Performance Diary: GHOST QUARTET, ANCIENT LIVES, and INTO THE WOODS

January 18, 2015

1.11.15 Ghost Quartet is a beautiful little show written by writer-composer-lyricist Dave Malloy, the creator of the immersive musical gem Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. It began life last year at the Bushwick Starr in Brooklyn, where it earned rave reviews and made many “Best of 2014” lists. Now it’s installed for a very limited run at the McKittrick Hotel, home of Sleep No More, where it’s been playing Sunday and Monday nights in the space occupied other nights of the week by the restaurant, The Heath. The audience sits on chairs, at tables, and on cushions on the floor around a bunch of well-worn Persian rugs in a circle along with Malloy at his piano, Brent Arnold on cello, guitar, and other stringed instruments, and two singers, Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell (both Natasha veterans), who mostly occupy the space’s small stage. The setting is super-cozy, like a concert in someone’s living room.

GhostQuartet3(Ryan Jensen)
The show is both extremely modest and extremely ambitious. Modest in that it’s staged (by Annie Tippe) simply as a concert of 23 songs from a concept album, each one introduced as such: “Side One, Track One, ‘I Don’t Know.’” (The musical equivalent of Brechtian scene titles.) Ambitious in that the songs are really smart, somewhat dense, extremely tuneful, spinning out a deceptively folksy non-linear narrative that weaves together several strands of story derived from two dozen different sources listed in the program. The most immediately recognizable include Arabian Nights, Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher, and Grimm’s Fairy Tales, with a tip of the hat to Into the Woods. But Malloy also cites influences as varied as Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Ken Wilbur’s A Brief History of Everything, The Twilight Zone, English murder ballads, Ziggy Stardust, Stephen King, and the Disney movie Frozen. Characters appear and reappear in different time periods, and I suppose not unlike Sleep No More, the show invites you to pick a character or theme and follow it all the way through – could be Rose, could be Pearl, could be sisters, astronomy, storytelling, photography….

Malloy belongs to the cohort of composers whose work straddles theater music and singer-songwriter pop (cf. Adam Guettel and Gabriel Kahane, to name a couple). The combo of plangent, country-folk female voices and bowed strings reminded me at times of the lovely pop band Hem. Thelonious Monk gets name-checked, and a few of his most familiar tunes get stirred into the pot. As a lyricist, he mixes things up and enjoys strategies, structures, and puzzles. “Any Kind of Dead Person” revolves around a series of party-game questions (“If you were a part of breakfast, what part of breakfast would you be?”); “The Photograph” also employs questions, more of an existential interrogation (“How did Rose lose her camera? How did her belief system break down with the appearance of the ghost?”). “Four Friends” pays tribute to several brand-name whiskeys. (Do you get that this guy relishes his drink?) Some songs traffic in frisky dialogue; others are melancholy monologues the likes of which you might hear on a Gillian Welch album. On “Tango Dancer,” Bell sings a simple sad refrain, solo the first time, then joined by the others: “I was empty then/And I’m empty now/But it’s not the same at all.”

For all its modesty, the show delivers a bunch of theatrical surprises – a long stretch of several songs takes place with the lights out, the audience is enlisted to play some simple instruments, bottles of good whiskey are passed around, and you’re never able to guess what’s going to happen next. The show speeds by, and I’m glad I bought the original cast recording, because so many of the songs reward repeated listens. (You can buy it online here. The website generously lets you listen to the whole album, download individual tracks, AND read the lyrics — very cool!) The initial handful of performances sold out, so they’ve added six more at the end of February and early March. I encourage you to treat yourself.

1.14.15 Founded in 2008, writer-director Tina Satter’s Half Straddle ranks among the newer downtown theater companies getting a lot of attention in the last couple of years. It won an Obie Award in 2013; Satter’s Chekhov remix Seagull (Thinking of you) is also listed among Dave Malloy’s sources for Ghost Quartet (not surprisingly, given the teeny-tiny overlapping worlds of New York theater, he’s also married to Eliza Bent, a founding member and performer with Half Straddle). So the recent run of Ancient Lives at the Kitchen gave me a chance to catch up with this crew. I love that it’s essentially an all-female company. This play concerns a sort of charismatic schoolteacher named Paula (played with, I think, an intentional lack of charisma by Lucy Taylor of Elevator Repair Service) who takes three of her female students to live out in the woods away from society. One them becomes her bride (Emily Davis); the other two fall into the roles of happy camper (Bent) and grumpy camper (Julia Sirna-Frest). They encounter a male witch (warlock? played by Jess Barbagallo) who disturbs their communal equilibrium. All of them collaborate on various forms of alternative performance ranging from radio broadcasts to cheerleading to acting out scenes from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

