Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
First we meet Saff (Tess Talbot), a beautiful but opinionated and fierce young woman who's marketed her sexual availability a bit too far. Her best friend's reputation is being slandered online by her ex. Saff sets out to revenge this wrong. The story she tells from a back alley is made all the more interesting as she slips in and out of several other characters, including Judy, a bullying acquaintance, and her own ignorant parents.
Saff's tale includes another character, Oli, who becomes the narrator of Dickless' second section. Judy the bully considers Oli her boyfriend; in Saff's first monologue, Judy physically attacks. In truth, Oli has had relations with numerous other young women. But his story is much more complicated. Oli is also played by Talbot in a remarkable change: The role is, in fact, transgender. Wearing a stocking cap and an all but expressionless face, Talbot portrays Oli with a deeper voice, telling his own sordid story.
In the third portion of Josiah's 90-minute, intermissionless script, we meet Smith Henry (Jared Earland), a minor character from Saff's first monologue. He explains how he's tried to get around some financial difficulty through an encounter with "The Mon," a shortened form of "mongrel"–a menacing, manipulative transgendered person. Smith Henry is at his wit's end about how to extricate himself from this pickle when he meets Titch (Sydni Charity Solomon), a naïve but fearless young girl (her name, according to a program note means "small, downright wee, if you will"). She solves Smith Henry's problem. Along the way, the bully Judy briefly and tearfully seeks Smith Henry's assistance to locate her supposed boyfriend Oli. In this encounter, Talbot is back onstage, weeping and all but helpless.
Aisha Josiah traveled to Cincinnati for Dickless' opening weekend and did a post-show talkback. She explained that Saff's monologues were initially dark standup comedy pieces she performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in Scotland several years ago. When Know's producing artistic director Andrew Hungerford contacted her about producing the show, she mentioned that she'd expanded the storytelling with the Smith Henry monologue. She was eager to add it to the production. Director Brant Russell, head of the acting program at the University of Cincinnati's College-Conservatory of Music (CCM) who had met Josiah during some time in Great Britain last summer, jumped in with both feet to stage her intense script.
In a recent interview, Russell said, "This kind of material is not only suited to Know, but Know's audiences are adventurous enough to want to hear about it." Know produces the annual Cincinnati Fringe Festival, about to have its 20th iteration in June, and this show certainly appealed to a rambunctious opening-weekend audience of Fringe regulars.
Russell also called Dickless a vehicle "for three really good actors to do what they do best." Talbot delivers a bravado, multi-faceted performance as frenetic Saff in a black tank top, as surly Oli, and briefly as forlorn Judy, using different voices and physicalities, including a brutal solo episode of stage combat–with a chair as a stand-in for her victim. As Saff, she is up and down and around the grungy back-alley set designed by Hungerford and occupying only the stage-right side of Know's black-box mainstage. In the second section, she keeps brooding Oli under tighter control. As the wailing Judy in a puffy pink coat during the third scene, she's barely recognizable from her previous moments.
Earland, a veteran of several past Know productions, is an amiable if perplexed Smith Henry who gets in trouble far deeper than he intended. Solomon, a junior in Russell's acting program at CCM, has a memorable brief turn as a spunky kid whose ignorance of danger is entirely believable.
Dickless demands attention for its fast-paced, jargon-littered, and dialect-delivered text. But it's worth the effort for adventurous audiences.
Dickless runs through February 12, 2023, at Know Theatre of Cincinnati, 1120 Jackson Street, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit knowtheatre.com or call 513-300-5669.