Review by Richard Gleaves
It occurred to me, going into the task of writing this review, that I should be prepared to decipher the meaning of Passing Strange. Not the meaning of the show -- the question I have been flummoxed to answer is why this piece should have that particular title. What does it mean? What does that title have to do with this show? I felt if I could explain the title I would know how to frame the review.
I was right.
I knew vaguely that the phrase was from Shakespeare, but from what specifically I couldn't remember -- so I did a little detective work. (Fortunately, these days "detective work" means a two-minute Google search.)
"When I did speak of some distressful stroke, That my youth suffer'd, My story being done, She gave me for my pains a world of sighs: She swore, in faith, 'twas strange, 'twas passing strange, 'Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful..."
Othello is describing his wooing of Desdemona. Apparently, he poured his heart out to her about his awful youth -- saying, in effect: "Poor me. My life sucked" -- and "Passing Strange" was her reply ("passing" means "exceedingly").
Is it my imagination or does she sound bored?
Poor Desdemona. I sympathize! Who wants to listen to somebody else's childhood angst? Not good date conversation. I see her in a modern-dress production, sitting across from Othello in a restaurant, looking around the room while he prattles about his childhood, checking her watch and looking for an opportunity to bolt. She turns to Othello occasionally, says "passing strange" (as you or I would say "that's nice"), then looks longingly at the nearest door. Okay -- you know where this review is going.
Passing Strange wants to be a semi-autobiographical tale about the author Stew's journey from youth to adulthood. However, since the show only dramatizes a small part of that journey, it is actually about his path from suburban youth to suburban-youth-with-more-stamps-on-his-passport. Raised in suburban Los Angeles, Young Stew (in the program billed pretentiously as "Youth") discovers music at the local church, decides to see the world and finally comes back bitter (though drug-experienced and sexually satiated) to find that his mother has died in his absence. Just in case this synopsis sounds like a complete dramatic arc, I will emphasize that the mother's offstage death comes out of the blue, and that the play is really more concerned with Stew's discovery of hash and three-ways.
Biography as source material is problematic even in the best of situations. Even when dealing with a life story that is inherently dramatic (such as Einstein's or Nixon's) the onus is still on the author to wrest some narrative shape from the events of a messy life: to make the climax seem inevitable even though the events were actually lived in sequence without an eye to any end. Dramatizing one's own biography is an even greater challenge because it dares you to find the universal in yourself, to take the particular concretes of your life and abstract them into something meaningful to others.
It requires objectivity about one's own mistakes.
Passing Strange has flashes of this insight, moments when the author seems on the verge of some realization, but it never quite reaches the point of saying anything definite. Dramatically, it seems incapable of coming to any universal point. Stew, who acts as narrator, actually breaks character to address the audience late in Act Two -- to give them not his own conclusion about what it all means but what a pretzel vendor who sat in on the dress rehearsal thought it meant. I've never seen a more blatant abdication of a writer's responsibility.
Musically, the score by Stew and Heidi Rodewald is energetic but unexpressive. It is the kind of thumping rock that confuses repetition with development. There are some lovely textures and some visceral jolts, but the only memorable musical numbers are the few half-hearted attempts at pastiche -- as in the Act Two Chorus Line parody "The Black One". To listen to them is to listen to a rock musician discover how deceptively hard it is to write a song with a tune, a hook and a dramatic structure.
There are, nonetheless, a few things to admire in this production. The stellar cast deserve all the applause they get -- particularly Daniel Breaker and Colman Domingo who share some nice moments. The four onstage musicians are virtuosic. The physical production directed by Annie Dorsen is remarkably theatrical and was enough to keep my interest even as the story was losing my sympathy.
But theater is still a storyteller's medium and the story here is too slight to deserve the riches of the production. My theatergoing companion summed it up -- leaving at intermission he remarked: "It's about how that guy ('Youth') turned into that guy (Stew). And I don't care." Neither did I, ultimately. And neither will you. "'Twas strange, 'twas passing strange..." was only the first part of Desdemona's response.
The next bit was:
"Twas pitiful, 'twas wondrous pitiful..."