Antidotes to a gruesome week: here’s a couple of surprising beautiful theatre “concerts” on film

Hailey Gillis (lighting by Patrick Lavender) in Ghost Quartet: In Concert. Photo: Crows Theatre.

By Liz Nicholls,

Looking for an antidote? It’s been a gruesome nail-biter of a week on multiple fronts; everyone knows what exactly what that question means.

So, the doctor is IN.

I caught a couple of truly original and surprising, beautifully filmed theatre “concerts” this week. The Spike Lee film of David Byrne’s American Utopia (on HBO on demand, Crave and other streaming services) is one. Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet: In Concert is the other.

Maybe start with the Byrne, since it has such an unexpected, joyful, uplift to it.

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The stage version (spun from Byrne’s 2018 album) opened on Broadway last fall, and then got felled by COVID four months later. Byrne opens holding a model of the human brain, and meditating on the weirdness of humanity from the inside out. I know, right? A week like we’ve all been having, and you’re bound to wonder about that body part.

On the move throughout, Byrne and a great multi-national band, barefoot and in identical gray suits, perform some 20 songs, including some of the big Talking Heads hits. The visuals are dazzling: Annie-B Parson’s clockwork choreography, inspired by Byrne’s oddball interest in ‘color guards’ (i.e. marching bands), and Rob Sinclair’s virtuoso lighting effects on a translucent curtain that seems at times to be made of hanging chains.

The Spike Lee film is amazingly inventive at capturing the stage/audience energy in a packed house (the 970-seat Hudson Theatre). Apparently there were 11 camera placements from every angle, including overhead, à la Busby Berkeley. Lee acknowledged that unexpected inspiration in a fascinating New York Times interview last month.

Under our circumstances, songs from the Before Time, like Burning Down The House, seem to wear a new mantle. The protest song Hell You Talmbout includes reading out the names of African-Americans killed by police officers.

At a moment of isolation and disconnection, there’s a spirit of community, social justice, and inclusion about the whole thing that wards off despair. It ends in a strangely hopeful way. “Everybody’s comin’ to my house/ I’m never gonna be alone.” With that Byrne et al take to their bicycles and go out into the streets of New York. You feel like cheering.

There’s a strange updraft, too, at the end of Dave Malloy’s weird and haunting Ghost Quartet In Concert. There are only a couple of chances left, and you shouldn’t miss the experience of this dreamy production by Toronto’s Crows Theatre adapted for film. It’s superbly staged by director: Marie Farsi and lit with other-worldly invention by Patrick Lavender. TheloMalloy is the creative original behind Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, a highly unusual musical extrapolated from chapters of War and Peace.

The original cast — Hailey Gillis, Kyra Guloien, Andrew Penner, Beau Dixon — returns. And they really bite into the characters who wander through the past and present interchangeably, in this free-floating, open-ended, un-hinged fantasia of ghost stories.

It’s certainly not storytelling in the conventional sense, with any narrative chronology that I could figure out (Malloy has called it a song cycle). But it’s full of stories, Scheherazade-style. And haunting figures — two sisters, a dead child, an astronomer, and a bear (who’s at “the last piano in the universe”) — recur in different permutations. The “monk” turns out to be jazz guru Thelonious Monk; the show is kooky that way.

The actors (including the wonderful Guloien, whose parents are ESO bassist Rhonda Taft and the reed virtuoso PJ Perry) are first-rate musicians. And their songs move blithely between jazz, rock,  folk, and something like classical recitative (or maybe that’s just the way Malloy’s oddly expanding lyrics work). Maybe we are all ghosts in our own memory-scape (to be discussed, over whiskey). Tickets:

If you’re up for venturing out of your house in person and not just in your mind, there are a couple of lively antidotes available. One of them I’ve seen, and can recommend: A Brimful of Asha at the Citadel, finds the hilarity, and the affection, in the gap between fractious generations, in the true-life account of a mother’s vigorous, and repeatedly failed, attempts to arrange a traditional marriage for her son. Read the 12thnight review here.

And here are two promising possibilities I’m looking forward to. Northern Light returns to live action tonight at the Westbury Theatre in Fringe-land (the ATB Financial Arts Barns), with the premiere of Trevor Schmidt’s new gothic thriller We Had A Girl Before You. The production, starring Kristin Johnston, runs through Nov. 21. Tickets here.  And at the Mayfield Dinner Theatre, a new musical ventures into the ’70s rock archive with Keep Calm and Rock On, which runs through the festive season till Jan. 17. Tickets here.

Take a couple, and call me in the morning.




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