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To beat of song and dance, ‘Ameriville’ sounds cautionary tales of life on the short end

Submitted by on Feb 9, 2012 – 12:56 am

Review: “Ameriville,” created and performed by Universes, at Victory Gardens through Feb. 26 ***

By Lawrence B. Johnson

It’s hard not to love Universes, the four-member troupe now holding the stage at Victory Gardens with its foot-stomping, hand-clapping, spiritually buoyant slice of political theater called “Ameriville.”

And how, indeed, can you not marvel at their nonstop physicality as they morph and modulate through scene after morally censuring scene evoking hard truths about life on the short end of life’s stick?

You can’t help but become mesmerized by the staccato beat of feet and hands as Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and her three versatile companions – Steven Sapp, Gamal Chasten and William Ruiz – dance, chant, rap and sing their parables of our deeply ingrained inequities. What’s especially fetching about this darkly themed show is its airy irony, the mordant wit, the lightness of touch that offsets the hammering of heels.

Unfolding along the lines of an old-fashioned revue, “Ameriville” begins with the national embarrassment that was the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina; and from there, well, there are so many directions to go and Universes eventually explores them all. Poverty, racial prejudice, abuse of our natural resources, the West’s disproportionate consumption of those resources, and so on.

Universes has been cultivating its art of social and cultural commentary for some 15 years. The company was invited to Victory Gardens by the theater’s first-year artistic director, Chay Yew. He first encountered Universes at a New York Theater Workshop retreat several years ago and subsequently asked them to perform at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles when Yew was an associate artist there. In 2006, a collaboration between Yew and Universes called “Blue Suite” – about “a down-and-out blues trumpet player and a flamenco-dancing muse who confronts him about his life and art” – was presented at the Goodman Theatre.

In “Ameriville,” directed by Yew, the debacle that was Katrina serves as moral touchstone for a seamless sequence of skits that ultimately deals with two far larger issues: the plight of millions in this country who suffer from the constraints of poverty or racial prejudice, and what it means to be a conscientious American citizen.

As political theater tends to be, “Ameriville” is a single-minded polemic, in this instance a clever – often brilliant — entertainment with a sober message aimed at any heart that might be vulnerable to a humanitarian appeal.  Its admonition is to go forth and be a better citizen of the world. Do the right thing by your fellow citizens, all of them. And use less water.

From time to time during “Ameriville,” the imaginative and smartly disciplined entertainment is embroidered by video projections specifying some statistical imbalance or other in human affairs. As a reporter and editor of long practice, my reaction in each case was to wonder, Says who? While the statistics may be accurate, and indeed seemed likely in most cases, none of these freighted numbers came with attribution.

Anyway, Universes doesn’t need the undocumented gilding. Its case resonates in tableau after tableau, through the infectious beat of song and dance: We the people are all in this together.

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Photo captions and credits: Home page and top: The Universes company (from left) William Ruiz, Steven Sapp, Gamal Chasten and Mildred Ruiz-Sapp. Upper right: The troupe’s message gets a lift. Photos by Michael Brosilow. 

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