‘_Jailbreak!_*tm’ Review: An Absurd Comedy And Revelatory Examination of Freedom
There are great things happening in the DIY arts and performance scene in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where a close-knit, egalitarian community of artists of all mediums produce and perform content with little consideration of commercial viability or the commodification of their work. When such work succeeds and enthralls, it is an unparalleled joy to witness.
One such occasion occurred recently at the Bohemian Grove, a veritable institution in the Bushwick art/music scene, with the performance of _Jailbreak!_*tm. It’s a one-act play from Saints of an Unnamed Country, a theater group run by Cameron Stuart, who also wrote, directed and starred in the play. Dubbed by Stuart as an “authentic and sincere example of No-Brow Theater” and an “invective against all that impairs our liberty,” the play features two unforgettable performances from Stuart and Lily Chambers, set design and sound by Dean Cercone, and voice-over acting from Rebecca Richards.
The story centers around two female prisoners, Koko (Stuart) and Lulu (Chambers), who have just broken out of prison after seven years of incarceration. They find themselves stranded on a beach at the edge of the world, bound together by handcuffs, debating how to best achieve true liberation—both physical and metaphysical. Koko is a transgender arsonist and Lulu is a radical agitprop writer jailed for her “revolt on grammar.” And they’re both clowns. The makeup on their faces matches the black and white stripes of their prison garb. Koko wants desperately to catch a fish, while Lulu is determined to make her way to an island utopia to rejoin her fellow revolutionary sister-clowns and upend the established order with erotic political poetry. Needless to say, they don’t get along so well.
Our two heroes recount how they came to be imprisoned in the first place, and they remember the dehumanizing oppression and violence they suffered and witnessed during their confinement. A cacophony of industrial noise interrupts the soothing sound of waves crashing on the shore, and Koko and Lulu become consumed with pain—faces contorted into agonized expressions, clutching their ears, their mouths, their genitals. The sound effects, expertly woven together by Cercone, prove to be an essential and enriching storytelling element throughout—in another scene, demented clown music is brilliantly paired with a particularly unhinged monologue from Lulu about rejoining her comrades.
The play is an absolute delight to experience, it’s often hilarious, and it is paced to perfection. This can largely be credited to the formidable writing prowess of Stuart and the performances of Stuart and Chambers. The dialogue crackles with macabre, vulgar poetic beauty, and an absurd, playful sense of humor. There is not a single boring, throwaway line in the play, and the use of language is often miraculously original and unexpected. The dynamic and uneasy, involuntary partnership between Koko and Lulu serves as the core of the play’s action, and the interactions between the two actors consistently hit the right notes of unabashed loathing and a palpable fear of being alone without the other. Chambers, in particular, shines as the bombastic Lulu. In her hands, Lulu is a manically brilliant, implacable revolutionary, and she captures the essence of Stuart’s complex monologues and delivers them with incredible aplomb, making them emotionally and intellectually accessible to the audience. Stuart, as Koko, seamlessly alternates between her vulnerability, the often childlike simplicity of both her thoughts and speech, and her violent and destructive impulses. The chemistry between the two ensures that the play remains engaging throughout its forty minutes. I was reminded of the relationship between Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot.
Though the universe that Koko and Lulu is even more dystopic and deranged than our own, this play provocatively comments on and skewers the abuse and racism plaguing our law enforcement and criminal justice system that have lead to one of the defining political and social crises of our time. Lulu angrily denounces the rapist prison guards in one of her many rants, and Koko weeps as she remembers what happened to fellow inmate Sandra, who she declares never belonged in a cell in the first place. This veiled reference to the wrongful arrest and death of Sandra Bland serves as a stark reminder of the abysmal state of our prison-industrial complex, and it helps elevates this play to the status of essential social/political commentary.
_Jailbreak!_*tm is an enormously successful piece of experimental theater. It is unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and it is not one I’ll soon forget. Here’s hoping Saints of an Unnamed Country continue their revolt on grammar for many shows to come.
Saints of an Unnamed Country are performing _Jailbreak!_*tm one last time at The Living Gallery BK in Bushwick, on Tuesday, Nov. 17. Check out the event page here.