Dallas — “Everyone knows the greatest indicator of wealth is tastelessness,” says one character in Rude Mechs’ 2013 creation Stop Hitting Yourself, playing through May 30 at AT&T Performing Arts Center’s Off-Broadway on Flora series at the Wyly Theatre.
It’s hard to argue, considering that he’s standing on Mimi Lien’s gaudy-fabulous set that’s strewn when gold-tinted opulence, from the grand piano to the suit of armor to the mirrored fountain that flows from several orifices with another kind of gold, gooey goodness: queso. (And in case you think it’s some kind of tabletop trick to make it look like queso, one character does indeed let some of the cheese drip on his chip before he savors it—they spend about $50 per performance on cheese, it's later revealed.)
But there’s no shame in these one-percenters’ game. The Richey Riches here include Magnate (E. Jason Liebrecht), Trust Fund Sister (Hannah Kenah) and Socialite (Lana Lesley), all part of a Pygmalion-like game to turn a Wildman (Thomas Graves) into a worthy competitor in the Queen’s (Paul Soileau, doing hilarious old-rich-lady drag) charity retreat. If he wins, he'll receive untold riches, but he has to beat out the handsome Unknown Prince (Joey Hood).
These characters are uppercrust, narcissistic caricatures—even the crunchy-granola Wildman, who starts the play nearly naked and barefoot (“I don’t wear shoes so I can feel the earth”) and ends it tuxedoed and digging the idea of designer duds—but they’re not unrecognizable. Another 99 Percent character, Maid (Heather Hanna), who happens to be a classics scholar, is fine in her cushy setting.
But these gold-loving characters are not villains. What’s genius about the Lincoln Center-commissioned Stop Hitting Yourself—written by Kirk Lynn and directed by Shawn Sides but like every Rude Mechs show, truly created collaboratively—is that while the Mechs make light of those who delight in “late-stage capitalism” (think malignant cancer), are just part of what makes the world—and by “world” we mean “America”—go ’round.
To demonstrate, the performers occasionally break from those characters to stand in a line at the front of the stage making Chorus Line-style confessions that even audience members proud of their eco-friendly, all-natural, charity-volunteering unselfishness would find hilarious; laughing as they glare into the gilded mirror.
One of them questions the point in volunteering a few hours at the nearby farm co-op in exchange for local produce when there’s a trendy grocery store in the same ZIP code. One admits that she’s really wanted to compost—for about six years now. Another confesses that—eek!—she enjoyed Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead as a teenager.
And hey, humans invented hairspray and other synthetic products, and we’re flesh and blood and made of the earth, so therefore such products must be all-natural. Right?
It’s funny because it’s true. Not that particular argument, but that anyone can turn any debate around to side with their positions. For proof, take a look at the comments section on any political Facebook post. Or take this lyric from one of the show’s clever songs: “I want to be selfish…it’s the only time I get to be truly true.”
There’s a message here, but no matter which side speaks to you, the Rude Mechs find a way to turn it on its head. That they do this while incorporating wacky dance numbers—the show was, in part, inspired by Busby Berkeley musicals—and harmless audience participation makes the argument all the more entertaining. Emily Rebholz’s costumes and Lien’s set—other objects include a David-like gold statue and an oversized canvas that could be a wall or an auction-house investment (a queso fresco?)—keep the eyeballs busy.
Stop Hitting Yourself is a must-see, especially for theatermakers and audiences with an interest in off-the-wall collaborative or devised theater. It’s the kind of weird that’s so sharply and imaginatively crafted you can’t stop thinking about it.
Oh, to have them more often in Dallas. Then again—what better reason to make the trip down I-35 more often?