By Quinn Rigg
Long have the people of this country pursued something more—a great Manifest Destiny to seek broader horizons and greener pastures.
From the outset of its founding, the United States has made a point of craving more, teaching its citizens to come to the table hungry and ready to fight for their share—whether the buffet is all-you-can-eat or not. This American Dream ignites a frenzied contest for material possession and acquisition by any and all means necessary. Those in power restrict marginalized peoples as a means of maintaining influence; many starve in the attempt to stay alive in a mortal competition for financial stability.
Refuge Theatre Project’s Production of Hands on a Hardbody illustrates the shallow promise of the American dream and urges integrity in a society wracked by moral decay. In the Lone Star state of Texas, a struggle emblematic of America’s own struggle with equity and social survival breaks into a five-day-long battle of wills. A musical with book by Doug Wright, lyrics by Amanda Green, and music by Trey Anastasio and Amanda Green, Hands on a Hardbody is an adaptation of S.R. Bindler’s 1997 documentary of the same name, wherein a collection of determined Texans vie for a brand new Nissan “Hardbody” truck—the last person standing with their hands on the truck wins it. A synopsis of the plot may be found here.
Director Chris Pazdernik crafts a battlefield from the large, charmingly distressed space of the Preston Bradley Center. Alone on stage stands the hollow infrastructure of the “Hardbody” in question—the Helen at the center of this Trojan War. Pazdernik deftly navigates the directorial challenge of the musical’s convention: creating movement within a sizable ensemble that must be attached to a singular structure at at times. Scenic designer Evan Frank cleverly solves the issue of visibility by placing a pivot point within the truck, allowing it to rotate throughout the musical. Pazdernik utilizes this tool as a means of shifting an otherwise static perspective. Each angle presents a new focus of determined, lovable and problematic characters in a war zone fought with endurance, aggression and faith. Each new static perspective creates tension as characters restlessly attempt to outwit and outlast their fellow contenders.
Choreographer Ariel Triunfo imbues the ensemble with energy through her spirited and poetic use of movement. Especially in light of the musical’s sedentary premise, Triunfo’s work is a powerful opportunity to re-energize and reaffirm the stakes of the piece. From the electric opening of “Human Drama Kind of Thing,” the funky sass of “My Problem Right There,” to the profound efficacy of tableaus and visual storytelling in “Stronger,” Triunfo’s work is as delightful as it is effective.
Frank’s scenic design is artfully intricate and symbolically evocative. The barren infrastructure of the truck illustrates the emptiness of this struggle — the contest we make of the American dream is hollow, decrepit, and devoid of substance. The ensemble fights for their right to an opportunity of social mobility—yet the man running the contest is in of himself corrupt and on the brink of bankruptcy. The intensity of personal struggle juxtaposed with the futility of excess is profoundly ironic, highlighted expertly through the frame of one truck. Particularly pleasing is the aesthetic synergy between the set and the space, both emblematic of better days gone by.
Music director Jon Schneidman is nothing short of masterful in his facility of band leading and vocal direction. Schneidman’s piano leads Jeff Smith on bass, Connor Zagrans on drums, Celeste Park on violin, and Henry Altenberg on guitar. Together, this band deftly jumps between electrically-charged rock, wistful country, passionate Latin rhythms, and much more. This ensemble is supercharged under Schneidman’s leadership, with excellent vocal blend and earth-rattling dynamic contrast. The music is consistently impressive under such tight direction.
However, while the production team is tactful in their work and abundant in skill, the acoustics of the found space do not assist in execution of this story. An unfortunate fact of this production’s space is that diction gets muddled by the echo of the large auditorium; as such, it is often difficult to clearly discern certain lyrics and lines.
Regardless of the space’s misgivings, the cast of Refuge’s Hands on a Hardbody is passionate, powerful and incredibly endearing throughout their squabbles, ideological showdowns and heartwarming resolutions.
Derek Fawcett shines as the prejudiced, hyper-competitive, deeply damaged antagonist Benny Perkins. Immense power and presence, and tactful in navigating shifts in register, Fawcett gives a master class in vocal performance. His forward placement cuts through the echo of the space like a hot knife, providing utmost clarity to each word; moreover, the dynamic expressivity of his voice is delightfully engaging.
Cathy Reyes McNamara charms as super-Christian Norma Valverde. McNamara creates a wholesome and genuinely lovable character through engaged connectivity with her castmates. The religious fanaticism of Valverde is completely committed—the passion behind the character fuels McNamara’s powerful pipes. Her booming alto is something to behold. The vocal pyrotechnics of her higher register are all the more surprising given her resonant comfort down low.
Jared David Michael Grant is a force of nature as Ronald McCowan. Grant is an ecstatic joy to watch onstage, bursting into the space with lively, invested energy and big, clear and effective choices. A powerhouse of resonance and spunk, Grant is an enchanting showman.
People compete as equals for unequal opportunities, and win or lose, move on with their lives to continue surviving as best they can. Playwright Wright cites “Darwin’s cruel truth about the survival of the fittest” as precedent for this maddening duality of the American dream. Refuge Theatre Project comments on this story with a wary ear to America’s current political and social deterioration. The conservative mindset of the Lone Star state is emblematic of a national issue: this merciless system is inherently exhausting to mind, body and spirit. Should the bloodthirsty contest of American society continue, then perhaps the only legacy left behind by our civilization will be ghostly shells of Applebee’s and Starbucks.
Refuge Theatre Project presents “Hands on a Hardbody” through April 27 in Mason Hall at the Preston Bradley Center, 941 W. Lawrence Avenue, Chicago. Additional information and tickets may be found here.