BWW Reviews: The Majesty that Mayhem Can Wreak
What happens when you mix the atmosphere and originality of a Blue Man Group performance with the dynamics of a recent Sarah Brightman concert, giving Zooey Deschanel (the 500 Days of Summer version) a chance at lead vocals to top it all off? A little show called Mayhem and Majesty fits the bill quite well, and with its exhibition of different styles, sounds and talents does this show encapsulate a little bit of everything mentioned above, and then some. As the most recent show to grace the stage at 59E59 Theaters on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Mayhem and Majesty is an eclectic mix of styles, sounds and talents that, when combined, cannot do anything but amaze those who bear witness to one of the most unique shows New York has ever seen. Essentially, audiences watch as this assortment of "stuff," seemingly random at first, is magnificently transformed into a show that creators Jackie Dempsey and Steve O'Hearn should be very proud of indeed.
Dempsey, O'Hearn and the rest of Squonk Opera, as they like to be called (also comprised of vocalist Anna Elder, percussionist Kevin Kornicki and guitarist David Wallace) have come back to New York for Mayhem and Majesty's triumphant Off-Broadway return, stopping here to continue on with the show's cross-country tour; it has been eleven years since this particular show has been performed here. Long before that (since 1992), Squonk has been performing its eleven original productions in venues around the world, impressing international audiences with its exceptional display of the unique and unusual - not in the sense of unfathomable sights and unexplainable oddities that would do well to frighten the audience more than entertain it, but the show is instead a rare sight to behold, throwing in a bit of a magical twist to create this new topsy-turvy world that is very difficult to simply describe. It must, indeed, be experienced, which makes this show so different. With Dempsey's talent to compose and play any sort of instrument with white keys, and O'Hearn's vision as the group's Artistic Director, the audience is taken on a sort of ride through different scenes of a story that cannot be rationalized; the sights and sounds that constitute this show can only truly be witnessed.
As soon as you decide to see Mayhem and Majesty and have proceeded to find your seats, these are just a few thoughts that may go through your mind as you wait for the show to begin: there are instruments on stage, so is this more of a concert or something of a more Off-Broadway musical-based concept? Wait, this is also the set, complete with a screen on the back wall, so perhaps there will be a few visual effects as this group sings? Yet, when the show does begin, there is little that appears on stage that can really be expected, even after this repertoire has already made its way through your mind. When Anna Elder begins to sing, there is this automatic atmosphere that is created for this show, a sort of "persona" that becomes tangible which takes shape and begins to define what unfolds on stage - it may even be said to become the theme which remains a constant throughout the entire performance. Then, as the band is brought out upon the stage for the opening musical number, the audience has already been absorbed into this world that can only come from the mind of someone who has thought long and hard about the aura she wishes this show to have, and what she would like the audience to feel in the midst of experiencing sounds and feelings that may never have been encountered before.
Each member of Squonk is a musical phenomenon in his or her own right, beginning with basic instruments and then playing around with flutes and horns, instruments that are both visually and in function unusual and beautiful. This multi-talented cast is amazing as it coasts along from scene to scene: not only does each member of Squonk have an array of different talents that seem almost effortlessly demonstrated, but these abilities are used in a unique method of storytelling - a story that does not have a rational basis, but instead appeals to the senses and creates a vibe instead of an explainable "circumstance," per se. The music that is a result of these individuals' combined efforts and talents is extremely varied. While one scene may be rather mellow and sad, as the show's vocalist balances upon a stood as she sings into four surrounding microphones which surround her and revolve as if in their own orbit, another may feature Dempsey playing the accordion while (unbeknownst to the audience) strapped onto the back of this same woman. Then, almost suddenly, there is this explosion of sound and light that happens as Squonk rocks out to something which resembles what is heard at a rock concert. I did not even mention the visuals yet.
From scene to scene, the visuals and props used to convey this story to the audience are nothing short of amazing and incredibly creative. From umbrellas inflating and deflating upon the back wall, to shadows and faces appearing on screens that only reveal the person at certain points during the performance, this show is comprised of a smorgasbord of lights and sounds, of the usual to the familiar that is gradually warped into something new and unexpected, and of ideas that play around with the senses and what an individual perceives to be happening in contrast to what actually is. Everything combined creates a spectacular that leaves the audience almost floating through space, experiencing something that is very ethereal and unreal yet nevertheless still capable of being understood. A lyric from the song "So Long Song" captures this feeling perfectly: it is as though everyone and everything in this world is "wandering half asleep or dreaming." The lyrics of these songs almost swell with the music that accompanies them, and even though the words being sung are drowned out by this, it doesn't really seem to matter. It just all fits so well. So, who can really tell the difference between being half asleep or dreaming?
Mayhem and Majesty does not try to tell a solid story; indeed, the audience is warned not to expect a plot before the show even begins. Instead, this is both a treat and a challenge for the senses, flaying the act of expecting something and beckoning people to let go and simply experience all that is presented to them. In a team effort, Dempsey and O'Hearn perfectly described this show they have created in their own words. "We wanted to create an experience that was about the senses that allowed people to use their own imaginations. We hope that people who hear the music and see the imagery enjoy the experience on a visceral level that stands in contrast to the everyday world. And we're thrilled when they invent individual meanings and make up stories of their own."
So, the only story that can be disputed is the one that explains why you CAN'T make this show, which I hope is not the case.
Mayhem and Majesty began performances on December 10th, and will continue through December 29th. Performances will be held on Tuesday thru Thursday at 7 PM, Friday at 8 PM, Saturday at 2 PM and 8:00 PM and Sunday at 3 PM. 59E59 Theaters is located on 59 East 59th Street, and tickets are $50, $35 for 59E59 members and $20 for theatregoers who are 17 or younger. Tickets may be purchased by calling Ticket Central at (212) 279-4200, or purchased online at www.59e59.org. Those of you who enjoy the show that much can even purchase merchandise in the lobby.
Quote/song lyric: Jackie Dempsey and Steve O'Hearn/Autumn Ayers and Anna Elder.
Photo Credit: John Altdorfer