Theatre Review: ‘The Motherf***er with the Hat’ at Studio Theatre

Drew Cortese and Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Drew Cortese and Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Do you like your liquor straight up and on the rocks, or do you prefer it mixed with bitters, citrus, a lot of Blue Curacao and peach puree? Do you like your cars with four doors, a stick, and a radio/CD player, or do you prefer one with heated seats, GPS, and Back-Up cameras for when you forget to look? Do you like your drama with a simple, straightforward, powerful, and humorous story or do you prefer a play with video, long monologues for backstory, and witty dialogue for laughs?

… a truly memorable theatrical experience.

Well, if you are the more direct to the kisser kind of lover and want your theatre simple, with an insightful human angle, packed with raw, to-the-bone emotion, and full of wonderful bust-a-gut funny comebacks, actions and reactions, then Studio Theatre’s production of The Motherf***er with the Hat is definitely the show for you. For it is that rarity of theatrical experiences in Washington Theatre these days: it is a purely human, a cut to the quick exploration of what it means to be alive and kicking and loving in urban America.

Rosal Colón and Drew Cortese. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Rosal Colón and Drew Cortese. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Written by Stephen Adly Guirgis, this Motherf***er with the Hat, nestled cozily within the confines of Studio’s 200-seat Metheny Theatre, will quickly gather you up in its funny, empathetic world of lovers, addicts, and other seriously lonely people, and it will not release you until its final desperate plea has found your ears.

Jackie (played by Drew Cortese) comes home one day to his on-again, off-again girlfriend since junior high, Veronica (played by Rosal Colón). He has some exceptional news. He has landed a job at Fed Ex—a Union job, with benefits! Suddenly this recovering alcoholic, ex-dope dealer on parole ex-con could not be happier, and neither could his girl. Ecstatic, and with the smell of celebration-sex in the air, Jackie awaits Veronica’s freshly showered body to come to their bed. That is when he spies an anonymous looking hat under the table in the corner of the room. Examining the hat, Jackie’s imagination begins to swirl: he smells the hat, he smells the pillows, he smells the bed. Cologne! It is everywhere, and Jackie is decidedly not the cologne wearing kind of guy. When Veronica returns glowing in anticipation, instead of her much anticipated romp between the sheets, she finds an explosive Jackie on the verge of falling off the wagon.

And that’s only the beginning of this tightly-drawn, 5-character ride through love and addiction.

Cortese’s protrayal of the emotionally on edge Jackie is both controlled and raw. We experience first hand his desire for survival as he negotiates his volcanic feelings for his passionate Veronica. Not only can we laugh at his impetuous antics, but we can empathize with his inability to fathom just how screwed up both he and world really is.

Colón immediately endears her Veronica to the audience with her no-nonsense attitude toward life and her love-addicted mother. We so want to believe her when she tells her Jackie that he is only imagining things. Even when she “doth protest too much,” we want to believe her, for how could such a no-nonsense human being be such a liar. Of course, her cocaine addiction might have revealed her-less-than-reliable self to us; but still, she is so honestly in love with Jackie that we believe she could not have betrayed him with a man who wears a feather in his hat.

Drew Cortese and Quentin Maré.  Photo by Teddy Wolff.

Drew Cortese and Quentin Maré. Photo by Teddy Wolff.

With alcohol and Veronica as both his crutch and his demise, Jackie turns to his AA sponsor, Ralph (played by Quentin Maré). Ralph has been in recovery for several years and has developed a thick philosophical shield to protect himself from relapsing into alcohol or—as we later discover—guilt. Maré’s portrayal of the smooth talking, health food salesmen is both nuanced and sympathetic, which is no easy task as the character verges on villainy.

Ralph’s wife of several years, Victoria (played by Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey), is much easier to sympathize with—after all, she’s married to Ralph. The ex-Wall Street, high flying,  i.e., cocaine addicted, Victoria feels as trapped as a stockbroker during a housing bubble. Fernandez-Coffey’s portrayal is brutally self-demeaning: she captures Victoria’s sarcastic bitterness all the while offering us her seething desire to disappear.

And then there is Liche Ariza, who does a fabulous turn as Jackie’s Cousin Julio. Between living the good life, cooking gourmet enchiladas and spirulina scrambled eggs with a stinky cheese, and pretending that he is not deeply lonely, Ariza’s Julio delights us with his familial loyalty and with his capacity for bravado.

Director Serge Seiden has assembled a strong design team. Set designer Debra Booth has incorporated the Metheny’s rough hewn concrete back-stage wall into the play’s visual portrait, dropping minimalist urban locales in front of its massive high-rise to excellent effect. Michael Giannitti’s lights accentuate each space, helping the focus, while costumer Ivania Stack keeps the clothing appropriately simple. Fight director Robb Hunter choreographed the various expressions of violence with a believable clarity.

The Motherf***er with the Hat is a searingly honest look at our American character, our loves and addictions; and those loves and addictions cut across socio-economic lines, affecting the ex-con as much as the ex-stock broker. The play’s humor is abundant, but its humor masks the pain brooding beneath the surface. When that humor simply cannot cancel the pain anymore, and the pain erupts, the truth of our endeavors becomes clear. Then, we cannot help but see ourselves in those characters inhabiting the stage. We might not be that mother or that hat; but we most definitely know, or have known, both the mother and the hat on more than one occasion. And it is that authenticity of expression, and the insights that follow, that make this production a truly memorable theatrical experience.

Running Time: Two hours with no intermission.

Advisory: Throughout this performance, there will be…very strong language, adult content, full-frontal male nudity, and simulated drug use (AEA union-approved herbal substitute).

The Motherf***er with the Hat plays at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th Street, NW, Washington, DC, through March 10. For tickets click here.

About Robert Michael Oliver

An educator, playwright, theatre artist, and poet, Robert Michael Oliver has lived an eclectic life since moving to Washington 30 years ago after earning his MFA in Directing from Virginia Tech. Co-founder of DC’s Sanctuary Theatre, Michael served as its artistic director through the early 1990s. He then worked at The New School of Northern Virginia as High School Director and Director of its theatre program. Now, with both his children independent, young adults, and after earning his doctorate in Theatre and Performance Studies at the University of Maryland in 2005, he has recommitted himself to the arts. In 2010 he began the Sanctuary’s Performing Knowledge Project. Its one-man show, “Embodying Poe: Poetry in Performance,” which Michael wrote and performed, premiered at the 2011 Capital Fringe Festival. A long time participant in Washington’s theatre scene, he was delighted to be the Editor, DC Metro area for the Maryland Theatre Guide for a few years.