Review: By Our Hands by Overtime Theater
by Michael Meigs
Austin has no monopoly on small-scale edgy innovative theatre, folks, and San Antonio’s Overtime Theatre is proof of that. The Overtime runs year round with premieres or remounts of all-original work. Judging from the titles, posters and the PR, the Overtime appeals to audiences and performers looking for something distinctly not mainstream, folks who are receptive to parodies, takeoffs, mystery, sci fi and live serials. Performances are almost always scheduled for Fridays and Saturdays, sometimes in double feature format, catering to their core supporters of young and less-young professionals likely to party hard at the end of the work week.
Morgan Clyde and Michael Burger Song, writers of By Our Hands, a stage combat spectacle, are Overtime regulars. My visit to the Overtime was long overdue, and I was happy to accept director Caleb Craig’s invitation to the Thursday preview performance of their collaboration. Google maps helped me locate a collection of industrial offices along Bandera Road at about 10:30 on the clock face of San Antonio’s I-410 peripheral highway. Google even guided me through the barracks anonymity of that zone. Craig himself welcomed guests into a stage and house area about the size of a very large living room.
Dystophia is a recurring theme in popular culture —contemporary novels, Hollywood, graphic novels — and at the Overtime. By Our Hands opens in some collapsed, perhaps bombed-out future USA where the Government has confiscated all firearms. Lights come up on a man bound to a chair and watched by a surly woman guard. Jim Gable is punished and his chair is thrown to the ground, but actor Chris Fuglestad is anything but defeated. He fights back, and a swarm of his colleagues overwhelms the captors. These desperate young persons live in the shadows and are intent on recovering enough weapons to arm a resistance movement. They're not ideologues; they’re outlaws with no past, living without visible support from anywhere, quarreling among themselves and chafing under the orders of the overbearing “Mother Militia” (Morgan Clyde).
The “hands” of the title are fists and blows, in contraposition to the arms that the gang is seeking. This is an evening of muscular conflict. As they search for a tech fix to access a dead laptop computer with a treasure map, the five gang members mix it up with one another and also with a rival gang.
Gable is the thoughtful foil to the hot headed and insistent Mother Militia. The script gives no background for their relationship other than the hint that he’s the only one ready to challenge her arbitrary leadership. Female techie Darby (Grace Lambertson) leads the search through most of Act I for the map, a McGuffin in Hitchcockian style. Supporting members are the dutiful, stoic Vaughn (Jenn Harris), cynic Blair (Matthew Legare) and lost-boy Jimenez (Venny Mortimer). Song and Clyde give them distinctive characters and voices but almost no background. The opposing gang is even less differentiated.
A couple of quibbles: one plot point turns on alleged government control of Bluetooth device communication (though Bluetooth is direct, not intermediated as, for example, via an ISP). And though gas masks make fine props, the opening declaration by menacing opposition gang leader Rask (Daniel Vasquez II) is muffled and mostly unclear.
But the point of By Our Hands is less the creation of a coherent world and story than the provision of opportunities for swift moving stage combat. Clyde as combat coach and Craig as director keep it moving hot and heavy. Because of the constrained playing space, the audience is close enough to detect some of the art of pulled punches and balletic falls, but these fights are riveting in the context of our willing suspension of disbelief. An inter-gang rumble provides the furious entertainment of thirteen combatants assailing one another almost within reach of the audience, and the culmination of act two is very lengthy, imaginatively choreographed duo contest between protagonists. In a post-performance discussion, combat choreographer Clyde commented that the two had worked on their staging for an hour before every rehearsal. Their effort paid off.
A plot devised to emphasize muscle and avoid weapons even avoided the use of cutting edges most of the time. A defeated warrior can recover from a beating or a knockout, and in implicit chivalry, most of them did. But toward the end, the story took a quick, violent and nasty turn.
The quest for arms and ammunition succeeds, vastly raising the threshold of force, and the question becomes one of annihilation. What justice is served by execution? The core group of warriors is literally blown apart, leaving the audience to choose their revolutionaries: the pseudo-Leninists or the pseudo-Trotskyites.
Or, perhaps, the incipient Brownshirts.
January 11 - February 02, 2019
5409 Bandera Road, Unit 205
San Antonio, TX, 78238
January 11th to February 2nd, 2019 in The Overtime Gregg Barrios Theater
Fridays and Saturdays at 8 pm; Sunday 1/20/19 at 3 pm; Sunday 1/27/19 at 7 pm