ancient lives
One thing I loved about the show was how the cult of Paula distinguishes itself by wearing sort of frumpy wigs and eyeglasses (this is never explained or referenced in the text). I dug Chris Giarmo’s live score (and the way Giarmo and Jess Barbagallo managed to write gender-neutral bios). But mostly this was so so so not my cup of tea. You don’t even have to study her bio to know that Satter studied playwriting with Mac Wellman – 90 minutes of one non sequitur after another, alternately arch and mundane, spoken and acted by game performers as if it all made perfect sense. I see the lineage (Gertrude Stein to Richard Foreman to Mac Wellman and his students) and I appreciate the experimental spirit but I lose interest when there turns out to be no substance, or the substance is encoded in thrice-refracted pop-cultural references that I just don’t get. All the most interesting post-Wooster Group downtown ensembles play constantly with vacillating along the edge of smart and dumb. It’s a tricky balance and I guess entirely a matter of personal taste. ERS and Les Freres Corbusier do it for me. Young Jean Lee and Richard Maxwell – I go in and out with them. Radiohole and Half Straddle…um, sorry, ehhh.

I did treat myself afterwards to a delicious meal of Basque tapas at Txikito on Ninth Avenue.

1.17.15 Fiasco Theater consists of a group of actors who met as students in Brown University/Trinity Rep’s MFA program and stayed together afterwards. They made their name doing scaled-down small-cast adaptations of Shakespeare (Twelfth Night, Measure for Measure, and most notably Cymbeline). Now they’ve applied their house style to Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine’s Into the Woods in a production that started at Princeton’s McCarter Theater, traveled to the Old Globe in San Diego, and now has landed in New York at what the Playbill clumsily calls “Roundabout at Laura Pels Theatre/Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre.” (Veteran New York theatergoers will probably always just think of it as the American Place Theater.) This show is vastly different from the original Broadway production staged by James Lapine, and from the punky British production that showed up at the Delacorte in Central Park a couple of summers ago and from the new movie version. It is very much an ensemble piece, co-directed by two of Fiasco’s three co-artistic directors: Ben Steinfeld, who plays the Baker, and Noah Brody, who plays the Wolf, Cinderella’s Prince, and one of the wicked stepsisters. (With his pornstache and buff body, Brody radiated gay vibes to both Andy and me at first sight — see below with Emily Young as Little Red Riding Hood — but it turns out he’s married to the other co-artistic director, Jessie Austrian, who plays the Baker’s Wife. So much for gaydar, or should I say wishful thinking?)

into the woods noah broady emily young

The set is highly conceptual – instead of a fairy-tale forest, it takes place inside a piano (and if the design reminds you of I Am My Own Wife, good connection – they’re both the work of Derek McLane). The performance style borrows something from Shakespeare’s Globe (as we saw last year when Mark Rylance brought Twelfth Night and Richard III in rep) and something from Story Theater. Everybody’s onstage the whole time, everybody sings and acts and plays musical instruments and moves the furniture.

roundabout into the woods
The level of theatrical inventiveness is very high minute by minute. Having seen several other productions of Into the Woods already, I enjoyed the clever ways they found to play various moments and to solve the problems that arise when you have actors playing multiple roles (what happens when Brody’s Prince tries Cinderella’s slipper on Lucinda, the stepsister that he plays?). The downside is that musical values take a beating. The orchestra mostly consists of an upright piano at center stage, joined occasionally by lovely pockets of ingenious additional instruments (cello, guitar, autoharp – the same down-homey sound and costumes seen in Ghost Quartet, come to think of it). But this is definitely a cast of actors who sing, rather than singers who act. Some of the better singers are non-Fiasco members, especially Patrick Mulryan’s Jack and Jennifer Mudge’s Witch. (Andy pointed out that when Mudge transformed out of her ugly-witch garb, for a moment it suddenly looked like Nina Arianda had stormed in from Venus in Fur). Sondheim enthusiasts might be delighted to note the inclusion of “Our Little World,” the mother-daughter duet for Rapunzel and the Witch that was added for the first London production and frequently interpolated since then, and they will either be pleased or displeased at the removal of the Narrator character, one aspect of James Lapine’s original book that has always been a bit of postmodern prank, not easy to pull off. I mostly liked the show. I was less bothered by the less-than-perfect singing than Andy was. We went home and listened to the complete 2-CD movie soundtrack with Jonathan Tunick’s orchestrations conducted by Paul Gemignani, which definitely satisfied the last bits of nagging hunger left over from Fiasco’s stage production.

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