‘The Motherfucker with the Hat’ at The Studio Theatre by Sydney-Chanele Dawkins


Life is messy, and sometimes painful, especially when it comes to matters of the heart. For many, love hurts. As our experiences grow and we mature, hopefully it is learned that true love isn’t supposed to hurt. Love is happiness and acceptance. If the love you receive doesn’t feel good and doesn’t make you happy then one has to question: Is it real love, the love you wish it to be, or, is it the “love” you think you deserve?

Rosal Colón (left) and Drew Cortese (right). Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Rosal Colón (left) and Drew Cortese (right). Photo by Teddy Wolff.

The Motherfucker with the Hat is a dark comedy about growing up, accepting responsibility, and the fragility of the choices that you make. This igniting tale of scarred lives has visceral realism and something to say . . . and it’s delivered with exclamation points!

Written by playwright Stephen Adly Guirgis, The Motherfucker with the Hat opened on Broadway in 2011 and received six Tony Award nominations, including Best Play. Cheerfully vulgar and in your face, defiant Studio Theatre’s latest eclectic production in the Methany Theatre is directed with humor and finesse by Studio Theatre’s Associate Producing Artistic Director Serge Seiden. The excellent multiethnic cast of five are all making their Studio Theatre debuts.

Recognize the temptation.

After doing a two-year prison stint on a drug wrap, Jackie (Drew Cortese) is a newly paroled ex-con who has been living clean and sober under the guidance of his Sponsor and friend Ralph D. His recovery is threatened by living with his volatile girlfriend Veronica (Rosal Colon) who has a coke habit of her own, and no urge to give it up. And then there is the complicated discovery of another man’s mysterious hat in her apartment . . .

This intertwined story of addiction examines the dependency cycle that every character spins from one destructive choice to the “recovery” obsession of another. Guirgis explores the danger of clinging to contrived, motivated rituals and artificial moral codes in a world where addiction and narcissism can overpower sound judgement and subdue love.

Quick to dispel the notion that sobriety absolves us of our flaws, the journey Jackie travels to get to the truth and deal with his anguish is heartbreaking and riveting. There were several moments throughout the play that I observed the audience physically leaning into the action on stage – literally hanging onto every word. If you are looking for a gripping and engaging two hours to rock your world, than look no further, The Motherfucker with the Hat is the ticket.

Confront the demons.

Drew Cortese’s performance is gutsy, passionate, and oh so real. Breathing life and a rollercoaster of emotion into every moment he occupies the stage. Cortese bravely embraces his character’s pain and imperfections. I felt the swell of pride and joy of getting a new job that Jackie radiates at the opening of the play as he shares the good news with Veronica, his heart and love of his life since the 8th grade; as well as his spiraled, tortured descent grappling with the revelations of betrayal and dishonor. Cortese delivers an honest, dignified, and layered performance as we discover Jackie’s strengths and uncover his insecurities, wounded despair, and the sacrificed ruthlessness he needs to endure.

The Motherfucker with the Hat is serious, but it doesn’t take itself too seriously. Surreal in the way it connects to experiences we know or recognize, it succeeds in tying them to the underclass and people whose stories we see all to rarely on stage. There is humor – loads of it, and the entertaining rapid-fire, street verbal combat, and quick pacing punctuate this cast of characters’ contradictions and personal demons . . . as well as their heart and humanity.

A lesson about our fragility, the play resonates on many levels. With sex and deception mixed in equal parts, the relationships among the five are intriguing, familiar yet unique. As each character engages in tongue-lashing exchanges, layers of ego and self-justification; the veil of half-truths, lies, and wishful thinking are revealingly stripped away. The jealousy, self pity, pride, delusion and disrespect exhibited prove to be insurmountable to these five. Major havoc and turmoil ensue as these relationship obstacles are confronted with recovery realities that require not only major lifestyle changes but even a change of environment and an adjustment of core values.

Drew Cortese (left) and Liche Ariza (right). Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Drew Cortese (left) and Liche Ariza (right). Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Experience the dream.

We all have dreams, especially when the possibility of sharing a life with another person becomes a reality. Jackie and Veronica are no different in what they hope and dream for each other, and perhaps more importantly what they imagine for themselves. Jackie fascinates as a guy that not only can you sympathize with, he’s one I actually found myself rooting for – this in spite of his transgressions and imperfections. Why? Because how can you not feel for a person, who is trying to do better. He wants a life of change and goodness. Nobody is perfect but in Jackie’s case he’s struggling to do better as he learns better, and he’s pushing himself to make strong, positive choices. The right choice. Choices that before his recovery, he was susceptible to reacting to with an immediate destructive, emotional response instead the thoughtful, albeit painful choices observed. He’s reminded, and mindful of the consequences.

