Review by Samuel L. Leiter
In New York, you never know where you’re going to find brilliant acting. Perhaps it’ll be on Broadway, perhaps in a hole-in-the-wall theatre you’ve never heard of. This is borne out by the versatile performance of Richard Hoehler in I of the Storm, “a new solo riff,” in the tiny Playroom Theater, on the eighth floor of a nondescript office building in the theatre district. The script is by RJ Bartholomew, whose brief bio connects him to theatrical work he created at the Otisville State Prison and the Fortune Society, which is also true of Mr. Hoehler, who embodies the play’s single character, a shabby, middle-aged, homeless man living in the littered street near a city park.
This nameless character (“RJ” in the script) is an ex-con, a once highly successful businessman who did time for a white-collar crime, lost all his friends and worldly possessions, and can’t find a job. Having rediscovered his writing talents in prison, he’s here to tell us, among other things, to gather ye rosebuds while ye may.
Hoehler’s eighty-five-minute performance, insightfully directed by Janice L. Goldberg, is performed on a bare stage backed by three panels designed by Mark Symczak to represent the sky. It’s well lit by Michael Abrams, and significantly aided by Craig Lenti’s potent sound design. The actor’s words tumble out in a tour de force of writing and performance, mingling straightforward narrative with rhymed verse that reads like hip-hop but isn’t played that way. Often, he underlines his feelings by expressing them in multiple foreign languages. He also inserts moments of gracefully executed dance or well-sung snatches of old pop tunes, like “More Than You Know” or “I Gotta Be Me” (changed here to “I”).
Sounding sometimes like a preacher, sometimes like a motivational speaker, sometimes like an apocalyptic street corner orator, the guy’s devoted to what he calls “spitting my poetry on the streets,” observing with laser-sharp accuracy how we ignore life’s essentials as, obsessed with consumerism, we allow marketing and advertising to make us buy the next new thing or to become preoccupied with food and drug fads. He comically ridicules politically correct language, like calling crippled people “physically challenged,” and defies labels and pigeonholing, envisioning a world where people aren’t defined by class, religion, race, ethnicity, sexuality, and politics. “I’m an indivisible man,” he proclaims. There are riffs on the media’s fixation with scandals and violence, with the implication that the nasty things we say to one another on a daily basis bear an insensitivity that nurtures the seeds of war. Casting perhaps too wide a critical net, he spears many other pertinent topics: guns, education, drugs, climate change, deforestation, the Internet, competitiveness, and so on.
The material, however, can’t avoid taking on a New Age aura redolent of the more simplistic side of 1960s hippiedom, especially when our man implies that, since even Hitler and Pol Pot had the capacity, the solution to the world’s woes is “love.” At one point Hoehler even bursts into the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” There’s also an element of sticky sentimentality in his intermittent tale of an eccentric woman named Mars who befriended him despite his abject circumstances, but who died at thirty-three. Regardless, the actor’s epic recital toward the end, including a list of the world’s major international catastrophes, manmade and natural, is so powerful, it makes up for any momentary weaknesses elsewhere in the show.
The minute I got on the subway home, a pair of poets began reciting, asking passengers to check out streetpoetsnyc.com. They were immediately followed by a homeless man claiming, “I don’t rob or steal. Just trying to eat something tonight, y’all.” It’s unlikely you’ll encounter such a confluence on your next subway trip. On the other hand, if you’re looking for street poets and homeless folk rolled into a memorable solo performance, there’s always I of the Storm.
I of the Storm
The Playroom Theater
151 W. 46th Street, NYC
Through April 29