BWW Reviews: With 'Unplugged,' Flying V Scores Again With a Touching Homage to the Giants of Rock n' Roll
Isn't it strange that Boomers seem to take the death of Blues or Rock stars more personally than the passing of great world leaders? How is it that their suicides, murders and accidental overdoses could touch so many people? We've even got a name for them -- The 27 Club--as if there were some mystical "sell by" date on our favorite artists; however we package them, the sudden loss of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Robert Johnson, not to mention Kurt Cobain leaves us to ponder what might have been.
Maybe it was their youthfulness and promise that made their loss seem so devastating. We'll never know how they might have grown and changed; would they have gotten bored with Rock n' Roll, and moved onto other genres of music? Would they have done Vegas? Would they have led the fight against Global Warming or the War in Iraq? Or would they have morphed, like Rod Stewart did, into our grandparent's favorite crooner and gone through half the Cole Porter Songbook just to annoy the hell out of us?
(Um, on second thought maybe it's a blessing we'll never know how Jim Morrison would have done "It Had to Be You" or "Makin' Whoopee." Tragic deaths do have their bennies, after all.)
With "Unplugged," the youthful Flying V company helps us to commune with our long-lost idols, and offers us an often-amusing and touching version of their possible afterlives. Jason Schlafstein has assembled yet another multi-talented talented cast, who provide us with the music as well as the dramatic action. Consisting of two one-acts, "All Apologies" by Hunter Styles, and "Me and the Devil Blues" by Seamus Sullivan, the production will be a treat for anyone who loves the music-with the bonus that we get to hear selections from some of Rock's most memorable songs. In one amusing case, we even get to hear a dead star cook up another tune or two.
In the first play "All Apologies" we follow Kurt Cobain, the leader of the band Nirvana, as he struggles with the demons that led him to shoot himself. His reward (or punishment, depending on your point of view) is to be stuck in a heavenly wilderness cabin with a handful of other Rock greats who, like him, took their own lives; in order to get to heaven they must rid themselves of the problems that brought them to their early deaths. The recently-deceased Cobain seems genuinely shocked to discover that the Almighty has a) spared him eternal damnation, and b) bears an uncanny resemblance to a female summer camp counselor, right down to her khaki shorts and eternally sunny disposition. Alice Gibson is hilarious in the deadpan role of The Counselor (AKA, the Creator, Harriet Thunderer, I Am That I Am, etc.), who remains unimpressed by Cobain's foul mouth and who insists that he confront his problems and heal. As Kurt Cobain, Josh Adams does a marvelous job channeling the star's moodiness, remoteness and neediness. His journey from loss to recovery, bumpy to be sure, is well worth seeing.
What makes Kurt's task so difficult in the afterlife is that he has to share it with three other stars-Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison-all of whom have their own problems. And it becomes clear that Kurt, true to form, has no intention of working them out. David Samuel is pleasantly mellow as Jimi, the rock guitar genius-so mellow, in fact, that it isn't clear why he's still in camp and hasn't already moved on to that higher destination. Christopher Herring makes for an imposing Jim Morrison, the mercurial leader of the Doors, whose temper was as short as Kurt's. And Katie Jeffries lights up the stage as Janis, the singer whose frenetic personality makes it impossible for her to sleep (and we're talking some 20+ years of afterlife, by the time Kurt joins her).
Hunter Styles' narrative conceit for "All Apologies" works well as each of these characters reveals the quirks and handicaps they had in life-Jim's short temper, Janis' addiction to men, etc.-and as we watch them cohabit for what seems like days or weeks the script can be forgiven for occasionally risking a descent into "Friends" territory. But resolving the situation seems to be a challenge and Styles' solution is to introduce a very talented singer and non-star, Erica (played with great appeal by Sarah Laughland). Erica was an Ohio native who took her own life after an abortive attempt at the big time, and her ordinariness and anonymity are a puzzle at first. And yet Erica is the first in the group to exorcise her personal demons and move on, with The Counselor's blessing. Erica's success seems to bring about a change in Kurt, and the play's denouement should strike a chord (pardon the expression) with the Grunge generation.
The more polished of the two pieces is "Me and The Devil Blues," Seamus Sullivan's paean to blues master Robert Johnson, whose star faded with his death in the 1930's but whose stylings lie at the foundation of nearly every rock group sincE. Johnson famously sold his soul to the Devil in hopes of becoming the greatest blues guitarist ever, so it is fitting that he find him in Satan's domain after his untimely death.
The action is set, appropriately enough, in a Never-Ending Talk Show from Hell, with the Devil as the MC. (Keith Richards, who refuses to die, is as yet unavailable.) Sullivan's hilarious conceit is to punish Johnson with perpetual appearances on the talk show as the Devil's featured guest artist. The reason for this torture soon becomes clear: Johnson, far from suffering his just punishment is actually having a blast. Indeed, he's enjoying himself so much and has found such great material that he's constantly writing new blues songs. The Devil, whose chief raison d'être is to cause eternal suffering, has clearly failed in his mission here; and it seems the talk show is his latest attempt to bring Johnson to heel. To guarantee Johnson's suffering he introduces his daughter Tamara (daddy's little Antichrist) as an extra distraction, in hopes of breaKing Johnson's heart. Here too, the Devil has clearly failed; Tamara is in her rebellious undergrad phase, devoting herself to good works like rehabilitating history's most notorious criminals (teaching entrepreneurship to the Mongols for a start). If she succeeds, Hell will truly freeze over.
Kyle Encinas is pitch-perfect as the Devil, a truly abusive and manipulative Infernal One, perfectly capable of delivering withering psychological and physical blows to keep folks in line. David Samuel, fresh off his quiet role as Jimi in "All Apologies," embraces the showmanship and infernal optimism of Robert Johnson, resisting the Devil's efforts almost to the very last. And Katie Jeffries reveals yet another facet to her many talents, switching from Janis in "All Apologies" to Tamara. This second incarnation as the spectacled Bleeding-Heart Liberal from Hell is truly hilarious. Kudos are in order as well for Robert Christopher Manzo as Aaron, the drummer in the talk show's house band whose screw-ups inevitably lead to trouble.
Set Designer Andrew Berry has made excellent use of the small Writer's Center space, and with the assistance of Scenic Artist Pamela Twyman has created just the right feeling of the Great Outdoors for "All Apologies," complete with old-growth trees and rustic cabin. Joe Musumeci's lights, meanwhile, bring out the best of the setting and he enables us to follow the transition to talk show with ease. Brittany Graham has outfitted the cast of "All Apologies" with period-appropriate threads, and although it is not clear what era she's evoking with the costumes for "Devil Blues" her outfit for Katie Jeffries' Tamara simultaneously cites and spoofs the ever-popular leather n' lace motif.
Running time: 2 hours, 45 minutes.
Photo Credit: Craig Lawrence of FightGuy Photography
Unplugged runs September 27-October 13, 2013; Thursdays through Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Performances take place at The Writer's Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda, MD.
Tickets can be purchased through Brown Paper Tickets online at http://flyingv.brownpapertickets.com, or at the door starting one hour before the performance.