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Theater Review (NYC): Great Hymn of Thanksgiving/Conversation Storm by Rick Burkhardt

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Contrary to common wisdom, the art world was extremely active in speaking out against the Bush administration over the last eight years. Across just about every platform, and especially in the more traditional, politically-minded medium of theater, its conscience and instinct for dissent never died. The tragedy of the Bush administration was that executive privilege was so abused that the powers that be could willfully ignore their constituents, which left some of the more naïve lefties feeling hopeless.

Not so for the Nonsense Company, a radical fringe group that formed its identity in southern California and currently resides in the Brooklyn of the Heartland: Madison, Wisconsin. Of all the countless and underappreciated political plays that emerged in the Bush era, Nonsense’s Great Hymn of Thanksgiving/Conversation Storm, which made a heralded debut in San Fransisco in 2007, may be the furthest from convention. That makes the play a crucial document of just how far Americans were willing to go to let themselves be heard, no matter what Ari Fleischman or the British press claimed we were capable of.

Great Hymn of Thanksgiving is ostensibly a musical composition, consisting solely of percussion and some spoken word fragments by a three-member cast all of whom have a musical background. But Great Hymn  is a theatrical piece through and through, intricately choreographed despite its appearance of looseness. All the words in the piece are muffled, cut off, or lost in a train of thought. Meanwhile the violent sounds coming out of everyday utensils make sure you won’t even come close to losing interest. Great Hymn is the first play I’ve seen where I could imagine a half hour without dialogue that wouldn’t put anyone to sleep. In fact, it’s more of a wake-up call—while words are muffled and held back, the realities of the situation are still as loud and unsettling as ever.

The second part of the evening is Conversation Storm, soon to be published in Martin Denton’s Plays and Playwrights 2009, which starts out by saying a “a playwright has given us 30 minutes to talk about torture,” a zinger that is not at all the most stunning moment of meta-theatricality in the evening. Rick Burkhardt, the playwright/composer/co-director/actor, has taken a political debate between two people who fundamentally disagree on a hot-button issue—something we’ve all become accustomed to lately—and blows its conventions to pieces with a intermittent fourth wall, Tarantino-esque nonlinearity, and language that is intensely graphic, but only for the purposes of honesty rather than obscenity.

The hot-button issue of the moment happens to be torture, an issue we often forget might be the exact place where America lost its soul over the last eight years. Alec (Burkhardt), who fights over the issue with his old high school friend Hugh (Ryan Higgins), with a chummy, lewd Godfrey (Andy Gricevich) serving as the tool of the group (both in terms of his dramatic utility and in the slang sense), we constantly weave in and out of the order of conveniently numbered scenes. The benefits of this are as apparent as they are in a good non-linear movie: exploring themes that we may have missed, skipping over a currently irrelevant sequential scene, only to bring it back later when it is called for. There’s an overwhelming theme of insomnia to the night, which allows Conversation Storm to occasionally dip into fantasy while also creating a personal connection to an issue that too often becomes a vague society-wide issue.

In the process, Burkhardt somehow finds room to provide a case against the ticking time
bomb justification of torture so convincing that it may as well close the book on the issue. Burkhardt accomplishes this by actually exploring the scenario in real, unfiltered terms. You may see Jack Bauer threaten to kill and torture terrorist family members, maybe even kill them, but you’ll never see rape, incest, molestation, or other forms of public sexual humiliation enter into the equation. You’ll also see that, based on the logic of a scenario, there’s nothing that torture can do in this situation except obliterate the line between us and the terrorist while a bomb is going off in New York City. It’s chilling stuff, and Burkhardt’s honesty and willingness to go into areas that can’t be addressed on network TV is the key to making the argument work.

While the debate on torture may be the play’s greatest political accomplishment, its theatrical accomplishment is achieving the heady stuff through a method of storytelling rarely touched in theater, which allows Great Hymn of Thanksgiving/Conversation Storm to accomplish exactly what experimental theater is built to accomplish (it’s certainly not built to raise revenue, as Tuesday night’s attendance would demonstrate). Some aspects of The Great Conversation, most notably Burkhardt’s confused use of Godfrey and awkward initial pacing (including a easel board that does nothing but take up space), hold the play back from its utmost potential. But despite the play’s quirks, it is never boring, almost always cerebral, and arguably the fiercest little stinger of chamber theater in New York City today. If you’re still stewing in rage at President 43 while President 44 skids his way through his first 100 days, Great Hymn of Thanksgiving/Conversation Storm may give you the outlet you need, before you even hear a single word.


Great Hymn of Thanksgiving/Conversation Storm by Rick Burkhardt; directed by Rick Burkhardt and Andy Gricevich.

Starring Burkhardt (Alec), Gricevich (Godfrey), and Ryan Higgins (Hugh).

Great Hymn of Thanksgiving/Conversation Storm will run Feb 3-Feb 7 at 8pm and Feb 11-14 at 8pm with matinee performances on Feb 8 & Feb 15 at 3pm at the Interborough Repertory Theater (IRT) (154 Christopher Street 3B). Tickets ($15) are available online at www.nonsensecompany.com. All performances will be open to the press.

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About Ethan Stanislawski