by Amber Gallery · August 16, 2015
As New York City's independent theater companies and small businesses battle and lose to rising rents and the city copes with a tragic loss of character, it was an exciting prospect to see a play out of Toronto that was marketed as a story about "who wins - real people or gentrification?". Sky Gilbert's Naked Hamilton is a snapshot of two regular customers of a dive bar in Hamilton, an "outer borough" of Toronto (a-la Queens).
It is early in the evening, and Tee and Tom are being forced out of a bar they've frequented for years (and incidentally is the only bar they have not been kicked out of). There is apparently a photo shoot happening, something that pays the owner well, and that could possibly change the image of the bar and drum up its business. Tee and Tom want none of this, seeing the bar as a second home, their church, even. It is apparent that with their rough demeanors and filthy mouths, it would be difficult for them to find another regular place that would accept them, and where they'd feel comfortable and important.
There is definite magic in this production. Gilbert's writing, in terms of content, is spot on. I often wondered how much was developed in the rehearsal process versus what was written by Gilbert in advance. No matter, the moment-to-moment of the play works, hits the right emotional chords, and there are lots, and lots, of laughs. DROM is a cabaret space and Gilbert made the wise directorial choice to move the majority of the action of the play to the bar area and among the audience instead of using the raised stage. This type of immersive theater experience served the play well and I hope will continue in future showings. Putting the audience in such close proximity to these characters will tell them something about themselves and how they feel when Tee and Tom are so close. Suzanne Bennett is wonderful as Tee, capturing every subtlety and nuance of a woman with a checkered past who may just want to improve her situation but has no idea how. And Scott McCord's outstanding portrayal of Tom leaves us put off, charmed, and sympathetic in equal measures. McCord's look and skill are a rare find - as a New Yorker who has great pride (and let's face it, snobbery) in the extraordinary talents of our actors, I would not only welcome McCord here but tell everyone I could that he'd arrived.
Despite all these positive elements, the play didn't really touch on the issue of gentrification as much as it could have and felt more like a workshop of an excerpt of what could be an excellent full-length production. At only 40 minutes, there was certainly room for more exploration of what it really meant for these people to be kicked out of their regular haunt. The non-existent character of the bartender was a gaping hole in this telling - he was driving the action by kicking them out and yet only lived offstage and through the eyes of Tee and Tom. I think he could be a compelling third character and antagonist to the purity of Tee and Tom's love of the bar. Despite these shortcomings, Naked Hamilton is something special, and I am glad to have been picked up along the play's journey so I can continue to follow its progress.