at a fast pace and it’s so stimulating that at times it’s hard to keep in mind how all of the disparate ideological, satirical elements come together. But it’s entertaining from start to finish. And perhaps if it’s a bit chaotic, that only better underscores the difficulty of being good in today’s consumer culture, when there are so many fun, shiny things competing for our attention.