If you’ve never seen a show created by Jon Ferguson then you may feel something is slightly askew as the performers of When I nod my head you hit it with the hammer walk onstage to take their places while the houselights remain up and the pre-show music continues to play. But that is exactly what director Jon Ferguson - recently rebranding his company WLDRNSS - and the creative team want you to feel: slightly askew.
That sense of being a little off balance is just the right mindset for approaching this piece. I’ve had the joy of seeing some of Jon’s more self reflective pieces over the years - my particular favorite being A bun for a door handle - and so as hammer began I was more than a little giddy for what the emotional overtone would be. And hammer did not disappoint.
John Cooper leads us into the piece in almost Grecian oratory made modern by telling us what this show is about: that memories are malleable things. That if we want to live our life with a new perspective we can. And like that we are plunged into a world where three “actors” are in the green room - perhaps a basement - waiting for their cue. Sitting around on two chairs and a fold out cot we find Norman (John Cooper), Hugh (Jon Ferguson), and Kenny (Allison Witham). The three actors are subjected to their own foibles as they try to understand when their moment to go onstage might come about. They are anticipatory but also incredibly hesitant, and in the case of Hugh even a bit scared. They weave in and out of memories of their life that have them trapped - the piece suggests that this green room is the prison of their mind. Throughout the piece Katherine Fried moves in and out of their world and like the Grecian chorus provides us with song as well as interactions with the three actors as various characters to stir up their expectations. I was reminded of shows like No Exit and Waiting for Godot but without the angst and depression associated with those pieces. These characters are trapped by their own memories and unable to break free of their routine - including where they sit in the room day in and day out.
This is not a narrative piece or traditional story. And it may seem meta and self serving on the surface - a play about actors - but the beauty in this interplay is the amazing subtle clowning that builds throughout the show between these three. The story is a sandbox for all four of these talented performers to work inside of. Cooper, Ferguson, and Witham all play back and forth with each other like a ping pong match - high speed but tight and compact in delivery - and the result for me was a growing laughter in myself over the course of the play that bubbled up more and more as I became enamored with these characters and their struggles to change their world view. Fried’s interludes provide breathing room to that laughter as well as some beautiful counterpoint to the tragic characters we see in the actors. But make no mistake that Fried is capable of clowning with the rest of them - apparent in the scene where she plays the Stage Manager with Hugh and his big moment “in the crowd”.
Technically the show is classic Ferguson, his work with Erica Zaffarano on set continues to use just enough to set the space while leaving room for my imagination to fill in the details. Hammer also touches on the Southern Theater - where it performs - with questions of the longevity of the space itself “will the old girl be alright?” asks Kenny at one moment as they attempt to fix the leak in the ceiling. Joanna McLarnan’s lights use the Southern fantastically. She uses little to no color and instead allows the warm glow of the incandescent lighting to give a warm yellowish glow to the entire piece. A bit of haze in the space provides a dreamlike quality to the show that is perfect for a piece about our often hazy memories.
One of the elements I loved about this piece is that it is never clear what is improvised and what is scripted. The level of consistent and clear delivery of the clown work is such that you are never sure if a magical line is from the mind of the moment or was discovered weeks ago in the creation of the piece. Some memorable lines that struck me:
“Imagine you could live your life with choices”
“We can start something new, we can begin again”
“I like my place in the crowd, I think I do it well”
“There are one thousand people looking at you wondering if you’re gonna get it wrong”
“The problem is never the problem, the problem is the state in which we approach the problem”
“We’re waiting for our cue.” “What is your cue?” Silence…
As Hugh, Kenny, and Norman begin to break the cycle of their memories with the help of Fried we are left with an enduring sense of hope - no small feat in the current state of the world, but a much needed salve to the daily barrage of darkness. The piece bookends with another monologue by Cooper delivering a beautiful image of how to change our memories, to shift our doubts and darkness to one of light and joy. The amazing thing about this is that at no point is it sentimental or cliché. This is the power of the clown work that Ferguson and his creative team bring to the table. Through our laughter at these tragic clown characters we inevitably see the foolishness of ourselves and so the salve and remedy at the end of the piece - followed by a beautiful song by Fried - captures our exposed and vulnerable self in the most honest and sincere way.
When I nod my head you hit it with the hammer is not to be missed. It plays through Saturday Sept 23rd at the Southern Theater.