Photo by Ryan Jensen
By McKenzi Thi Murphy
What do Thelonious Monk, “Arabian Nights,” Edger Allen Poe and a 15th-century murder ballad have in common? They are all important inspirations and plot points in Dave Malloy’s “Ghost Quartet.” First performed at the Bushwick Starr in 2014, “Ghost Quartet” is a completely mind-boggling interweaving of four – possibly six – plotlines. It is “a song cycle about love, death and whiskey. A camera breaks, and four friends drink in four interwoven narratives spanning seven centuries.” To further the confusion that is “Ghost Quartet,” nothing is told in chronological order.
“Ghost Quartet” is currently running at the New York Theater Workshop and will continue on to Seattle for the month of January. Brent Arnold, Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell and Dave Malloy make up the entire cast, playing over twenty-five characters in total. Each character one of the actors plays is a reincarnation of another, along with a host of instruments. Some typical: the drums, guitar and piano. Others not so much: the Celtic harp, erhu, dulcimer and even a thunder machine. Almost entirely sung through, each number is introduced as part of a cassette tape. Side 1, Track 1.
As the story goes, Rose Red (Ashford) and Pearl White (Bell) are two sisters, and Rose falls for the Astronomer (Malloy). However, the Astronomer wrongs her and to add insult to injury, falls for the sister. So, like any understanding sister would do, Rose Red visits the Bear (Arnold) and demands that he “maul the Astronomer and to turn the cruel sister into a black crow and put the crow and the corpse in a cave.” Her reasoning? Why, so the crow must peck out the eyes of her lover to keep from starving, of course. The Bear is a reasonable creature and only demands four things in return; one pot of honey, one piece of stardust, one secret baptism and a photo of a ghost. And so begins Rose Red’s journey to vengeance.
Traversing several lifetimes, Rose Red does as he asks. She seduces a Soldier (Bell) for her honey, steals the Starchild (Ashford) from a disgraced teenage mother named Roxie (…also Ashford) to fulfill her secret baptism, demands stardust from Scheherazade (Bell) and snaps a photograph of a woman moments from being run through by an MTA subway (Bell). Also, for some wonderful reason, there are several introspective interludes, one of which is a song about how fantastic certain brands of whiskey are.
No stranger to writing strange and utterly stupefying musicals, Dave Malloy has previously been nominated for a Tony Award for “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812“ which is an electro-pop opera based on Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace.” He is currently working on a musical adaptation of “Moby Dick.” So, while the plot of “Ghost Quartet” may seem like a fever dream, it is not unexpected of Malloy.
One does not simply go into “Ghost Quartet” expecting to understand what is going on. Having listened extensively to the live recording of the show for just over a year, I had foolishly assumed I would have at least some grasp on the storyline. But I was woefully underprepared for the beauty of seeing this musical up close and personal. Seated just feet from Gelsey Bell on Halloween night must be one of the most haunting things I have ever experienced. Bell is known for her extended vocal techniques, though it is better known as inhuman screeching. It is a glorious feeling that can be experienced here. That scene is done in complete darkness, to add to the eerie atmosphere.
One remarkable, yet small, detail in the performance of the four actors is that even as songs transition, everyone remains in the character of the song until the next one is introduced. Ashford is seamlessly able to morph from a seven-year-old throwing a tantrum – even as she slams her cabasa down in childlike frustration – to a woman singing of her preferred type of dead person – a ghost, of course. And as Lady Usher, Bell becomes practically unhinged as she grieves for her daughter’s death, maniacally stroking her Celtic harp all the while.
A surreal experience, and quite possibly the closest to an out-of-body-experience anyone can ever have, “Ghost Quartet” is sure to leave its audience confounded, yet enlightened. Having been sold out in the first twenty-nine minutes after release, tickets can be obtained only through cancellation line. It is a 21+ production, with a handful of all-ages performances.