Blasted

Blasted2

It’s been proven yet again: Sarah Kane’s explosively graphic play, Blasted, is not impossible to stage. Director Will Detlefsen and company have managed a respectable feat by even selecting the play, which includes Saw-worthy depictions of rape, eye-gouging, and baby-eating. But the team’s most significant accomplishment is not the successful execution of gory stage-tricks (though they were pretty damn good). The true artistry lies in their keen exposure of the real blood-and-guts of Sarah Kane’s play, the psychosocial manifestations of violence.

Detlefsen represents Kane’s violence thoroughly and completely. There is no sex with pants on or conveniently-covered stage combat, and every orgasm is reached in due time. Perhaps the most disturbing bit of stage action is actor Logan George’s hurried eating of two full English breakfasts with one bare hand, simply because he performs the action fully. But Detlefsen’s direction, while thorough, is also simple and minimal, staging the text sans flourish or unnecessary abstraction. And the simplicity is a rich simplicity, replete with sharp textual understanding. A deep current of palpable emotional trauma courses steadily through every violent scene, leaving no empty displays of horror. The Soldier [Logan George] extracts and eats character Ian’s eyes, avenging his dead girlfriend who had been tortured the same way. Having finished, the Soldier becomes engrossed by a wave of empathy for his girlfriend’s murderer, and in one very delicately treated moment, George bellows, with Medean agony, “Poor bastard. He ate her eyes!”

There is nothing in Blasted more tender and revolting than Logan George’s performance. George alternates masterfully between the Soldier’s straightforward apathy and wild passions, all through the filter of a very consistent spoken accent, the origins of which are left intriguingly vague. Actor Marié Botha also has several shining moments as Cate. Botha’s performance is an emotional banging-on-prison-walls, hands ever poised to kill her abusive lover, yet frozen by conflicted empathy. Botha cries on a dime, a useful skill for a text with so many demands for tears, but she excavates much sensitivity and variety from the role despite the constant watery eyes. When sandwiches are delivered to the lavish British hotel room that she shares with her older lover Ian [Jason de Beer], Botha’s Cate, a vegetarian, cries softly at the discovery that they are all filled with meat, a wonderfully tender picture of a young girl in adult surroundings, hungry, and far away from home. On the whole, performances are strong and grounded, with the occasional bit of shallow, not-fully-digested Cate/Ian dialogue. The only unfortunate choice is Cate’s recurrent uncomfortable giggle, which is in this version a manic, inhuman cackle that smacks somewhat too much of cheap horror films in an otherwise rich production.

Blasted owes much of its richness to its incredible team of designers. Jason Sherwood’s chic hotel room set brilliantly incorporates the gorgeous early 20th century interior of the Duo Theater. Cate enters and marvels at the ceiling decor and the sumptuous painted murals on the theatre’s walls. Gold-stained moldings mirror the theatre’s antique gold-stained proscenium. Sherwood’s sleek wall of glossy black tile amidst the Duo’s old-fashioned luxury, therefore, is cleverly suggestive of a modern renovation to a turn-of-the-century hotel. The famous scenic challenge of the second half of the play, the hotel room obliterated by an unexplained blast, is successfully tackled, with only a mildly long scene change. The post-explosion set is particularly well-lit by designer Marika Kent, who evokes morning light and sun streaming through debris with admirably few instruments. Aidan Zev Meyer’s electronic tones provide a simple and effective sonic landscape, and Olivia Hunt delivers shockingly real special effects. Overall, a solid design.

Detlefsen’s Blasted is a successfully executed staging of a difficult play. But, more importantly, it’s a keenly relevant one. Detlefsen subtly accentuates the unsettling satire underneath this seeming horror flick of a play. The Soldier’s harrowing monologue, a lengthy list of atrocities he’s witnessed, draws into the theatre vivid images of contemporary international conflicts that a Western audience might rather put out of mind. Ian, a wealthy Briton, responds predictably, shrinking away from the Soldier’s verbalized experiences with repetitions of phrases like “Enough!” In that moment, Ian feels uncomfortably familiar, a posterchild of privilege who turns off the TV before the depressing nightly news. And the Soldier, with Logan George’s mysterious accent, becomes a ‘foreigner,’ a man from some country where violence happens daily- somewhere far away. Detlefsen and team, with shrewd dramaturgical understanding, seem to suggest that the true horror of Kane’s violent landscape is its placement, not ‘somewhere else,’ but ‘here.’

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*Critic’s Pick: Trevor Bachman [Table and Chair Take the Air]

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The genre of music theatre has met its redeemer, and his name is Trevor Bachman. A young composer as well as music director and performer, Bachman eschews cookie cutter song structure for a uniquely fresh sound. Yet the novelty of Bachman’s sound is achieved sans highly intellectual abstraction. The result: an inescapably visceral body of work that prefers genuine storytelling to empty belter ballads. Bachman’s 10 minute Table and Chair Take the Air, a musical adaptation of a poem by Edward Lear, proved to be a tremendous crowd pleaser at Boxed Wine Productions’ “Uncorked: a New Works Festival.” The festival featured several smart new pieces including Kaela Garvin’s wonderfully bizarre satire “Imelda’s Children,” but Bachman’s Table and Chair takes the cake, proving itself worthy of much more than a festival of workshops in a 99-seat theatre in Queens.

