The Iron Horsemen 6:11
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
February 13, 2005
It starts off so familiar—four disparate people get on a subway train. Actually, three get on; one of them, the homeless bag lady, is already on the car, sprawled across the seat, asleep with a dirty blanket thrown over her. The three who join her—seated as far away as possible, of course—look ordinary enough, but we'll soon discover that they are a nun, a high-powered stockbroker dying of AIDS, and a retired hit man. (This is not so hard to believe: you never know who you're on the subway with.)
They're sitting quietly minding their own business, when suddenly there is a gigantic noise; an explosion. Everybody is thrown around the convulsing car. Then it's still, and our four characters quickly understand that something cataclysmic has occurred above ground, that there's rubble surrounding them, barricading them in the tunnel; that—an unspoken truth—there's probably no way out.
Thus begins Jermaine Chambers's remarkable new one-act play The Iron Horsemen 6:11, currently one of the featured productions at the Stampede Festival. There are echoes of older works in this set-up, to be sure; but where Chambers takes his characters and his audience in the course of a little more than an hour turns out to be largely unexpected, even uncharted, terrain. The four participants in this intellectual allegory are called "Famine," "War," "Death," and "Pestilence" in the program, but to Chambers's credit the writing never feels either as simplistic or heavy-handed as those names suggest. Indeed, The Iron Horsemen unfolds, cannily, in a manner that feels naturalistic, in what feels like real-time. It's only slowly that a grand design asserts itself over the characters, their histories, and their present plight.
This is a first play, and an imperfect one: there are flashbacks that don't really add as much to the proceedings as they ought to, and the ending doesn't quite achieve the level of catharsis that we're looking forward to. But overall this script is a dazzler, portending terrific things to come from this young playwright. As realized by director Brian Snapp and actors Metha Brown, Joe Serpa, Kate Serpa, and David J. Smith III, it's a potent, challenging drama of surprising depth and profundity; precisely the sort of fare that makes a festival like the Stampede so invaluable to the intellectually curious theatregoer.
As soon as the (metaphorical) smoke clears, the nun takes over, collecting food and water from each of the others and urging them all to pray so that they might find a way out of their situation. The broker has a severe panic attack but then tries to be conciliatory; the hit man, meanwhile, balks at the nun's—let's face it—bossiness. The bag lady is mostly ignored except that the hit man gives her a candy bar to eat; later the broker will try to befriend her in his offhanded way, calling her "Looney Tunes" and joining her and the hit man in an impromptu game of charades.
Chambers sets up two dichotomies during the course of the play. One pits the hit man against the nun in a wonderfully novel way: it is revealed, as the characters talk about themselves, that she caused a little boy to be killed while he saved the life of a newborn baby. The other pairing, of the bag lady and the stockbroker, contrasts haves and have-nots with a clarity that's jolting: in one of the best speeches in the play, he asks her why she decided to drop out of the human race and take to the streets, while in another she rails eloquently against the fact that some people have more food than they need while others starve. These characters trade in issues that are as fundamental and essential as it's possible to be, and what they say reminds us of truths we too often lose sight of. In the end, Chambers sets up yet another dichotomy—extinction vs. evolution. His archetypal creations make powerful cases for each, and end by asking us to make a choice of our own.
At the center of this powerful drama is Metha Brown's homeless woman, brilliantly realized (all the more so given the fact that Brown plays a character several decades older than herself with remarkable assurance). There's a sequence when Brown's character "sings" the sounds of urban life that she cherishes, from car horns to sirens to babbling din; even silence: it's a gorgeous, moving moment of finding beauty in the most unlikely places. David J. Smith III's stockbroker shifts from sheer panic to slick self-assurance and back again; he surprises us by tapping into some genuine emotions when he talks about his sickness. Joe Serpa, open-faced and bearlike, is oddly tender as the hit man. But Kate Serpa's nun is buttoned-up perhaps too tightly; we don't get much insight into how she got to be the way that she is (a deficiency of the script, as well).
Snapp has staged the play relentlessly and tautly on the sparest of sets, a single bench in the center of the playing area that represents the subway car. Putting the action in the middle of the audience is an inspired notion, making us privy always to only part of what's going on (we can't see the facial expressions of people turned away from us, for example; and there's always someone turned away from us). The raw intimacy of the constricted space and the epic questions posed in the script create a tension that's palpable and enduring.
Even with its flaws and blemishes, The Iron Horsemen 6:11 is, for my money, the best kind of theatre there is: an ambitious, questing work by an exciting new playwright and an adventurous company. Chambers, Snapp, and their actors are putting themselves on the line here—they deserve an active audience to listen and respond to what they're saying.