Review: 'Michael the Rebel,' justice and the power of obsession
A new theater company called Humble Treasure Productions, supported by donors to the Web's Kickstarter and founded by a young theater artist who moved here from Montreal, is taking on feudalism. If you think about "Michael the Rebel," the new play the group is presenting in a loopy, vivid way, you might see this 16th-century story as a modern tale, only now on a global scale. Some things never change.
To make that point, the cast of peasants will slap a flyer in your hand during a scene of protest that turns into a rampage. "Welcome to Neo-Feudalism," it's headlined, and offers just a few lines about the lords of 1 percent and the serfs of the other 99.
I found it fitting, given that the themes of "Michael the Rebel" involve the powerful and the powerless and cover justice, revenge and obsession. But I'll put on the brakes here, because the play – and its young and energetic cast – is far from didactic. The production's crafted with small pieces of many styles: movement theater, comedy, docudrama, puppetry and at points, minimalism. It's accessorized with live music by composers Jesse Kennedy and Andrew Thomas, who include a toy piano and a saw in the score.
"Michael the Rebel" runs only through Sunday night, in the regal, balconied library of the German Society of Pennsylvania on Spring Garden Street, a place that befits a play set in Saxony, Brandenburg, Berlin, Wittenburg, Dresden and Leipzig. The German Society collaborated on "Michael the Rebel" after Manon Manavit, the 23-year-old creator of Humble Treasure Productions, approached officials there. The play is one of the ways the Society is celebrating its 250th year.
Manavit knew few people in Philadelphia when she decided to produce her play about the real-life Hans Kohlhase, a horse farmer who encounters a new toll on the road to sell his horses. He protests to the lord of the region, is ignored and ends up with his animals abused and his stable worker beaten.
He seeks redress in several courts, but a network of chummy elites dismisses the case and is dismissive of Kohlhase and especially of his gumption. Kohlhase becomes obsessed with gaining justice and organizes peasants to protest the feudal system. With him leading the charge, they rampage through Wittenburg, burning buildings and killing innocents, and even Martin Luther's pronouncements cannot sway the outcome.
That plot is also fact. Manavit's play is adapted from a telling of the story by Heinrich von Kleist in an 1810 novel, in which he changes Hans Kohlhase's name to Michael Kohlhaas – thus "Michael the Rebel." A French fictional film about Kohlhaas, "Age of Uprising," was released for sale and rental in the United States last week.
Manavit conceived and directs "Michael the Rebel" – called "devised theater" because the content is developed also by the cast, in rehearsals. The production is also what's called, in this city at least, Fringy. It features nine young actors, all in multiple roles, some of them better at the play's satirical quipping than others, but all of them game for mocking the upper-crust. (Including those sometimes playing the upper-crust: Chris Davis as his lordship, plus Lesley Berkowitz, Erin Carney, Tasha Milkman and Josh Taylor.) Richard Chan could be more natural in portraying Michael the Rebel at the outset, although as the play progresses (three acts, none of them long) Chan summons the rebel within. Thierry Saintine is a convincing Martin Luther, and Angela Smith is wonderfully nasty in a role of the elite steward.
The actor who gets to have the most fun with this is Brendan Norton, the play's narrator. But he does more than move the story along – he sneers, snickers, registers surprise and shows obvious delight as the situation for Michael the Rebel is more and more desperate. He's a sort of Greek chorus of supermarket tabloid readers, all on his own.
The production asks the audience to stretch, not just suspend, belief. Papers are ripped up and tossed around to symbolize chaos. The actors are in character from the moment you walk into the German Society, even through two intermissions. Electricity plays a big part at the end, even though it wasn't yet developed in 1540. But by that point in "Michael the Rebel" I'd already bought into the tale, which has its own powerful currents.
"Michael the Rebel," produced by Humble Treasure Productions in collaboration with the German Society of Pennsylvania, runs through Sunday evening at the German Society, on Spring Garden Street between Sixth and Seventh Streets. Tickets at www.eventbrite.com.