Theater review: Troubled 'Ameriville' is not a nice place to visit
The Bronx-based performance group Universes wants you to know that things aren't right in this great land of ours. Their show "Ameriville" -- part social indictment, part revival meeting -- starts in post-Katrina New Orleans but restlessly spills onto such national issues as gun violence and the rising rate of military suicides.
Very quickly it's too much, despite the good intentions and crisp performances of the four actors who command the Round House Theatre's ample Bethesda stage. Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz, Gamal A. Chasten and William Ruiz (a.k.a. "Ninja") attack their moving-target subjects via hip-hop, gospel, monologues and more as they catalogue our cultural failings (say, racism and homophobia). It's like an open-mike night.
That rambling, grab-bag format is apparently where this collective got started, but it doesn't serve the group well in this full-length show. The style is streetwise but the content isn't really savvy; the performance never lingers on a topic long enough to think anything through.
Thus "Ameriville" is full of attitudes and platitudes, exhortations and lamentations. The group, credited with writing and creating the piece (a distinction that is provocative, if not clear), went to New Orleans to talk to the locals, and the early passages are intriguing. The quartet evokes flood rescues, a drunk Mardi Gras reveler, even voodoo legend Marie Laveau . . . but gradually they seem to lose interest. The theatrical snapshots are disappointingly random.
There is, of course, the through-line of social disenchantment, and while the ensemble makes a point of not turning its New Orleans fact-finding into a verbatim interview show, that doesn't stop it from projecting cold statistics onto the back wall to drive home harsh truths about ugly trends (add gentrification to the list). The issues are all legitimate, but the show plays like news for people who don't otherwise get the news. And like CNN, it breathlessly keeps changing the subject.
Director Chay Yew and choreographer Millicent Johnnie keep things moving on Brian Sidney Bembridge's simple set (a slightly tilted platform, two tables, four chairs, with Brian Freeland's video design providing such vivid backgrounds as pounding rain, rolling countryside and Starbucks). The actors typically make their own music, stomping and clapping to keep heavy beats, crooning a cappella or singing along with Benjamin Marcum's sound design. Nearly everything's done with a rhythm, and the show cascades with blues lines, gospel harmonies, jazzy phrases and mighty refrains designed to inspire. You may grow tired of being clapped at: While "Ameriville" cares, it doesn't probe, and the furious surface-skimming makes it a grind.
Written, created and performed by Universes. Directed by Chay Yew. Lighting designer, Russell H. Champa. About 90 minutes. Through Nov. 7 at Round House Theatre Bethesda, 4545 East-West Hwy. Call 240-644-1100 or visit http:/