Theater where you back up

Among the Thugs puts Fight Club and Manchester United hooliganism in Houston's face

Among the Thugs puts Fight Club and Manchester United hooliganism in Houston's face

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Hooligan and National Front member Dougie takes a piece of Bill's jaw despite being restricted by DJ, another supporter. Photo by Natalie Hebert
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The thugs cheer on their team at the match, with only a gate separating them from the field. Photo by Natalie Hebert
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The thugs cheer over a Juventes supporter that they've just beaten up after a football match between Manchester United and Juventus in "Among the Thugs." Photo by Clint Allen
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Snaps of some of the thugs Photo by Natalie Hebert
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Mick, left, described by Bill as "the most repellent human being I'd ever seen," forces Bill to nurse four or five pints o' bitter before his first ManU football match. Photo by Natalie Hebert
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I thought I knew about thugs. After all, I survived parochial school, where an alpha seventh-grader's stare could melt me into a puddle of humiliation.

Those rosary-toting thugettes made Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls look like Mother Teresa. Horse Head Theatre Co.'s production of Among the Thugs opening on Thursday (and running every Thursday, Friday and Saturday through Oct. 2) at Magnolia Ballroom's dank basement club, the Kryptonite, exposes way more testosterone-infested thuggery than any gaggle of mean-spirited Catholic school girls could ever muster.

Tom Szentgyorgyi's play is based on Bill Buford's memoir of the same name, which depicts his adventures infiltrating Manchester United's supporters and his subsequent descent into the intoxication of senseless violence. Think Lord of the Flies goes to English football. Buford, the former editor of the literary journal Granta, takes subjective journalism to new levels of questionable participation, barely surviving to tell the tale. Buford delivers a social commentary on his deviant pals from dead center of a volatile crowd. 

The seduction of violence is ever present in Buford's education in hooliganism. Fueled by large volumes of alcohol before, during and after the match, the "supporters" chant, start senseless fights and other acts of lawlessness. The lure of male tribalism proves irresistible to the curious writer. Buford compares violence to an addictive drug, a high better than dope or sex.

"The net shreds, the house burns, sexual excess, religious ecstasy. Pain-inflicting it, having it inflicted, being in a crowd and, greatest of all, being in a crowd in an act of violence. On the street, when it finally goes off, I'm weightless. I abandon gravity, I am greater than it," says Buford's character, played by Drake Simpson, an immensely physical actor.

 "Buford is like a drunken newscaster," says Simpson, who has held down the leads of the two previous Horse Head productions. "It's also a beast of a part."

Eventually, coming to what's left of his senses, Buford unravels the emptiness of the mayhem. "It's a lad culture without mystery, so deadened that it uses violence to wake itself up. It pricks itself so that it has feeling, burns its flesh so that it no longer has smell."

Telling words for our crazed-for-blood culture. Horse Head's artistic director Kevin Holden hopes audiences leave more aware of the ways in which we passively condone violence.

Horse Head calls itself a collective. Headed up by Holden, followed by Simpson and technical brain Anthony Contello, the team also includes K.C. Scharnberg, Frank J. Vela, Bree Welch and Jon Thompson. Their inaugural play, Red Light Winter, enjoyed a mostly sold-out run. A more fully realized second play, Fault Lines, took place at Brewery Tap.

Place is important to Holden. Before finding the Kryptonite, Holden would not have gone forward with the play. These thugs needed a rough-hewn environment, so it's a good thing that the Kryptonite looks like a set right out of Fight Club.

"I didn't think we could do the play at first; I thought it was too big," Holden says. With a cast of 10, this is the largest production in the troupe's just over one-year history.

Jeremy Choate is designing the lighting, no small feat in this dungeon locale.

"The lights are wild, volatile and about as bright and white as possible," Choate, who is drawn to Horse Head's design-heavy shows, says. "The pictures are raw, sharp and angular. It's not pretty, yet light forms a driving force in the play, and is definitely a strong presence that the actors need to contend with."

Deeply influenced by the teachings of theater design pioneer Robert Edmond Jones, Horse Head places environment, ritual and full-on engagement high on their manifesto. The idea is to bring the theater experience back to the people.

"I always get energized by the work we do, and I love the fact that I can get up and grab another beer during the show if I want, no stuffiness allowed," Scharnberg says. "It thrills me to no end that Horse Head shows are turning average Joes into bona fide arts patrons. Many of the Brewery Tap regulars, who had never been to a play in their lives, are now hooked and can't wait to see Thugs because they liked Fault Lines so much."

Holden, a proponent of a more visceral type of theater, wants the audience to inhale thug air. You are in the very same room with the rumpus.

"It's in your face," he says. "The action is close."

And if you get a little squeamish, feel free to get up, move around and put more distance between you and the thugs. I found myself backing up just watching a rehearsal. I agree with supporter three when he describes the primal horde, quoting Edward Gibbon circa 1782: "It is the scum that boils up to the surface in the cauldron of a city."

Every Horse Head event begins with a ceremony, an initiation of sorts, in the way of the Horse Head. It's a signal to those in attendance that you have left the world as you know it to enter a more primal theater. 

Among the Thugs marks Horse Head's third "boys behaving badly" play. Holden is unapologetic for his male-driven agenda.

"Well, we are men, I choose plays that I like and will be vehicles for Drake," Holden says. "We do what we do well."

Don't expect Steel Magnolias anytime soon. That said, Holden has future plans for an all-female roller derby play. 




Horse Head's artistic director, Kevin Holden, demonstrates a fight scene from Among the Thugs: