Dallas — If you are looking for something that will be different as is unexpected, you shouldn’t miss Ghost Quartet.
Ghost Quartet by Dave Malloy (best known for Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812) was part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center’s spring 2018 Off-Broadway series. This piece was a highly recommended event at the 2016 Edinburg Fringe Festival and critically acclaimed in New York. Ashley H. White (director) and Adam C. Wright (music director) have translated Malloy’s vision for Imprint Theatreworks, now onstage at the Bath House Cultural Center at White Rock Lake.
What is Ghost Quartet? The program says it is a “live performance of a concept album” because that is how Malloy has described it. But Malloy has also described it as “a song cycle about love, death and whiskey,” so his reticence to relegate it to a specific category is your first clue that this piece is unusual. Vibrating somewhere between a song cycle (not Schubert, more like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album) and a concept album (think The Who’s Tommy or Pink Floyd’s The Wall), Ghost Quartet does not sound like anything else in theatre now. As neither a musical, concert, nor play, there is no better place for it to exist than within the theatrical realm — often the space for people and ideas with no place else to be.
The second clue that this experience will be different is the bourbon, but this is all I can say about that.
Ghost Quartet is a set of four stories presented as sides to albums. These ghostly stories are inspired by iconic literary works, legendary figures, and video games and virtual worlds. They unfold in a non-linear fashion. (Have you seen the film Memento?)
For music lovers, homage is paid to major composers and albums across styles, from Machaut to Prokofiev to George Clinton (Parliament). Among the obvious and stressed tributes is one to jazz pianist and theorist, Thelonius Monk.
There are harmonies built on medieval intervals 4ths and 5ths. And there are deliciously discordant 20th century harmonies with intervals doggedly resisting the resolutions music theory says they must find. Almost three dozen different musical instruments timbrally tell their own stories while supporting the poetic narratives above. There is no stillness, no quiet.
For those caring more about the text, the stories are inspired by Edgar Allan Poe (Fall of the House of Usher), the works of Stephen King, and television (The Twilight Zone). Video game enthusiasts might be reminded of Myst or Legend of Zelda, and perhaps even Final Fantasy VII though that is admittedly more remote.
How do you stage something that will not settle? In keeping with the original design, Billy Betsill (scenic design) has transformed the Bath House stage into a retro Deep Ellum-like hookah-lounge arena with nooks, floor pillows, assorted period chairs and settees. Ghost Quartet strives for a sense of immersiveness (hence the virtual world/video game influence), so the arena configuration is the most effective way of achieving that. This places the performers at the center and for some viewers, a little lower as if in a shallow pit.
It is here where Brandon Wilhelm (piano), Benjamin Brown (bass), Mindy Bell (voice) and Devin Berg (voice, piano) weave the tales. These are their principal instruments, but they play various instruments throughout the show, approximately 33. The most versatile instrumentalist among them is Benjamin Brown. Instrumentation includes the expected (piano, bass, voice) and the less often seen, i.e. the autoharp.
This is a vibrant cast that takes a surreal hodgepodge and makes it less difficult to follow.
Bell and Berg can vocally handle all of the styles Malloy has stuffed into this piece. They are lyrical storytellers. We hear Bell’s soaring range and Berg’s mash of bite and folk. They are the solid anchors for the harmonies. Malloy has written some lush discordant four-part harmonies. Some of them got a little eeky, but these are ghost stories so eeky is forgivable.
Brown seems like one of those guys who could make music out of pumpkin seeds. The joy spills forth from him as he moves around the room, playing practically every instrument in sight, although vocally he doesn’t blend into the harmonies as well as the others. Wilhelm is the leader and the glue holding everything together—the stories, the music, and the communication with the audience. He has the most rock inspired vocal texture.
Performances remembered the next day were “Look Into My Telescope,” the dueling percussion of “Fathers and Sons,” and the glorious “Starlight.” Sides 3 and 4 are extra cool because of the lighting design (Lori Honeycutt), sound design (Brian Christensen), and performances.
One cannot predict exactly what twists and turns Imprint Theatreworks is going to give its audiences, but rest assured it will not be boring. Odd, maybe. Bold, for certain. But never boring.