Acting on the Edges of Moral Boundaries

—Olson-Larsen Galleries presents dsmArts—

Above: Former baseball pro Ryan Broussard hits a home run as a street-smart tough guy in “Prowess,” through June 17 at Stoner Theater. 

Reviewed by Michael Morain

When a fluorescent light blinks on and a low rumble pumps in during the show “Prowess,” at Stoner Theater, the scaffold upon which four actors stand and sway really does look like an L train. And the city they ride through really does look like Chicago—at least, the bleak and violent version that President Trump described in his inaugural address. The show starts, in fact, with an audio clip of his inescapable voice.

But instead of simply rolling over and giving up, the four strangers in Pyramid Theatre’s fiercely relevant story by Ike Holter shake their fist and resist (or these days: #resist) the hopeless status quo. They form a vigilante posse of raggedy superheroes to clobber a gang the Chicago police are unable or unwilling to take down themselves.

Sure, the premise sounds a little goofy. But with Ken-Matt Martin’s direction, the dramedy charges ahead like the L train, without ever tipping off the rails. The overall tone is dark even if the characters’ Fight Club training sessions (directed by Karla Kash) occasionally shift into funny hip-hop dance routines (choreographed by Martin and Josiah Davis and embellished with skinny-white-guy antics by actor Louis McWilliams). One character accurately calls it “mighty morphin’ Fosse Fosse.”

For this production—just the second after the script’s Chicago premiere—Martin has recruited three of his friends from Brown University’s prestigious graduate theater program. Besides McWilliams, the show benefits from the street-smart swagger of Ryan Broussard (who used to play baseball for the Los Angeles Angels) and the New York- and Mumbai-based actor Aman Soni, portraying a Banksy-like graffiti artist who tends to appear on balconies like a mischievous Cheshire Cat. (D’Vaughn Agu designed the spare industrial set.)

Rounding out the cast is the fearless Victoria O’Bryant, a Drake University senior who stepped in as a replacement and learned her lines in just two weeks. After a few out-of-sync moments with Broussard at the start of last Thursday’s preview, she more than held her own with her more-experienced castmates. Like the others, her character protects a tender heart with a tough shell.

By the end, the moral boundaries of the posse’s exercise in DIY justice are murky. But the upshot is clear: This show falls right in line with the company’s other recent successes, including several Cloris Awards and a 2018 Standing Ovation Award from Bravo Greater Des Moines. It demonstrates what American theater looks like right this minute and, one can hope, where it’s moving in the future.

“Prowess” starts at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday at the Des Moines Civic Center’s Stoner Theater. $26.50; pyramidtheatre.org

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