Regional Reviews: Cincinnati
Set in the fictional town of Bialystock (perhaps a remote reference to Max Bialystock, the central character in Mel Brooks's The Producers), a town struggling to survive after a nuclear apocalypse, the residents believe they're the last vestige of civilization. They have maintained a few buildings–a welcome center, an art gallery, and a bank. But strangers arrive and upset the town's tenuous status quo with an explosive plan to appropriate many of their limited resources. The tale unfolds in the ruined lobby of a one-time bank, realistically designed by Artistic Director Andrew J. Hungerford. The institution's only functional aspect is an off-stage vault where residents' so-called valuables are deposited. It's occasionally opened and closed with creaking metallic noises.
Surrey (Aisha Josiah) is the alcohol-dependent keeper of the bank. Her principal task is to oversee the approval of community residents who are entitled to store things. Bialystock's one-man security detail is Hunter (James Creque), a rough, self-assured character who does what he thinks is necessary to enforce the town's few rules. Two Bialystock residents drop in and out with frequency. One is Herbie (Ben Dudley), who lives in the woods, grows weed and wears a pair of antlers. Before long, he changes his name to Aquaman after reading an ancient comic book about the telepathic superhero. Sharon (k. Jenny Jones) runs the seldom-visited visitor center and stores a collection of shot glasses in the bank vault. She's seriously distracted, grieving the loss of her family in the long ago "blow-up."
The first intruder is a jocular, boisterous old man named Pete (Jim Hopkins), who wears a blindfold and knee pads, walks with a stick, and carries a backpack containing roller blades and a land mine. He intends to open an account so he can deposit the mine in the vault. But because he's an outsider, he's not eligible–unless the Bialystock residents accept him as a local. This leads to much conversation about insiders versus outsiders. Eventually another intruder, The Migrant (Eileen Earnest), arrives with a much more assertive plan to plunder the bank's holdings, which include a barely functioning computer that no one understands.
There is a lot of humorous bantering among the characters, most of whom have no recollection of the actual blow-up, just its aftermath. Herbie/Aquaman defines the internet as a "series of 2s." Peter, a long-ago information tech who might have played a role in the world's devastation, tries to set the townspeople straight–even thought his explanations strike most of them as outlandish fairytales. Sharon's recollections are more mundane, especially when focused on a sorority she once belonged to. The Migrant has arrived offering the bribe of a small watermelon, which Sharon injects with vodka and serves to everyone in her shot glasses.
Hopkins, a Cincinnati Shakespeare veteran, and Earnest offer the most vivid portraits, voicing them strongly and distinctly. Hopkins's portrait of the dubious old man's attempts to gain sympathy and get his own way is coherent. Earnest brings a menacing intensity to the Migrant. Dudley's spaced-out, tree-hugging Herbie/Aquaman is amusing, but the role is one-dimensional. Jones' role is smaller, but well performed, and her startling use of a machete on the watermelon is hilarious but doesn't have much to do with the story. Creque's Hunter, at the ready to solve concerns, has rather limited perspective as the enforcer of rules. Josiah as Surrey, whose family owned land around Bialystock for generations, provides continuity and struggles to grasp the implications of the invaders, but her lack of vocal volume undermines her character's efficacy.
If this sounds rather disjointed, that's because it is. Russell's play, staged by artistic director Hungerford, is described as showing "a world broken beyond repair" that "explores how we might find a way to mend it." I must admit that I missed that destination: the concluding scenes of perhaps further destruction and a finale with Peter, the Migrant, and Herbie/Aquaman singing a Civil War folk tune, "Aura Lee."
Know Theatre's regular audiences expect theater that pushes boundaries, and the opening night audience responded enthusiastically to the humor in Bankers. But the show's bewildering plot and lack of obvious resolution were beyond me. I'm all for experimentation, but I really yearn to arrive at some kind of sharp takeaway. I'm afraid that the sharpest point in this production is Sharon's machete.
Bankers runs through May 14, 2023, at Know Theatre of Cincinnati, 1120 Jackson Street, Cincinnati OH. For tickets and information, please visit knowtheatre.com or call 513-300-5669.