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The Echo Theater Company's 'Handjob' Unites Audience through Discomfort

In a tangibly electric and metaphysical production of Erik Patterson's 'Handjob,'
The Echo Theater Company discusses what it means to push boundaries.

September 25, 2019

By Ginger Gordon

The lights rise on a young black man (Michael Rishawn) hired to be a shirtless cleaner by an older white writer (Steven Culp). In the next scene, we are presented with a similar white man (Stephen Guarino), this time with a white shirtless cleaner (Ryan Nealy), presenting eerily similar dialogue. As we learn the meaning behind these people and how they interact, the audience is swept along on a wild ride with abrupt stops and starts.

It is later revealed that the playwright we first met at the beginning of the play is writing a play about his experience with the shirtless cleaner. The play goes from seamlessly weaving anecdotes about race and homophobia to abrupt stops in the flow of both the play and play within the play to hash out arguments. As the actors within the play within the play viciously bring up topics of consent and homophobia, the writer and the real-life shirtless cleaner embark on a debate about white-washing and consent. While this can be exhausting to watch, it is nonetheless stimulating, much like getting lost in a house of mirrors.

Steven Culp and Michael Rishawn in "Handjob."
Photo (c) Darrett Sanders

At the climax of the play, the titular sex act is performed, segueing into a plot twist that pulls the rug out from under the audience. Although the actors used prosthetics, watching the theatricalized sexual act was shocking nonetheless. It felt less uncomfortable and more ethereal when I realized I was having the exact dilemma that the characters had following the scene-- should an audience look away, or be forced to watch? And how do actors draw the line in what is their instinct and what is 'too far'?

There were moments where I truly forgot where I was. I didn't feel like I was in a play but watching an overheated debate in my family's living room. The tone of the play was constantly in flux, and I was on the edge of my seat longing for that sense of equilibrium to be reached. The characters and situations were very real-- no one was right. Topics of sexual boundaries, consent, race, queer exposure, and the question of 'how much is too much to make an audience feel' left me reeling.

Although the play was liberally charged, it felt nothing like liberal propaganda often portrayed in theater and film in an effort to be "woke." It felt honest and unresolved, allowing the audience to really examine their own values.

Patterson's dialogue was clever and pointed, which allowed for a raw depiction of character development throughout a ragged but thrilling plot arc. The character development portrayed by Culp gave a refreshing depth to a flawed character, in the resolution of the play where we watch in silence as he deals with the ramifications of his actions. However, I yearned for more of these moments, where the audience could indulge in silent character development, as opposed to having the character's thoughts explained to us in agitated dispute.

How does one accurately portray a story from someone's point of view without discrediting the others involved? Paradoxically enough, this play both asks and embodies this question.

I stayed for the talkback at the end of the play, which I did not anticipate would be included in the review. However, the experience was so impassioned and fervorous that it revealed the true nature of the play's effect better than a review of the play itself.

I have never been to a theater experience where the energy of the play transitioned so seamlessly into the talkback. It felt like a continuation of the play with audience participation.

Poignant questions were brought up relating the parallels to the black director in the show (Tamarra Graham), who felt that she needed to produce a provocative queer piece even though it was white-cast. The director of "Handjob" (Chris Fields) is white. I had to force myself to look at the speakers when they were speaking without looking down. Audience members shared personal stories of their connection to the themes of race and their personal take on sexual assault. Tears were shed, and it was just as raw and vulnerable as the play's climax.

After the show, I sat outside of the theater and I saw one of the actors walking out of the theater. He saw one of the women who spoke so truthfully at the talkback and approached her. He called her brave, and they embraced. As artists who are making a piece of art that pushes boundaries in of itself, they encouraged the debate and encouraged the pushback on their work. This play can be called abrasive and mind-bending, and I would not disagree-- but the fact that I saw that connection occur reinforces that "Handjob" captured the magic of what theater can do.

"Handjob" runs now through October 28th at the Echo Theater Company. Tickets start at $20 and can be purchased here.

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