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Steel Hammer

  • Theater
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Steel Hammer: Theater review by Helen Shaw

John Henry dies a lot in Steel Hammer. He dies of miner's lung; he dies of neglect; he dies of exertion. He dies as a single man (played by Eric Berryman), and he dies as a multiple figure, played by an entire company of interlinked, chanting actors. In fact, we know John Henry is going to die even before we walk into Julia Wolfe's hybrid work Steel Hammer, because in the (rare) American folktale with an African-American hero, the “steel-drivin' man” famously outraces a steam engine and dies with his hammer in his hand. Can an evening sustain so many deaths, so many micro-climaxes, so many re-beginnings? Based on the performance now at BAM: not easily.

Wolfe's oratorio came first. She wrote the chamber work with vocal trio in 2009, and in isolation, it is ravishing. Despite its title and subject, Hammer seems deliberately gentle—Wolfe points to the propulsive folk song heritage (there are dozens of ballads and hammering songs about John Henry, including the famous recordings by Woody Guthrie and Johnny Cash), but she subsumes that drive and roughness under layers of glistening, frictionless women's voices. She's interested in the many versions of the John Henry tale—was he 6'5” or 5'1”?—and so she weaves lyrics out of the names of states he may have been from or visited; she makes movements out of the diction of hearsay itself. “Some say he's from / some say he / some say he's from / some say he—” the three women sing, trying to get the facts right. The formal repetitions and iterations of minimalism turn meaningful in Wolfe's hands: she uses it to show us how time polishes a legend into something smooth.

Sadly, the same hypnotic recursions that make Wolfe's music shimmer can turn static in theatrical performance. The two-hour production feels extraordinarily long, and it seems as though the attempts to turn it into a show are to blame. The Bang on a Can All Stars and vocalists Emily Eagen, Katie Geissinger and Molly Quinn perform with palpable delight, and they try to wind us into their Appalachian spell, but director Anne Bogart and her SITI Company keep interrupting the enchantment. Bogart & Co.construct an often unwieldy scaffolding around Wolfe's oratorio, interpolating commissioned dramatic texts by Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux and Regina Taylor, as well as a lot of aimless moving to and fro. (SITI member Barney O'Hanlon did the choreography, but the constant stage crossing and slow…meaningful…glances…are all Bogart.)

Bogart's long experience with collaboratively devised work seems not to serve her when so much of the piece has arrived ready-made—the mini-plays were written independently, and of course the opera itself already existed. There's lovely work in flashes: Stephen Duff Webber suddenly calls out in his challenging bright tenor; Rux writes a weird, riveting monologue for the splendid Patrice Johnson Chevannes; Power's addition (he unhinges time enough that John Henry's wife sings Adele songs to him through his prison bars) is refreshingly acerbic. But too much of the SITI contribution consists of vaguely illustrative movement and those repeated, rhythmically unvaried endings that make the hours drag. I watched people tiptoeing out after the thousandth time John Henry got back on his feet, and I don't think a steam engine could have driven them back. Our hero, hammer in his hand, couldn't have done it either.—Helen Shaw

BAM Harvey Theater (Off Broadway). Music by Julia Wolfe. Texts by Kia Corthron, Will Power, Carl Hancock Rux and Regina Taylor. Directed by Anne Bogart. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 55mins. No intermission.


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