If there’s a flaw, in my opinion it is the one dimensional and limited quality time spent with the female characters. While the play is presented from a male perspective and point of view, both of the female characters (Veronica and Victoria)  have major roles in the cause and effect of how the play transpires, and yet, their interaction with the other characters and the presentation of them as complex people comes across as gritty poetic style over substance. There is a lot of anger and attitude expressed by the women but as substantive characters representing fully realized human beings they are both woefully underwritten. Illuminating a more complete balance to the personalities and history of these female characters would have added significantly to interpreting these women beyond the near caricature profiles as written. As a viewer, I am left with more questions than answers. For some that is satisfactory, for me it had me longing for more about whom these women really were.

To their credit Rosal Colon (Veronica) and Helen Hayes Award winner Gabriela Fernandez -Coffey (Victoria) decimate the script limitations.They winningly succeed at what aspiring actors hope to do and every fine actor manages to accomplish – they bring the text to life, make the characters their own, and create two more fully realized, multilayered roles far beyond what is written on the page.

Colon as Veronica is a fierce, tough, and she knows how to put up a good front with her self-centered rationalization. She can lie to you straight to your face and create a back story without the blink of an eye or the slightest hesitation. But there are glimpses of her vulnerability, insecurity, and troubled inner struggles that are vividly expressed through her body language, speed of talk, and the telling facial expressions when she believes no one can see her.

Victoria is carrying the weight of the world on her shoulders and in her hardened heart. Fernandez-Coffey gives a can’t take your eyes off performance, as she exposes her character’s sadness, depth, and vulnerability. With minimal dialogue – the exception being of a scintillating plot changing scene between Victoria and Jackie – Fernandez-Coffey proves her flair for making controlled anger and gut-wrenching marriage dysfunction authentic.

As Jackie and Veronica’s history unfold, the personal life of Ralph and Victoria are disclosed. Quentin Mare is unmistakable as the duplicitous Ralph D, that it’s easy to dislike the egocentric who is Jackie’s Sponsor and parole counselor. That’s a compliment.

At times I found him hard to watch because I just wanted to get away from his righteous, self-serving justifications. He is someone too familiar (you know the type), and it feels invasive as he slinks in and out of the psychology of abuse with his serpentine manipulations of Jackie, Veronica, and his wife, Victoria. Mare is so impressive that his talent sneaks up on you, and his continuous ability to make Ralph D draw you back into him is a skill he made seem effortless.

Rounding out the cast is Jackie’s married cousin, the emphatic, loyal and effeminate Julio (Liche Ariza) - my favorite scene-stealer in The Motherfucker with the Hat - who is himself in recovery. A different type of addict, Julio is now fastidious about quirky details of his appearance, health regimens, and food preparation but he delightfully remains grounded.

Debra Booth’s set design of a multi-use apartment corner, a sliding plasma TV, and a few basic furniture pieces used for the three set changes is as much as this bulldozing character play needs before it would become distracting. In that vein, the lighting design (Michael Giannitti) and Eric Shimelonis’ original music and sound design are used sparingly, minimally highlighting the emotional flow and transitions of the scenes. Ivania Stack contemporary costume design is time and place appropriate, and Rob Hunter’s stellar fight choreography is intricate and clumsy looking enough to appear deceptively natural and spontaneous.

Enjoy the Passion.

Besides the instinctive response that Guirgis’ muscular, inflammatory writing provokes, – how can I resist a play that allows me to say my favorite curse word without personal insult? I can’t and dare I say, neither will you. If the thought of a play with some adult language and four-lettered words turn you away – don’t let it. The Motherfucker with the Hat has generated so much buzz since its Broadway debut, that according to TCG, the national organization of American theatres, it is 2012-2013′s 8th most produced play in the U.S.

Drew Cortese (left) and Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (right). Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Drew Cortese (left) and Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey (right). Photo by Teddy Wolff.

As the title suggests this play comes with some tough talking bravado, but it also has more substance than the impact of a foul mouth exchange. The Motherfucker with the Hat is a slice of life urban lyrical tale that is fresh, provocative, and rare storytelling that dares to dig deep and penetrate emotions beyond the surface level. You get a sense early on, and certainly once you are in the thick of the play – the sting of the expletive not only loses it power – the use of the term makes total sense.

Recognize the temptation.
Confront the demons.
Experience the dream
Enjoy the Passion….. The Motherfucker with the Hat.

Running Time: Two hours with no intermission.

The Motherfucker with the Hat plays through March 10, 2013 at The Studio Theatre in the Metheny Theatre – 1501 14th Street, NW, (Northeast corner of 14th and P Streets) in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 332-3300, or purchase them online.

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