Monday, April 14, 2008



Subversive Theatre

April 10 - May 10


My bones ache and my mind goes numb just watching Subversive Theatre's production of "Nickel and Dimed". As a blue collar worker, I empathically feel for the characters in Joan Holden's dramatization of Barbara Ehrenreich's book about American low-wage earners. Like the toilet bowl cleaner at Motel 6, I am reminded of aging joints and creaking bones, and like the far-away mental state of the Wal-Mart shelf stocker, (satirized here as 'Mall-Mart'), I know the stagnating drudgery of menial labor. Yet I need to be reminded that I do not indulge in a lunch of naked hot dog rolls, as does a character in the play, when the cost of living overrides the cost of food. I have a doctor to visit when I need one, and a home to go to when the awful day is done. As much can not be said of the characters in the play. If it wasn't for the sparkling humor alighting nearly every scene of the production, this drama would be dismal in revealing such domestic atrocities as a working mother leaving her children locked in a room at home when she can't afford child care, and an expectant mother performing stressful physical labor far into her pregnancy because her company does not offer health insurance. But like a sense of humor rising as a defense against the constant threat of poverty, and possessed by nearly every character in the play, the show displays a giddy tone of exhilaration, bursting through it's serious agenda, very much like the letting down of one's dutiful manners with the snap of a beer cap, after a very long work day.

While the play offers the stories of the working poor, it's concern is felt by all of us. The better paid computer programmer will attest to long painful hours of repeated muscle motion while eyeball to eyeball with a machine. The hard line factory worker will show scars and burns of years of labor like a boastful shark hunter's white flesh tatoos. It would seem we all have a complaint, but Nickel and Dimed gently asks us, the working class, to consider for a moment, the food in our cupboard, and the few eager dollars in our pocket, as a minor luxury others can't consider.

Barbara Ehrenreich is a writer and activist who went undercover to discover how minimally paid workers make ends meet. What she learned is - they don't. They go hungry, they overwork themselves into illness, they suffer painful physical maladies while performing lowly labor, and they live in vehicles and public shelters, if they have a home at all, when the cost of rent is next week's priority. Joan Holden's drama of Ehrenreich's book successfully brings these issues to the forefront, while never sermonizing, causing us to wince at recollecting the Wal-Mart clerk we snipped at, the hotel maid we stiffed, and our most private and bigoted belief that workers in such jobs, are too inept to do anything to better themselves.

The production's success is dependent on Moira A. Keenan's wonderful performance as undercover writer, Barbara. Her character, sipping a cappucchino in a Manhattan coffee shop one moment, scraping shit off a toilet rim the next, draws the same startling and sad conclusion regarding the plight of the working poor, as we the audience do, and when she breaks the scene with a sudden revelation, and speaks directly to the audience, ridiculously dressed in an unflattering smock with a Wal-Mart nametag and maybe a mop and broom in tow, the room becomes a bond of understanding rising above the indignity displayed on stage. Miss Keenan escapes into the world of minimum wage earners as if she knows the work well, racing through the organization of a rack of Wal-Mart fashion discounts like a frantic bookeeper, making a motel bed like she'd like to collapse in it, scouring a toilet bowl like she knows the porcelain on an intimate level, and giving a priceless and funny facial expression to the Wal-Mart customer who asks for the third time the way to the check-out.

The eleven member supporting cast playing numerous roles, all contribute key ingredients to the social and dramatic outcry. They look like they completed a crash course in hash slinging diner acrobatics, with a realistic display of a busy short order kitchen, including waitresses hoisting large serving trays on their shoulders like they just stepped off a Denny's shift. Director Virginia Brannon does an admirable job filling in for an absent cast member at the production I saw. She has a deft control at directing the dramatic issues at play here and rising them above merely social concerns. Her scene of the motel maid feasting on a bag of hot dog rolls for lunch, is quietly powerful. She gives equal attentiion to the most mundane of actions, like the four corporate employed maids riding in a company van, using four simple chairs on the stage, that looks as if they're really travelling. Busy pedestrian traffic in a Wal-Mart, played to comedic effect with shopping carts colliding like bumper cars, is as discomforting as, God forbid, asking a Wal-Mart employee where the men's gloves are.

Trekking to Subversive Theatre's production of Nickel and Dimed is an adventure in itself. The nomad theatre group, who successfully produced the political classic, "Waitng for Lefty", at The New Phoenix on The Park earlier this season, has rented the Alt Theatre for this production, a comfy 50 seat theatre located on the third, (or was it fourth?) floor of a handicap accessible industrial complex building that seems a world away from Buffalo's convenient theatre district. No need to travel to New York City's off-off Broadway to explore the nooks and crannies of intriguing theatre space. You'll feel as if you're walking through the bleak and echoed hallways of a high security prison on your way to the warm and inviting theatre. Indeed, if Subversive's production of Nickel and Dimed was being performed at the end of a very long cave, and you needed a flashlight to guide your way there, it would be well worth the journey.

In keeping with the 'working poor' theme of the play, the production has no admission fee, and will gratefully accept the donations of those who can.

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