A compact, 90-minute show, Flipside is centered on a chance encounter between an undercover cop and a young drug hustler. The creators — a skilled team from Hartford's own Hartbeat Ensemble — distilled hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 40 people from Hartford, surrounding suburbs, and Boston into compelling theater that goes beyond cliché. Though it grew out of interviews, this is not a static piece: movement, music, spoken word, physical acting, and rapid character transformations by a contemporary version of a Greek chorus surround the two central characters with lively theatricality.
The complexity of those characters is one reason Flipside works so well. An early scene in which Bo, the hustler, talks with two friends about wormholes helps establish his smarts, his curiosity and the way his capacity for wonder has survived the confinements of his life. A school dropout, he's contending with a mentally ill mom who can be violent, a sick dad, and a younger sister who needs protection. As played by the remarkable Chinaza Uche, Bo exudes aggrieved dignity. Even when most stuck, reduced to monosyllables, the character's intelligence is clear. Uche is big but subtle; when he listens on stage thoughts flicker across his face in some kind of actor-generated magic. I'd love to see him on film.
Local actor and teacher Brian Jennings plays Nick, the cop, whose dedication to his work costs him big time at home, as he neglects his wife and daughters. He's haunted by questions about whether his work is actually doing more damage than good, and flashbacks to a big case in his past — based on real events in CT — lend his anguish substance. Jennings can also flip into song, and comes to life most in a quick insertion of a bit of Judas from Jesus Christ Superstar.
Music is just one of the things the chorus of women provide, singing in tight harmonies, using some original melodies plus quick covers of familiar songs that help place the events in time. Julia Rosenblatt, one of Hartbeat's three founders, took the lead in creating the script. She's effective in a variety of roles, including the cop's wife and a Glastonbury grandma whose life has taken an unexpected turn. Cindy Martinez, a new member of the Hartbeat Ensemble who is locally trained, supplies poetry and lyrics and delivers most of the spoken-word work in the piece. Taneisha Duggan provides a powerful third to the chorus, alternately smoldering and silly as required by her shifting characters, which include a West Hartford teen who makes some stupid and tragic choices.
Director Gregory Tate, another of Hartbeat's founders, directed this piece with a sure hand and the ability to call forth the best from his performers, who actively collaborated in shaping the show. Flipside debuted last spring and played a limited run to sold-out houses. Tweaked a bit since then, it's been revived for just a few performances. This is the first show Hartbeat is mounting in its new, raw space, donated byCommon Ground in the Hollander Building downtown. The grittiness of the setting suits Flipside just fine. This show gets a big thumbs up from me for artistic merit — which isn't always the case with theater that's generated from a commitment to social change.