By Erin Fleming
From the moment patrons enter the intimate black box space in Room 300 of the Flat Iron Arts building, they are instructed to take notice, stop, focus and look around. They might even feel like they’ve stumbled into the kind of exhibit often found elsewhere in the building. There’s a wine bar in the corner, cabaret tables dotted among the theater seats, framed black and white photographs flanking the stage. They’re invited to wander around as if it were a gallery opening, and many do, gathering in groups to consider and discuss the pictures, which are all for sale.
Circle Theatre has very smartly crafted their Chicago premiere of Ryan Scott Oliver’s 35mm to immediately communicate it will not be a typical night of musical theater.
Like a beautiful pearl that forms over time around an irritating grain of sand, the iridescent music and lyrics of 35mm are inspired by a collection of evocative photographs taken by Oliver’s husband Matthew Murphy. Each photograph comes with a story that captures a “moment frozen in time, a glimmer of a life unfolding, a glimpse of something happening.” Each moment develops into a song; each song tells a separate story.
And although certainly unconventional—there is no spoken dialogue, no intermission, no unified plot in the traditional sense—this production of Oliver’s experimental, multimedia song cycle is nothing if not accessible. That accessibility is due in large part to the relatability of the five-member cast and the innovations of director/choreographer Cam Turner. Keeping in mind that the play was first (and often still) performed on a bare stage with five microphones, Turner’s passionate staging really distinguishes this production with his relentless effort to create relationship and connection among the ensemble.
The songs, like the photographs, are not related to one another in a formal sense, varying in genre from rock ballad to indie to country/western to musical theater standard. It makes for an episodic rather than linear journey through a gallery of characters, played out against the visual backdrop of projected images.
There’s “Caralee,” Neil Stratman’s wickedly spot-on lament about a holy terror of a toddler inspired by a photo of a creepily damaged babydoll. And “Good Lady,” accompanied by the image of man seething with rage in a gothic fountain. Described by Oliver as a Medieval crusade for a lost maiden, via rock concert, “Good Lady” opens with the ensemble singing words from Carmina Burana in something close to Gregorian harmony. Tony Carter is great as he takes the lead, distraughtly yearning like a knight of yore over not having heard from his girlfriend, his “lady in white.”
Caleb Baze is electric in “Cut You A Piece” and “Leave Luanne,” a kind of sinister revival number about an abused wife who escapes to death and returns to haunt her husband. Murphy’s photo depicts a man in a white tank top (called wife beaters in some parts of the country) whose face is replaced by the full head of an antlered deer. Oliver describes writing the song, a kind of aria from an unwritten folk opera, around the idea of a “terrifying thing that no one should ever have to come home to.” The lyrics expertly capture the chilling terror of the image, and also provide insight into what the songwriting duo of Stephen Sondheim and Dolly Parton might produce:
The bastard lies in bed now, half-sad his wife is dead now.
She drowned herself in a swamp in wild despair.
He thinks he used to love her, but push it came to shove her,
a wife disposed, a wife case closed,
and no one seems to care, to grieve Luanne.
The talented Michelle Lauto is at her best dancing in the area between scrappy confidence and flirty vulnerability on songs like “On Monday,” and in the painfully comic duets “Hemming and Hawing” and “Twisted Teeth.”
Liz Bollar, perhaps the most naturally versatile on the group, is phenomenally commanding throughout, and really shines on the hilarious show capper “The Ballad of Sara Berry,” another darkly funny song that pulls in the full force of the ensemble. Together with the outstanding musicians, the actors completely fill the space with a wall of sound and are clearly having So. Much. Fun.
As singular as each song’s subject matter seems, it is this exact camaraderie among the actors that unifies the show. Turner finds ways for them to inhabit each other’s world and to interact with each other as much as they do with the audience, imploring the onlooker to stop and focus. The real through line is, in the end, thematic, as song after song explores modern life through the lens of isolation and alienation, so existentially puzzling in the light of how universal each personal snapshot is.
The talent of the ensemble is consistently supported by intricately lush arrangements by the six-piece band featuring Music Director Ryan Brewster on piano, Mike Evans on guitar, Zachary H. Suechting on bass, Kathryn Diana on violin, Desiree Miller on cello and Robert Fletcher on drums. (The sound mix on press night was a bit overwhelming at times, making it hard to hear all the lyrics, but will undoubtedly be tweaked.)
Running 75 minutes without intermission, 35mm is the perfect apres-dinner, avant-jazz-club show for lovers of music and cutting edge performance.
Circle Theatre presents “35MM: A Musical Exhibition,” runs through April 10th at Collaboraction, Room 300, Flat Iron Arts Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee, Chicago. More information and tickets ($35) are available by calling 312-620-0134 or online here.