From the Brown Daily Herald, Friday February 28th, 2014:
“Passing Strange” is aptly named. It’s bizarre and brazen, self-mocking and self-vindicating, loud and caustic. And if you don’t go to see it, you’re just part of the establishment, man.
The punk rock musical, directed by Kym Moore, assistant professor of theater arts and performance studies, is not your average bildungsroman. The narrative is relayed mostly through the humorous, incisive observations of narrator, Stew, played by Kevin Kelly ’15.
The protagonist is an anonymous young black man referred to as the Youth, played by Hayward Leach ’14. Bored and disgusted with his middle-class suburban complaceny, he sets out on an transnational pilgrimage to discover “the real” — or at least what passes for it.
At first dazzled by the slew of sex, drugs and rock and roll he encounters on his European escapades, the Youth is eventually forced to confront his complicated racial identity.
Unable to detach himself from the story he tells, Stew is comically neurotic, a kind of self-involved chorus. Kelly balances this metatheatrical humor with Stew’s increasing investment in the story, often interrupting and interacting with the characters.
Leach is immediately accessible as the Youth, earnestly embodying his character’s growth and contradictions. From his nascent flirtations with a choir girl to the frightening intimacy of his first genuine romantic experience, he is constantly shifting into new versions of himself.
A four-piece rock band inhabits the stage and provides musical accompaniment. This would seem to present obvious logistical obstacles. But somewhere between church on Sunday morning and the first nervous toke of weed, multiple worlds begin to arrange themselves around the jungles of amps and pedals.
Trinity Rep Resident Designer Michael McGarty’s innovative set design visualizes these worlds with an assortment of variously sized blank panels, which serve variously as mutable canvasses for geography, political agendas or (altered) states of mind. They transform into photographs of palm trees and the Santa Monica mountains, collages of old rock albums and newspaper clippings as well as a psychedelic interplay of light and color during an acid trip.
In contrast, the live band remains a permanent fixture in every city and every identity the Youth tries on. Cohesion between the musicians and the vocalists is tight and smooth, with searing distortion and wa-wa pedals setting moods of passion, meditation or despair. Bassist Lizzy Callas ’15 is particularly adept, her fingers clambering up and down the fretboard like spider legs in complex riffs.
Unfortunately, this energy dwindles when the resolution takes decidedly longer than necessary to play out. The urgency of the message, earlier teeming with vital tension, loses some of its momentum.
Still “Passing Strange” anatomizes the intersections of identity, sexuality and narrativity with aplomb. It’s also a hell of a good time.
“Passing Strange” runs through March 9 in Stuart Theater, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.