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A formidable one-man army scores a major victory in Theatre Gym's "Jails, Hospitals, and Hip-Hop." 

The Hippest Hop

If you love rap music, go see this show. If you hate rap music, go see this show. Or if you'd simply like to see a furiously talented young actor wrinkle the fabric of the universe using little more than words and attitude, get off your lazy butt and go see this show.

Theatre Gym's "Jails, Hospitals, and Hip-Hop" is a series of 10 vaguely connected vignettes that manage to be searing, sublime and savagely funny all at the same time. Careening wildly from Riker's Island to Montana to Cuba, the play features complex characters the likes of which you have never seen before: a heroin-shooting prison inmate who eats organic foods; a millionaire gangsta rapper haunted by his own rhymes; a disabled young man who uses hip-hop as part of his speech therapy. Written by Danny Hoch, this show fleshes out the shadowy skeletons that exist on the far fringes of our comfortable lives. By bringing them center stage and providing them with words as powerful as they are profane, Hoch forces us to consider the depth and significance of people we would just as soon write off.

In an amazing marriage of man and material, actor Scott Wichmann brings all of these characters to convincing and calamitous life. Who would have guessed what a whirlwind of energy Wichmann was suppressing in his last big role as Frank Sinatra in the Barksdale Theatre's "Ella and Her Fella Frank." Here, the wiry actor invests heart and soul into every moment: His eyes burn with rage, his face twists with grief, his body even hits the floor in a short display of break dancing. In the one or two scenes where the script doesn't equal his skills, Wichmann still finds a way to shine. For example, Hoch's description of his uncomfortable experience on the set of the TV show, "Seinfeld," could come across as sour grapes. But Wichmann's hilarious imitation of Jerry Seinfeld makes the sketch one of many comic highlights.

Another laugh-out-loud funny scene features a rap star wannabe from Montana whose trash-talking rhymes are constantly interrupted by his meddling mother. In this sketch, Wichmann never becomes cartoonish, even at his most ridiculous, finding a way to make this buffoonish farm boy refreshingly real.

By keeping the stage bare except for a filing cabinet and a coat rack, director Richard St. Peter allows nothing to distract from his star performer. Steven Koehler's lighting design provides several visual accents, but these, too, are kept to a minimum. St. Peter's primary decision — and a wise one it was — seems to have been to stay out of the way and let Wichmann go to town.

The benefits of this approach are obvious in the play's finale with the appearance of rapper "Emcee Enuff" on the David Letterman show. Rap lovers will appreciate Emcee's sociological explication of hip-hop, its roots and its relevance. Those who despise the genre will enjoy Emcee starkly dramatizing the hypocrisy of musicians who want to be role models but who aren't willing to act like ones. And those of us in the middle will just sit back and laugh as Wichmann brilliantly nails another
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