BWW Review: GHOST QUARTET at ART4
Through the past few years, experimental theatre has crept its way into South Bend's Fine Arts scene. Original works, heavy audience participation, deaf theatre projects, non-traditional all-female casts: these are just a handful of the ideas South Bend's theatre companies have introduced to the region and continue to play with. Art4's intimate production of Ghost Quartet is no exception.
For those unfamiliar with Ghost Quartet, it is a song-cycle by Dave Malloy, composer and writer of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, that forgoes a traditional plot to further emphasize a feeling. There is a plot to the show, but it is so convoluted that I dare not try describing it in too great a detail for fear of confusing my audience. The story is non-linear, and follows the lives of two sisters as well as the stories of their reincarnated lives. The show feels like a review of music and ancient storytelling while switching from different centuries in seemingly no apparent order. This non-traditional form of storytelling is important to note because it forces all members of the creative team to do heavy research.
For an audience to buy into a story they may not understand, the characters - and the actors playing them - must be able to tie all of the connections of the plot to make a believable world with some continuity holding together the emotional morale of the piece. If the story was a full-out comedy, plot may not be as important. To get any emotional stir out of an audience, the cast has to buy in and follow the story being told.
I stress the importance to detail so copiously because it is a difficult task to accomplish in a non-linear story. Yet the cast and creative team of Ghost Quartet pull off that task seamlessly. Rarely did I feel an actor/actress didn't understand everything about the situations their characters were in, and while I'm aware that is what acting is supposed to be, it was nevertheless impressive considering the abstract plot. Switching from one character based off an Edgar Allan Poe story, to someone in a modern-day subway is not easy to make convincing, especially when the set never changes.
The set is an intimate room that feels like a coffee house mixed with an antique store filled with books, trinkets, a seemingly out-of-place bird skeleton, and alcohol. The lighting, designed by Conor Gregg, added so much life and character to the show with its color and dynamic transitions. It also acted as a scene-stealer in its own right during certain numbers - most notably during the Bear's introduction. However, there are moments where the cast walks out of the lighting, and their facial expressions are blocked by casted shadows. This may very well have been intentional for effect, but I would've preferred seeing the actor/actresses faces in those few moments.
Director Mark Albin created the perfect atmosphere for this production by building an enigma of a world in which an audience feels laid-back and terribly uneasy simultaneously. Again, his attention to detail and overall dynamic blocking/choreography do not go unnoticed as important drivers of the show.
If there was to be a nitpick on the blocking, I would say I feel that the four cast members could have utilized more of the space. The beginning and end of the show felt so personal to the audience in the way the actors moved and interacted with the audience. However, throughout a majority of the show, the story felt separate from the lives of the audience due to how distant and compact the cast was. Putting the cast in this frame-like manor didn't take advantage of what I thought could make for even funnier or scarier songs.
The music in the show was executed spectacularly. With music direction by Aaron Albin, the cast tackled this difficult score with finesse. Each dissonant chord and chromatic harmony line felt natural and took full effect with the eerie pit in the back. The cast performed this wide range of folk music with equal amounts of precision. Not one actor/actress was a weak link in this show.
When speaking about the cast I will not refer to their character names, because there are far too many to mention.
Grace Lazarz, seemingly with no effort, glides through nearly every emotion imaginable. She plays childlike and innocent as well as grough and distraught with impeccable intention. Though sometimes difficult to hear, Lazarz uses each musical phrase as a moment to reveal a part of her character to the audience, making her the emotional anchor of the show, and an effective one at that.
Joe B Russo was an absolute joy to watch on stage. He is frequently bouncing across the stage and has just the right amount of energy to stand out from his castmates, while not upstaging them. He goes from playing a giddy drunk to a stone-faced father figure. In the show, Russo is a perfect example of working off of other actors to bring more power to your performance.
Tyler Miller plays with hilarious facial expressions and entertaining physicality throughout the show, and it helps add to the twisted tone of the show. Consistently playing the maker of mischief in most scenes, he revels in every second of it. He also proves himself as an impressive instrumentalist when breaking out into a harmonica solo as well as playing multiple percussion instruments - though the rest of the cast does play percussion instruments occasionally.
Karen Dickerson shines as an outstanding vocalist and actress. She grabs attention with her voice and keeps it with every heartbreaking look she gives. From playing a wise storyteller, to a soldier, and pretty consistently the victim of the scenes, she carries a heavy weight on her shoulders acting-wise. The most profound moment of the show was Dickerson's hauntingly moving monologue towards the end of the show, which created a palpable and anxious tension in the room.
I had only one major fault with the production. The show, while being ominous and spooky, had a lot of comedy, and while the comedy was played with the utmost charm and accuracy, it left a confused tone which created uncomfortable laughs and jarring spurts of random applause. It could also be possible that the tone was intentionally supposed to make the audience uncomfortable. On top of using the haunting stories, this was potentially a way of artistically commenting on the non-traditional performance space and form of storytelling by confining the audience in a new atmosphere. However, even if this was the case, it took my attention away from the story at times.
Regardless of my nitpicks - and in the context of the show they truly were just nitpicks - I thoroughly enjoyed Art4's production of Ghost Quartet. The music, acting, imagery, and overall storytelling was intriguing, and the cast left a great impact, leaving one to feel that they had just witnessed something special. It is a show in which no two audience members leave having the same experience. If you love experimental theatre, or are a fan of mysteries/puzzles, Art4's Ghost Quartet is a production is the show for you!
GHOST QUARTET continues performances through November 10th, 2019 at LangLab. Tickets are available online at www.art4sb.org, or by calling (515)205-9498.
Photo Credits: Jamie & Eric Photography