Saturday, January 10, 2015

Soho Rep Presents "Winners and Losers" - Created and Performed by Marcus Youssef and James Long

I have come to anticipate each new offering by Soho Rep, knowing that I will be surprised, challenged, entertained and usually delighted.  My latest trip to Walker Street provided yet another evening of provocative theater.  "Winners and Losers" is deceptively simple in its concept and deeply thought-provoking in its execution and implications.

Here is the set-up.  Marcus Youssef and James Long are friends from Vancouver, British Columbia who are both writers and performers who have collaborated together over several years and numerous projects.  They were working together on two writing projects.  To give themselves a break from the sometimes tedious work of writing, they would play a verbal game.  One person would shout out a name of a person or an object - and the other person would proclaim whether that person or thing was a winner or loser, and explain why they had chosen that particular categorization. They soon discovered that the game of "Winners and Losers" was more intriguing and compelling than either of the fictional works they were hammering out.  So they abandoned those projects and turned their game into a play.  Under the direction of Chris Abraham, they have come up with a concept that is 80% loosely scripted and 20% site specific improvisation .

Using a simple set (see photo below) designed by Arnulfo Maldoado and Lighting by Jonathan Ryder, Long and Youssef enter and take turns using a huge piece of chalk to delineate the field of battle within which their verbal and sometimes physical fusillades would be hurled. At the outset, the topics chosen seem random and inconsequential: microwave ovens, Mexico, Canada, Burt Reynolds, Stonehange, The Occupy Movement, Pamela Anderson.

Gradually, as they expanded upon their rationales, intimate personal details emerge about their individual lives and families of origin.  Mr. Long left home at 15 to fend for himself; Mr. Youssef left around the same age to attend an exclusive private school.  So, when "Street Smarts" becomes a topic, things get very personal.  The verbal dueling is punctuated with a ping pong match and a brief wrestling tussle on the floor.
James Long and Marcus Youssef
"Winners and Losers"
Soho Rep
photo by Pavel Antonov
Through February 1
The emotional temperature begins to rise as they probe more deeply into one another's financial condition and backgrounds of relative privilege and penury.  As things go from simmer to boil, there erupts a well-aimed missile of "Go fuck yourself!" sent from Marcus to James - and they walk quietly off the stage.

So the audience is left wondering: "What did we just see?"  My take on the evening is that we saw two people - friends at some level who know each other intimately, but who have fundamental differences of world views and value systems.  The lesson seems to be "If these two men have no right to judge one another without having walked a mile in each other's shoes, then do we have any right to judge any of the winners or losers they have so facilely labeled and marginalized in the build-up to their personal contretemps?  Do we have the right to judge anyone else?

Something for us all to wrestle with.

"Winners and Losers" will run at Soho Rep through February 1.

Soho Rep Website - Winners and Losers

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