Ghost Quartet review
Music, lyrics and text by Dave Malloy. Directed by Marie Farsi. Until November 3 at Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue. CrowsTheatre.ca or (647) 341-7390 ext. 1010.
Two productions opened this week at Crow’s Theatre, with Annie Baker’s highly anticipated “The Flick” in the Guloien Theatre an exercise in restraint, subtlety and silence and, next door in the intimate Scotiabank Community Studio, a complex cacophony of music and story that’s something of “The Flick’s” opposite. Instead of the real-life replica of “The Flick”, stepping into Dave Malloy’s song cycle “Ghost Quartet” is like entering a whiskey-fuelled jam session with dreamlike logic and visuals. And where “The Flick” asks you to lean in and look for details, “Ghost Quartet” asks that you sit back and let the show wash over you. But both are an extremely promising start to the fall season in the east end theatre.
In a co-production with the new Eclipse Theatre Company, which focuses on unconventional musical theatre projects (like last year’s “Kiss of the Spider Woman” inside the Don Jail only a few blocks away from the Streetcar Crowsnest), “Ghost Quartet” makes its Toronto premiere one of Dave Malloy’s smaller projects compared to the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812” and his most recent musical version of “Moby Dick” (reuniting with “Great Comet” director Rachel Chavkin). With “Ghost Quartet”, Malloy relieves himself of the trappings of a coherent narrative or established relationships between the show’s four performers, and instead leans into his playfulness with a song cycle mixing styles of music like jazz, folk, and John Carpenter-like synth, his poetic and humorous lyrics (“I will transcend and vomit this loser out of me” is a rather powerful line in one of the show’s rare ballads), and recurring images of celestial, macabre, urban and folkloric nature, from a subway platform, to an astronomer’s home in the trees, to a haunted house from Edgar Allan Poe to Scheherazade’s room in the Shah’s palace.
“I don’t know where to begin, I don’t even know who I am” sings Kyra Guloien and Hailey Gillis, who play sisters Pearl and Rose respectively who both fall in love with an astronomer (Andrew Penner) and to exact revenge, the spurned sister Rose makes a deal with a Bear (Beau Dixon) to hurt them in exchange for a pot of honey, a secret baptism, a piece of stardust and a photo of a ghost. But those lines ring true as the characters shapeshift and seep into other stories in separate centuries and areas of the world. But the anachronism of Ghost Quartet works through the rollicking power of Malloy’s music and the chemistry between the four balladeers who balance the intensity of the songs’ storytelling with the joy of four friends sharing a drink around a campfire. The show’s standout song, Side 1 Song 7 “Any Kind of Dead Person,” in which Gillis explains why she’d rather be a ghost than a zombie, vampire, poltergeist or White Walker (to go “woo woo woo all night long”), is a raucous foot-stomper and exemplifies “Ghost Quartet” at its best.
But director Marie Farsi’s production goes to great efforts to underscore the more morose side to the stories as well, making effective use out of a voice manipulator for Guloien’s songs as a bereaved mother, clutching a harp as a stark spotlight (production design by Patrick Lavender) bathes her in a wash of white light in the darkness. The set itself is a mix of the wild outdoors and antiquated technology (a children’s piano, thick leather bound books, suspended glass bottles of sparkly blue liquid to act as stars, a record player that simulates the effect of a disco ball), like an old living room was left untended and exposed to the elements (props and costumes by Isabel Martins). And where the story leaves much open to interpretation from the audience, some key lighting effects help to fill in the blanks—towards its end, both sisters sing together, each under a spotlight aimed from opposite sides so that one is illuminated and the other in darkness depending on where you’re seated, a complication of the hero and villain dichotomy we’re used to receiving in our stories.
It’s fitting that “Ghost Quartet” arrive at this time of year, it reflects the textiles, visuals, warm libations, ghostly subjects and overall #fallmood we’re looking for to send us “woo woo woo”ing into the night.
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