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Off-Off-Broadway Review

Ameriville

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Ameriville
Photo Source: Saddi Kha
"Ameriville" begins as an affectingly poetic meditation in music and monologues on the underwhelming response to Hurricane Katrina and its toll on the people of New Orleans. A lost boy pleads, "Have you seen my momma?" A man tells of nightmares filled with a river of drowned babies and thoughts of suicide. The richly harmonic a cappella singing of the four performers moves from haunting blues to rousing chants, with propulsive rhythms beaten out against the wooden furniture and platform playing area. If anybody wonders why we should care about the plight of this one city, we're told it's "important to know how others live."

At just about this point the show switches gears—not too abruptly but not too persuasively either—and becomes an exhaustive checklist of the social, moral, and economic evils affecting America, depicted in vignettes and songs that frequently sample familiar melodies. It starts with a standup comic doing a routine on gentrification and how it displaces black families. Then a television huckster hawks guns to frightened families, a traumatized soldier tells of battlefield killing and a destroyed personal life, and a rap duo attacks the inadequacies and red tape of health care. A flamencolike aria describes the plight of underpaid and overworked illegal immigrants. There are jabs at religious fundamentalism, America's profligate water use and unchecked pollution, and ethnic hate talk. Am I forgetting anything? I probably am.

Each vignette is punctuated by a projected factoid. After the sketch about religion, for example, we're told that "45 percent of Americans do not believe in evolution." The show strives to end on a hopeful note, calling for a rebirth of America, possible if we all pull together, as the cast cajoles the audience into a clap-along chant of "Everybody row!"

What keeps "Ameriville" from becoming a wearying harangue is its brilliant theatricality. The show, which has been developed and directed by Chay Yew, is frequently infused with humor, and then there are the prodigious talents and unadulterated passions of the cast: Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz, Gamal A. Chasten, and William Ruiz (aka "Ninja"). The four are also credited as creators and writers. Their ensemble work and musicality are dynamic, and their monologues are often moving and imbued with spontaneity, even though the show premiered almost two years ago at the 2009 Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville and has toured since then.

"Ameriville" is guilty of covering too much guilt, but it does so impressively.



Presented by and at the Public Theater as part of Under the Radar, 425 Lafayette St., NYC.Jan. 5–16. Remaining performances: Thu., Jan. 6, 7 p.m.; Fri., Jan. 7–Sun., Jan. 9, 7:30 p.m.; Thu., Jan. 13, 7:30 p.m.; Fri., Jan. 14, 7 p.m.; Sat., Jan. 15, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Jan. 16, 2 and 7:30 p.m. (212) 967-7555 or www.undertheradarfestival.com.

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