Succulent Smorgasbord of Song: GHOST QUARTET

I believe works of performance art should stand alone, sans explanation. I should not need to research them before attending a performance to understand them. I don’t usually read the show program before viewing a show. I want to experience it just as it unfolds. This can lead to delightful experience as much as total confusion. Dave Malloy’s “song cycle about love, death and whiskey”, Ghost Quartet, running through June 14 at The Bath House Cultural Center, produced by Imprint Theatreworks, shares some of both,

Benjamin Brown, Brandon Wilhelm in GHOST QUARTET

After I sat through their beguiling but baffling sell-out opening night performance I found a very bright light with which to dig through and partly decipher the most unreadable program I have encountered in a long time. I came across this tidbit under References: “Arabian Nights – major structural influence… every story in Ghost Quartet is somehow contained within another story.” Good to know this. And from the rambling, stream-of-consciousness “Show History” by its author Dave Malloy, I gleaned the following: it’s a “live performance of a concept album” as influenced by Pink Floyd’s The Wall, The Who’s Tommy, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, and with “special shout out to Tom Wait’s pawnshop basement séance masterpieces”. It also lists Poe’s “The Fall of the House of Usher”, Thelonius Monk and “old sci-fi TV” as influences. That’s quite an eclectic assortment. No wonder it’s really tough to identify and follow much of a cohesive aesthetic thread running through the work. Sink back into one of the assorted lumpy sofas, armchairs and pillows scattered around the house to convey…thrift store living room viewing?… and listen to the music roll by in tidy little scenelets, or tracks. The poor girl in short dress seated on the floor in front of me had to be lifted up after the show as one leg had gone painfully full to sleep. The Show History also includes the remark, “We knew that whiskey needed to be a part of any show the four of us made. Because we love whiskey.” There is a whiskey song in the show. Four bottles of whiskey appear. Some members of the audience get samples with a lot of inexplicable laughter generated. Neither I nor the other members of my party were offered any. So don’t assume you will, either.

Devin Berg, Mindy Bell in GHOST QUARTET

Now, about the musical performances. Twenty-three “tracks”, or songs, are listed in the show description online. “The music is scored for four voices, cello, guitars, dulcimer, Celtic harp, erhu, autoharp, piano, keyboards and percussion, and is inspired by murder ballads, doo-wop, angular bebop, Chinese folk, Islamic adhan, and the music of Bernard Herrmann and George Crumb,“ according to Lily Padilla, writing for Culturebot, Oct 7, 2014. Imprint’s production contains a similar assortment or variation. Performers include Devin Berg, Mindy Bell, Benjamin Brown and Brandon Wilhelm. All voices are strong, well-suited to the music styles utilized. Actor/singer/ instrumentalist Benjamin Brown stands out with a wealth of versatility within the balanced, talented quartet. Sound design by Brian Christensen and musical direction by Adam C. Wright excel. Ashley H. White directs.

Ghost Quartet isn’t standard fare. Who am I to say it needs to be? Kudos to Imprint Theatreworks for venturing beyond the box. Just prepare yourself for an untethered, unorthodox, musically tight experience, and don’t try to read the program in the theatre.

Photos by Kris Ikejiri

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