The phrase “passing strange” dates to the sixteenth century, where it appears in Shakespeare’s “Othello.” A young maiden describes the eponymous character’s garish stories as “strange, passing strange,” meaning exceedingly so. In the twentieth century, the term “passing” has undergone a metamorphosis, changing to “just barely,” and eventually landing on “counterfeit.”
Around the world, “passing” has taken on racial connotations, now colloquially used to mean “passing for another race,” and is the underlying theme of the musical “Passing Strange” playing at Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre in Evanston. The work is a product of a creative team new to Theo, with artistic director of Evanston’s Fleetwood-Jourdain Theatre, Tim Rhoze, at the helm, along with Jeff Award-winning music director Dr. Michael McBride and choreographer Terri K. Woodall.
The book by singer-songwriter-playwright Stew traces the teen-to-young adult journey of a man called Youth (Michael Jones), an aspiring musician who journeys from the United States to Europe in search of identity, stewarded by a fourth-wall-breaking Narrator (Jordan DeBose) and availed with sporadic check-ins by his Mother (Jenece Upton). The Youth, after being told that he is “not Black enough,” abandons his mother and sets off to find himself.
Like Shakespeare’s Othello, he is emotionally insecure and naïve. From a quiet Christian community to a communal squatters’ house in Amsterdam to a compound of anarchists in Berlin, the Youth conforms his personality to each group, moving on only after his new “families” show the barest gleam of humanity. There is a hint that his repulsion toward human love is assuaged in the future, but the Youth we see achieves little if any development, made clear when, after being confronted by the eternal death of a loved one, he asks “Is that all?”
The ensemble is the highlight of the production. During an experiment with acid, bad choir boy Terry (Elliot Sagay) launches into an hysterical tirade against existence as time and space unfold before him—“I can see myself aging… Oh no, I’m thirty!” Teenage goddess Edwina (Caitlin Dobbins) has a voice like an angel while singing a devilishly flirtatious tune. The head anarchist Mr. Venus (Michael Mejia) spasms on the floor while raging against life, the universe and everything—“What’s inside is just a lie!” Den mother and social engineer Desi (Chamaya Moody) shows that even raging leftists have hearts of gold, and sings melismatic arpeggios in the song “Come Down Now” in a last desperate attempt to elicit a kernel of humanity in the Youth.
The production is a mixed bag. DeBose as the Narrator interacts directly with the audience, kind eyes becoming at times tear-filled and piercing. Jones as the Youth maintains a sense of wide-eyed naiveté and sings passionately and capably (when in his vocal range).
A curious choice is to have the Youth, who makes a big deal about being passionate about music, pick up a guitar and pretend to play while an actual guitarist accompanies them, and it is obvious that no direction was given to make this look realistic; at one point, he does play the guitar, the struggling for chords and the dip in the quality of singing due to concentration raising the question, “Why have him play it at all?” Little unnecessary details like this spoil otherwise touching moments.
Despite obvious pitfalls there is still a lot of fun to be had. The choreography by Woodall has the ensemble framing the foreground action through contemporary dance and pedestrian movement. Performers regularly enter the audience, hyping up the energy from table to table. Trippy sequences have the characters move in and out of reality, providing entertaining excursions left for the audience to interpret. At a runtime of over two hours there is some drag, but moments like those inject the play with renewed vigor.
“Passing Strange” gives off hints of the avant-garde seen from a sarcastic and cynical perspective. Although the protagonist ostensibly learns nothing, the real metamorphosis occurs in the viewer’s reflection of their own life when confronted by the ignorance of youth.
“Passing Strange” at Theo Ubique, 721 Howard Street, Evanston, 7:30pm (6pm on Sundays), $40-$80, theo-u.com. Through July 30.