“Kowtow Rapsody,” like its title, makes use of the foreign and the unexpected; if you’ve got time this weekend, this rap musical is an hour well vent(ed).
Created and performed by Scott Kirshenbaum ’03 and James Duruz ’03, “Kowtow” is a frenetic and at times frightening cry for self-acceptance and nonconformity.
Walking into the eerily lit Saybrook Underbrook Multipurpose Room, one realizes immediately that this is not a typical musical: playing cards strewn on the floor — don’t worry, they’re glued — long-stem roses hung upside-down next to an effigy of Babar, an authentic I.V. pole and “Kowtow” spelled out in toilet paper along the wall.
The program — also mysteriously adorned with an image of the beloved elephant — gives a definition for “kowtow”: a Chinese term among whose meanings is “To show servile deference.” With the amalgamation of images, one has to ask, how do all of these ideas fit together? Kirschenbaum attempts to connect them in a series of diatribes against everything from hypocrisy to Eminem — occasionally even connecting the two.
Hard to follow, Kirschenbaum and Duruz’s performances are nonetheless magnetic as they rap and groove with incredible energy for the duration of the show. Whether you are inspired or simply grotesquely fascinated by their raw talent, you will find it hard to avert your attention.
Notable moments include Kirschenbaum’s inspired leaps into the audience and his interesting existential dance with the I.V. pole. But, by far, the standout rant is Kirschenbaum’s critique of society’s unattainable beauty standards: his interpretation of a Miss America contestant is at once hilarious and disturbing. This duality underscores the work as a whole, from Kirschenbaum’s hip-hop style — somewhere between Ruff Ryders and Risky Business — to his rap content — pop culture and philosophy.
His lyrics range from insightful (“Be happy/ Or die trying”) to provocative (“Though the mascara runs down the enemy line/ I must remind myself that I am fine”) to “enlightening” (“Shit happens/ Use toilet paper”). Although the title claims “Kowtow” is a musical, there’s none of the narrative structure that would seem to promise. Instead, it is an abstract, free association-style self-portrait and denunciation of society.
Duruz plays guitar throughout Kirshenbaum’s performance, and it’s an impressive feat, considering the variety and tempo of the fast-pa ced dialogue. Emerging at one point from beneath a bowling ball bag — the show’s apparent symbol of conformity — to speak, Duruz does so with effective brevity. He is the musically gifted “Silent Bob” to Kirschenbaum’s verbally schizophrenic “Jay.”
In the end, the performance emerges as a kind of post-modernist “Song of Myself,” with Kirschenbaum struggling with and yet promoting individualism. One can’t tell for sure whether Kirschenbaum and Duruz are absolutely brilliant or just nuts; either way, “Kowtow” is an arresting experience.