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THEATER REVIEW

'Whip 'Um' lets the weirdness roll

Cynthia Hopkins combines indie rock, video and narration in her strangely inviting REDCAT show.

September 28, 2007|David Ng | Times Staff Writer

You could accuse performance artist Cynthia Hopkins of many things -- self-indulgence, creative incoherence, artistic solipsism, even political grandstanding -- but selling out isn't one of them. Her latest show, "Must Don't Whip 'Um," at REDCAT through Sunday, is such a peculiarly personal work that it practically births its own theatrical genre before your very eyes.

Call it an avant-garde indie-rock musical with Islamic influences, plus a touch of the occult. On a stage cluttered with rugs, antique furniture and other pawnshop-chic items, a mysterious narrator (Hopkins) tells the story of Cameron Seymour, a fictional American folk singer and activist who vanishes into a Sufi sect in the Moroccan desert. Years later, her daughter Mary attempts to locate her and films the search as a documentary. These two stories unfold in fitful parallel through a succession of rock music numbers, video projections and whiskey-fueled conversation pieces.

If this all sounds chaotic and difficult to follow, it is initially. But the show's nonlinear convolutions exert a gravitational pull that is strangely inviting. What gradually takes hold during the show is a kind of poetic logic that tunnels deep into the subconscious. As one character intones, "Reality is not so much fun." "Must Don't Whip 'Um" adheres to this declaration with a refreshing disregard for the strictures of theatrical space-time.

The show, which was first performed this year at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, forms the second part of a trilogy about missing parents. (It's not necessary to see the first installment to enjoy the current episode.) As Mary investigates her mother's fate, the narrator takes turns channeling both characters, enacting Mommie Weirdest's own farewell concert -- a kind of self-eulogy performed before her disappearance -- while also providing the voice-over for the daughter's hilariously solemn documentary. Identity is fluid; time is collapsible. To complicate matters, Mary starts seeing her mother's ghost, but this could just be the product of her own hyperactive imagination.

"Must Don't Whip 'Um" provides an album's worth of eclectic, finely written tunes performed onstage by the band Gloria Deluxe. As the lead vocalist, Hopkins has a timbre that suggests a huskier, angrier Natalie Merchant. Most of the action also transpires on video monitors as a series of cameras captures Hopkins and her team at all angles. The technique is hardly original; the Wooster Group pioneered video as a Brechtian device long ago. But the nonstop digital mediation imparts a pleasing spectral quality to the show, as if to reinforce the idea of ghostly visitation. Audience members who are easily seduced by all things multimedia will surely find it riveting.

The show's weakest moments arrive when Hopkins attempts to tie in President Bush's war on terror. Even if you agree with her arguments, they come off as painfully sophomoric and random.

"Must Don't Whip 'Um" leaves many of its mysteries unsolved, or at least underexplained. Mother and daughter reach a spiritual accord, though exactly what that entails remains ambiguous. Even the show's title never fully (or even partially) makes sense. The final musical number is a hauntingly enigmatic piece that offers much beauty but little resolution. It's an ideal ending for a show that never apologizes for its defiant strangeness.

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david.ng@latimes.com

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'Must Don't Whip 'Um'

Where: REDCAT at Walt Disney Concert Hall, 631 W. 2nd St., Los Angeles

When: 8:30 p.m. today and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday

Ends: Sunday

Price: $30

Contact: (213) 237-2800 or www.redcat.org

Running time: 1 hour, 20 minutes

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