Dallas — Four musicians in formal wear and red devil horns walk past the dark trees and moonshine still on the stage and begin to play. Soon they’re surrounded by bearded men and leggy women in jeans cut for high water, and everybody is singing a jangly song: “Hear that bell that’s ringing in hell? That bastard’s got no other father here!”
That make-do father is the title character of Elwood, written and directed by Matthew Posey, with an original rockabilly score composed by resident artist Justin Locklear, in its premiere performance at Ochre House Theater. Posey and company have been performing new works for a decade in an alluring boxcar space near Fair Park surrounded by bars and pop-up art galleries. In other words, the perfect hood for these “pioneers of the suavant guarde,” as they describe the 10-year-old company that produces only new works.
Christian Taylor, bearded as a lion and gentle as a lover, is Elwood, a recluse making great ’shine in the hills outside Canton, Georgia, where he’s retreated to care for his late, desperate truelove’s bastard baby Elvis, thrown to him from a roof when she splits her family home for fashion school. Lucky for Elwood and us, his hillbilly neighbors are crazy fun.
Funky Florida (wiggly, teasing Quinn Coffman) is a ripe Georgia peach who uses her spooky hexes to convince her luckless crush (drawling, cute Chris Sykes) he’s a box-shell turtle. Her chum Tennessee (charming, goofy Monet Lerner) is the cutting edge of hillbilly fashion in her burlap dress with red paper cup trim and matching earrings. “Not everybody can wear it,” she concedes.
Both young women are sweet about little Elvis (unseen except as a biggish bundle swept on and off the stage), while concurring he’s for sure “the most unsymmetrical baby” they’ve ever seen. But bad plans are arisin’ in these dark woods.
We learn in dialogue and song lyrics, written by Posey, that baby Elvis’s mother Cordelia (swaying, dark-eyed Elizabeth Evans) gave up the ghost on purpose and became the one now haunting Elwood with weird, sad songs. She sings about her loss and begs sweet Elwood to protect her offspring from the grasp of his evil father, an influential man with power in nasty places where vicious lawmen rule.
In an early showdown with one such would-be baby thief (heavy-handed, funny Dante Martinez), shy, nerdy Elwood roars into action and shoots the man dead. The gates of hell open from the back of the stage revealing brightly painted orange flames (thanks to scenic artist IZK Davies). Instantly the chorus of actors and musicians sing “Damned,” a scary folk song about the evil dead, “whose children won’t be fed.” A bright-eyed man with horns appears alongside everybody when the music gets rowdy, and we know the devil lives amongst this crew.
It seems everybody wants to get their hands on this “big, ugly baby,” in loving Elwood’s own words. Cordelia’s well-meaning parents show up, claiming grandparent rights. Stubborn Elwood reminds Professor Ansel Barber (Posey in full beard and penitent posture) and his wife Sarah (perky, take-charge Carla Parker) that they failed their daughter utterly, so how does this entitle them to raise her bastard son.
These suddenly familiar names cue some of us that we’re watching the sequel to Posey’s 2015 Soft Noodle Map, a lovely flight of a musical about a retired astronomer named Ansel Barber who maps black holes in the cosmos, but can’t figure out the human heart. His old enemy knocks up his wild daughter, who ends up running off and tossing her howling baby Elvis to her shy admirer Elwood, the only person who actually holds the baby when he cries. Some of this is referenced in an overlong dialogue between Elwood and the Barbers, but the scene clearly anchors the current plot to the earlier play.
We’ve been forewarned by many a song and sign, and before the good guys can even take a swig of moonshine, the corrupt Sheriff Dinkus Eggleston bursts on the scene, perfectly embodied by plank-thin Mitchell Parrack, outfitted in his duty-tough uniform and polished badge, his eyes glittering with triumphant glee. Parrack’s sheriff sneers at the crowd and delivers the show’s wickedest song, “Judge Jury Executioner” with a snarling drawl that actually calls up a rogue lawman swollen with pride of power, just waiting to beat somebody down. I literally shrank back in my front row seat.
The musicians are tight. Sarah Rubio-Rogerson on cello, Ian Mead Moore on guitar, Olivia de Guzman on keyboard and Trey Pendergrass on percussion deliver the country rhythms and soulful ballads in Locklear’s score with ease, and become part of the cast when called on. One or two songs feel dropped into the script, rather than part of the story, including a vaudeville-style delivery of “Longin’ and Lovin’”, sung by Posey, Parker and Kevin Grammar, playing a wise-cracking family friend. But even this number is fun to watch.
The arc of Posey’s play, all silly hillbilly jokes aside, extends from Elwood’s growing sense of fatherhood to an overall question about who deserves to raise the ill-starred children of the future we’re leaving them. What might that future hold? The ambiguous lyrics of the last song, “Broken Signs,” leave us a bit up in the air—or maybe deeper in the woods. Elwood is a play reflecting our uncertain times. Might there be a trilogy in the works in the depths of Exposition Park, where Ochre House and company reside?