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Rousuck's Review: "Harry and the Thief"

Kate Erin Gibson

There’s a new play being produced by the Strand Theater in Baltimore. It’s called "Harry and the Thief," and it involves... a time machine. Theater Critic J Wynn Rousuck spent some time last week checking it out. Here’s her review:

There’s some fairly complex, imaginative stuff going on in SigridGilmer’s play, “Harry and the Thief” -- the play receiving an area premiere produced by the Strand Theater -- is set in two different centuries, and it mixes real and fictitious characters, as well as history and science fiction.

The premise concerns a scientist – he’s played by Mike Smith – who has found a way to time travel and has a specific task in mind -- to “deliver a cache of arms to Harriet Tubman.”

Yes, the “Harry” in the title refers to Harriet Tubman, the famed, Maryland-born abolitionist who guided more than 700 slaves to freedom. The “thief” in the title is Mimi, the scientist’s cousin – played with great spunk by Aladrian Wetzel. Mimi is on the lam from her criminal gang, and where better to hide than the 19th century?

All of this is challenging enough to stage. But there’s also a device that doesn’t really become clear until about a quarter of the way into the show.

The cast includes a narrator named Anita, who’s a movie director. The play we’re watching is the movie that Anita is making. At one point, for example, Anita orders the same scene to be re-shot three times. Anita also calls out things like: “Jump cut” and “freeze frame.”

Susan Stroupe, director of the Strand’s production, adds a further complication. She has cast a man, actor Samy e-Noury, in the role of Anita. E-Noury plays Anita as preening, posing and sexually ambiguous.

Director Stroupe basically piles outlandishness on top of Gilmer’s already outlandish script – a script full of comic anachronisms. The script includes twerking; a TV game show-like scene; the Billy Idol song, “Rebel Yell;” and a good deal of modern lingo spoken by 19th century characters.

Whole chunks of action are difficult to follow in this production. For instance, how does a 19th century character unexpectedly wind up in the 21st century?

“Harry and the Thief” is being staged upstairs at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church. Part of the problem is that some of the action takes place in the space’s balcony, where it isn’t entirely visible to all of the audience. And, too often there’s simply too much commotion. These are, by the way, the loudest runaway slaves Harriet Tubman ever surreptitiously led to freedom.

Monique Ingram, however, portrays Tubman as a smart woman who knows how to get things done – and, at least here, has a rather high opinion of herself.

Mimi’s mission to find and aid Harriet Tubman works out a little differently from what her scientist cousin had in mind. But it does work out.

Playwright Gilmer tacks on a few too many codas after that. But then, “Harry and the Thief” is a play full of wild flights of fantasy and excess.

I salute the Strand for introducing Baltimore to this daring, unconventional playwright, but I wish a little more precision and focus had gone into that introduction.

The Strand Theater Company’s production of “Harry and the Thief” continues at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church in Station North, through April 10th.

J. Wynn Rousuck has been reviewing theater for WYPR's Midday (and previously, Maryland Morning) since 2007. Prior to that, she was the theater critic of The Baltimore Sun, where she reviewed more than 3,000 plays over the course of 23 years.