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Theatre in Review: Underground Railroad Game (Lightning Rod Special/Ars Nova Theater)

Scott Sheppard, Jennifer Kidwell. Photo: Ben Arons.

From the Department of Truth is Stranger than Fiction: When Scott Sheppard was in the fifth grade, he took part in a bizarre classroom exercise designed to educate him and his classmates about the horrors of slavery. Known as The Underground Railroad Game, it involved dividing the class into Confederate soldiers and Union soldiers; the latter attempted to guide a handful of black dolls, representing slaves, from one safe house to another, contained in each classroom. The Confederates attempted to intervene and capture the dolls. According to the press notes, "Union students would get five points for every new safe house that a doll reached safely, and if a slave made it to every box, he/she became a free person, crossing into a symbolic Canada, which, for Sheppard's school, was the hall trophy display."

Well, that's modern education for you. Even though this learn-by-doing approach is fairly common these days -- Brian Quijada's solo show, Where Did We Sit On the Bus, references the Oregon Trail Game, which is played on computers and is designed to teach kids about the realities of pioneer life -- by any standard, Sheppard's experience was one for the books. At least, it has provided him with a premise with which he and Jennifer Kidwell, his coauthor and costar, can have merciless fun, making audiences squirm. In Underground Railroad Game, the play, Sheppard, who is white, is Stuart, and Kidwell, who is black, is Caroline, who are team-teaching the title exercise to a gang of middle-schoolers, represented by the audience. First off, we are invited to retrieve the little envelope that has been affixed to the underside of our seats, which contains a blue or gray toy soldier; thus we are separated into Union and Rebel armies. As Stuart, rousing the troops, announces, "You guys are going to be engaged in your very own educational Civil War!" Explaining the game's point system, he adds, "So, it's up to you guys: Are you going to reaffirm or rewrite history?"

If the idea of turning one of the ugliest chapters in American history into a fun-filled scavenger hunt doesn't horrify you, hang on: It turns out that Stuart and Caroline have a thing for each other, and, as they quickly discover, they enjoy racial taunting as a form of foreplay. Following this revelation, Underground Railroad Game heads off into a surreal territory all its own, in which it becomes increasingly unclear when Stuart and Caroline are trying to educate their students and when they are taking part in unhinged domination scenarios. In one of the wildest passages, Caroline appears as Annabelle Turner, an antebellum house slave, standing atop a bustle skirt that reaches a height of over six feet. Her slave impersonation becomes increasingly seductive until she is naked from the waist up, suckling an aroused Stuart. This is topped by the climactic (in every way) sequence in which a naked Stuart is dominated by Caroline, waving a ruler frightening close to his genitals; it's here that things go too far even for them, leading to a profoundly discomforting understanding of the roots of their desire for each other.

Kidwell and Sheppard -- neither of whom is interested in taking prisoners -- attack their ultra-sensitive material on two fronts. First, they skewer the popular approach to history that turns every atrocity into a teachable moment and opportunity for uplift, embodied in Caroline's assertion that the Underground Railroad was "a silver lining" in "the dark cloud of slavery." (The recent Civil War comedy, Butler, is a fine example of this egregious approach.) And, as Caroline and Stuart's relationship goes off the rails, they are stunned to discover how deeply the worst kinds of received ideas about the races have been embedded in their erotic imaginations. These dark and shattering truths stand in stark contrast to the Civil-War-can-be-fun pedagogy that they practice on the job.

Kidwell and Sheppard have devised an effective vehicle for their talents, one that confidently rides the audience's nerves for 90 minutes, daring us not to be offended and forcing us to think hard about what we're feeling. Sheppard is particularly amusing in teacher mode, serving up brutal facts of the Civil War with all the pep of a junior varsity basketball coach. Yet he also silences the room by raising a safe house sign that has been marred by a racial epithet and launching into a tirade that is both hilarious and disturbing. Stripped naked and taking part in a horrifying act of masturbation, he easily qualifies as one of the bravest actors of the season. Kidwell displays crack comic timing, delivering with unnerving élan lines like "I used to have a recurring wet dream where I fucked Tom Hanks so hard he cried like a baby." Her handling of Annabelle's folksy/sexy monologue is nothing less than extraordinary. They play together with unusual finesse, even as they follow the play's argument down some distinctly dark corridors. Taibi Magar's direction keeps us on pins and needles, ricocheting from easy laughter to high tension and back again.

Tilly Grimes' set design lays out different spaces for the schoolroom scenes and sequences of sexual play; her costumes include that weirdly evocative outfit for Annabelle -- whose skirt, by the way, converts into a pup tent for Stuart and Caroline to fool around in. Oona Curley's lighting design shifts between bright white washes for the classroom and darker, moodier looks as the scene demands. Mikaal Sulaiman's sound design makes fine satirical use of (I think) Aaron Copland, Max Steiner's score for Gone With the Wind, and a running gag about the school's bell system.

Underground Railroad Game ends with Stuart and Caroline, for perhaps the first time, at a total loss for words. Perhaps, Sheppard and Kidwell seem to suggest, that's not a bad thing; in fact, it might be the beginning of something like real understanding. Whatever happens next, the game is definitely up. -- David Barbour

(5 October 2016)

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