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Harry and the Thief
THEATER REVIEW
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2013-10-23

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Playwright: Sigrid Gilmer At: Pavement Group at The Den, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. Tickets: 773-398-7028; www.pavementgroup.org; $25 . Runs through: Nov. 10

If Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson was history written as a Zap comics spoof of rock culture, then Harry and the Thief is history written as a Mel Brooks parody of sci-fi action movies: Our narrator is a drag diva whose wardrobe ranges from LBDs to sequined military uniforms, our plot is premised on a warmongering egghead's time-travel device, and our gun-totin' badass heroine is none other than Harriet Tubman, the real-life abolitionist who conducted countless slaves to freedom via the "underground railway," despite suffering, herself, from recurring blackouts as a result of an earlier-sustained concussion.

Even after a TV-style teaser by way of introduction, you have to listen closely to get all the exposition the script packs into its first few minutes: Dr. Jeremy has invented a time machine, first off, and his plan is to deliver a cache of weapons to be used toward a slave uprising in the ante-bellum American south. His burglar cousin, Mimi, is on the run from her accomplices, and thus is persuaded to carry his message to the chosen leader of the rebellion. Arriving in Maryland circa 1858, our dispatcher encounters, in addition to Ms. Tubman, a gourmet chef adept in both culinary and pharmaceutical arts, an urbane valet smitten with the aforementioned kitchen wizard, a wannabe Texas vaquero, and the young mother of a child fathered by the overseer for the plantation's pampered owner.

Having drawn up her roster of period archetypes, playwright Sigrid Gilmer proceeds to impose reversals on them all: the overseer grows attached to his infant son ( whom he names "Malik" ), the baby-mama comes to embrace the warrior ethos, the former massa and the mad scientist join in a committed relationship, and "Harry" contemplates abandoning her mission, thus changing history, unless—oooh, spoiler alert—somebody else is willing to assume her duties.

When your lesson in tolerance and redemption is accompanied by an Uzi covered in red, white and blue glitter, you're deep into Loony Tunes territory, where pacing is paramount—too fast and we miss the humor, too slow and we dwell excessively on material designed to flash by at road-runner speed. Fortunately, Pavement Group director Krissy Vanderwarker has drilled her cast to a stamina enabling them to navigate self-referential gags and slapstick chases with nimble agility for the 90 minutes it takes for this feature-length live-action cartoon to conclude with a—what else?—trailer for the sequel.


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