Table and Chair opens resplendently, with a driving, deeply exciting tenor line and accompaniment. This tenor is the character of Table (Zachary Infante), on a bright, steaming day, moaning aloud to his friend Chair (Andrew Martin), “I am so deathly hot, how are you not?!” Overwhelmed by the sensation, Table screams, which is in actuality an expertly sustained high C that melts into a chocolate-smooth and very difficult vocal run. Moments like these are a trademark of Bachman’s: virtuosic tidbits of musicianship so grandiose that one laughs at how perfectly they fit into the action of the story. And virtuosity is in plentiful supply. Bachman floats amongst several styles, one minute soulful pop-rock, the next a jazzy gospel sound, and all of it smooth. But it’s the difficulty of this young composer’s vocal writing that puts him at the forefront of the next wave of music theatre. Bachman writes for expert singers. His harmonies are fresh and sexy, and certainly challenging, well outside the harmonic sound of most musical theatre pieces. Plus, he is one of few composers to notate vocal runs in their entirety, runs that are both rangy and highly specific, yet incredibly satisfying. Above all, Bachman has an acute understanding of the human voice and its boundaries, its possibilities, and the different character inherent in each of its registers. Hence, Bachman’s writing can purposefully live at the edge of the voice, placing melodies and harmonies at the highest peaks, the places where the voice nearly cracks and is at its most vulnerable. The resulting sound, so raw and desperate, sends a physical chill through the body. Unlike the typical music theatre belt, normally slapped on the ends of songs as an egotistic show of talent, Bachman saves this vocal technique for his stories’ most emotionally charged moments, almost as a stand-in for a scream or wail.

Bachman, like any good music theatre composer (though not like most), favors story over spectacle. And in Table and Chair, like all of Bachman’s pieces, the story is remarkably simple, though not simplistic. Table and Chair is a roller coaster ride, sweeping the audience along in its constantly driving momentum. Bachman excels at the one kernel of writing (and adaptation) technique that so many writers fail to learn from Sophocles and Shakespeare: argument-based, action-driven dialogue. Bachman wastes no time with empty language, and as a result, his pieces are- literally- constantly entertaining. And this clever adapter’s clear storylines are only bolstered by the soaring emotion of his music. Table and Chair blazes with so much joy. This is not just joy that we watch actors pretend to feel in a brightly-lit ensemble dance number. This is palpable joy that the audience directly experiences in shivers up the spine. The play is as devastating as it is enlivening, diving just as deep into pain as it does humor, with just as much reverance and time.

Bachman’s enchanting, idiosyncratic music obviously contributes to the emotional reaches of his plays. But the key to Bachman’s success, and what separates him from some of his predecessors and many of his peers, is sincerity. Here is, finally, a young artist devoid of irony, of sarcasm, of insult, and of apathy. He spins his tales with the innocence of a children’s author, yet their deep poignancy is all-too-appealing to adults. The Table and Chair production team is a perfect match for Bachman’s vibrant authenticity. Director Ryan Amador tells Edward Lear’s story of a table and a chair who learn to walk with physicalized animation. Table, Chair, and their friends are brought to life with a delightfully tragic, incredibly funny clown-like performance style. Infante’s and Martin’s bodies morph magically like cartoons as their rigid Table and Chair poses crack, warp, and stretch into walking beings. The awkward first steps of these astonished furniture friends bring gleeful audience giggles. Collective heartbreak takes the room when Chair fearfully reassumes his wooden rigidity. By the end of the our fable, an adventure completed, exhaustion droops into the faces of Table and Chair, who yawn with adorable sagging mouths and wilting eyes.

The two actors’ physical lives are consistently specific and larger than life thanks to Amador’s imaginative eye, but the performances are expertly developed by Infante and Martin. These young men are not the standard fare of musical theatre. These are fearless, vulnerable actors who happen to also have uncommonly capable voices. Infante and Martin dive fully into every moment, with full sincerity and zero actor ego. The two are exquisite clowns, but they are actors too; when Chair loses Table and withers in fear, tears glisten in his eyes as well as ours.

And of course, one cannot ignore the divine voices of every member of Bachman’s cast, including Bachman himself, who appeared in a small role. Any actor who can conquer Bachman’s intricate runs and soaring vocal heights is automatically talented. But this cast (particularly Infante and his limitless tenor range) is exceptional. All five of these singers, including Stevi Incremonia and Gerianne Perkins in smaller roles, have full, healthy, soulful, flexible, pop/rock/music theatre voices that garner far more emotional response than their weaker, less daring counterparts on Broadway. Plus, unlike so many singers in theatre, Infante and Martin especially seem to understand the voice as an emotional channel, ever marrying the depth of the story to the quality of their sound. This fearless musicianship draws an uproarious audience response, as it undeniably did at Boxed Wine’s festival, where audiences were far more vocal and engaged than I have ever experienced in a theatre.

The brilliant, 10-minute kernel about Table and Chair is actually part of a larger work of adapted Edward Lear poetry put to music, which comes highly recommended, even to those who think they have sworn have music theatre forever. This piece, called Coromandel, makes its full-length premiere at Dixon Place on July 29th, 7:30 PM. Or catch excerpts from the show (as well as some of Bachman’s other work, MT and otherwise) at Joe’s Pub, 7:30 PM August 12.

Not Your Average Downtown extends a special thanks to Boxed Wine Productions for doing the admirable and facilitating the work of friends.