Last night, Horse Head Theatre Company premiered Among the Thugs, a new production based on the book by Bill Buford and adapted for the stage by Tom Szentgyorgyi. At its core, the play is not so much a story as it is an exploration of violence and crowds, using Buford's own personal experience with British soccer hooligans in the 1980s as the ways and means.
Art Attack was not quite sure what to expect as the night of the premiere approached -- audience members were warned to "come prepared to move according to the action taking place around them and should know that the senseless violence that takes place may cause feelings of intrigue, excitement, disgust, and disbelief." Knowing the company's interest in breaking down the boundaries between stage drama and real life and knowing that the performance was taking place inside of a downtown club, we half-expected to spend the night "among the thugs"--mingling with the actors in a dark and crowded bar, dodging punches, throwing some of our own, and (most importantly) trying not to spill our beers.
When we walked (or should we say "descended") into Kryptonite (717 Franklin, below the Brewery Tap), the sun was still beating down on the streets above us, but there we were, in a dark cavern, a minimal bar setup in the corner, green party lights flashing along the floor, being approached by people who insisted that we drink, being surrounded by burly men spontaneously breaking out in Manchester United chants.
It wasn't until after we'd stepped up and gotten ourselves some drinks that we saw though a thin black curtain another room hidden off to the side where a stage had been set up. That answered our first question, but immediately another sprang to mind: how comfortable were we supposed to feel in this place. A friend who was with us described the ambience of the room as "date rape time" and it didn't seem too far off.
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Surrounded by screaming men pushing drinks upon us, early in the evening, in a dark cellar, with an audience sized to fill the seats and not the dance floor, there were all sorts of instinctual warning bells going off in our mind. As the action moved into the other room and the play began, this question still lingered: are we being confronted with these people in order to be disturbed and discomfited by them, or are we supposed to be excited that this is going on around us?
Buford's book, after all, is about his own experience trying to uncover and better understand the impulses that would lead young, middle-class English men into acts of senseless violence. In the years he spent with the hooligans, Buford saw himself affected by the energy of the crowd, seeing firsthand the adrenaline-driven pleasure of violence, but ultimately he found no true explanation for what these men were doing as individuals. Buford's personal journey is the meat of the story and Szentgyorgyi attempts to keep this at the center of his script. The inscrutable problem that we encountered was whether we were supposed to align ourselves with Buford and see ourselves become more inebriated by violence, to make increasingly dangerous choices in hopes of discovering what was at the bottom of it all, or whether we were supposed to be watching from afar and making a different type of judgment, the kind Buford would have been apt to make before he even found out about football "supporters." It seems to be a difficult piece of theatre to pull off and definitely straddles all the questions of drama and reality that Horse Head seems to be interested in exploring.
The members of the large ensemble cast did an excellent job at filling out the various personalities and characters that inhabit the world of hooliganism. Drake Simpson, who leads the cast as the American journalist Bill (of course), was the linchpin for the audience, a sympathetic hero who seemed to be as disoriented by the myriad faces swirling around him as we were. In the first of the various vignettes that occur as Bill gets to better know the individual supporters, Santry Rush does a thoroughly enjoyable job as Mick. The rest of the cast keeps the energy high (and loud -- seriously) at all times.
The production runs every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday until Oct. 2. All shows start at 7:30pm and tickets range from $15 to $25. Our friendly tip: Buy beers two at a time, the line at the bar's not long, but it took us a while to get something cold in our hand, and you'll want something cold in your hand when the lights go down.