By Anna DeNoia
Ghost Quartet spans continents and lifetimes, decades and days in the same moment, and tells a dozen stories that are somehow one.
Those familiar with Dave Malloy’s work (the mastermind behind Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812) will recognize his characteristic arpeggios, driving rhythms and wandering melodies. Those accustomed to a linear plot however, a convention most of us depend upon, may find themselves in a sudden free fall as they enter the world of these four friends. As the characters themselves will tell you (all 18+ of them, skillfully embodied by one mighty quartet), this is a circular story.
Though the initial entrance into this circular world may be shocking, this team doesn’t let their audience free fall for long. As tempting as it may be for the linear mind to enter a panicked scramble for clues and connections as the exposition begins, this labor is far from necessary. Smartly, this production is full of clever repetition not only in lyrics, but in music, gesture, performance and design. The repetition creates helpful “You Are Here” moments on the map of this many-dimensional world as it is woven. Have faith—it does all ultimately connect, in some very surprising, satisfying ways.
The intimacy of this production also helps to overcome any intimidation the audience may feel as they are guided through the unusual tale. As the actors shift and shimmy through so many different lives, they also spend time with the audience as themselves, dropping back into their own bodies and calling each other by name. There isn’t so much a fourth-wall up at Stage 773 as there is a fourth-window. There are many moments that hearken back to the show’s origins as a few pals’ shared passion project, with tracks such as “Four Friends,” which simply celebrates the joys of social drinking, and “Any Kind of Dead Person,” a silly romp in which the audience is invited to percussively participate.
As charming as the quartet is as themselves, when they take on the lives of others (many others), they are transformed. This magic is especially present in Amanda Raquel Martinez. Each one of her characters is mesmerizingly grounded and complex. Each life she inhabits is honored and differentiated with beautiful and specific distinction. A highlight is the moment she spends as the heartbroken soldier, bringing one of many moments of sudden, sobering humanity to the winding whimsy the primarily populates the stage.
One of the many possible dangers of presenting something as ambitious and unconventional as Ghost Quartet is that the production may feel the need to take itself too seriously. Never does this production fall into that trap. The actors and designers alike are at all times self aware (especially projectionist G Maxin IV, whose talent for intelligent storytelling is matched only by his sense of humor). This team gives themselves over entirely to what’s spooky, what’s silly and what’s sentimental, but at no point do they leave the audience behind.
The level of musicianship present in this space is mind-blowing. This masterful ensemble effortlessly elevates Malloy’s strange, difficult and haunting harmonies. While each of the quartet is a gifted vocalist in their own right, (especially Rachel Guth, whose contemporary musical theatre sound is as pleasant as it is powerful), these four voices in combination are a musical match made in heaven. Vocals this gorgeous, this cohesive and this utterly jaw-dropping are rare, but this quartet offers them up as easily as exhaling.
High enough praise can not be given to the way this production sounds, not only on account of the vocals. This sonic success can also be attributed to Alex Ellsworth and T.J. Anderson, who impressively balance their roles in the quartet with incredible work on the cello and piano respectively, supplemented by accompaniment from Nick Sula backstage. Credit is also due to Robert Hornbostel, sound designer, who, in a particular moment when the audience is dropped square in the middle of a train station, managed to make this reviewer entirely forget where she was.
Ghost Quartet is impossible to anticipate. It is totally and thrillingly unexpected, especially for this genre. It is a refreshing, intelligent break from the current landscape of bio-shows and movie adaptations that saturate the mainstream musical theatre market.
Those in search of more of that conventional theatre-going experience (which can absolutely be wonderful fun) may want to look elsewhere. But for those looking for something different, this production is a completely new flavor of the art form we hold so dear.
It lingers. It is human. It is haunting. And above all else, it is an exciting reminder of what’s possible through this medium if inhibition is uninvited, and instead we open the door to friends, folklore and a few healthy helpings of whiskey.
Black Button Eyes Productions presents “Ghost Quartet” through August 17 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. More information and tickets are available here.