If the creative dreamteam of director Oliver Butler (The Debate Society), playwright Clay McLeod Chapman (The Pumpkin Pie Show), and songwriter Kyle Jarrow (A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant) isn't enough to convince you to buy a ticket for Hostage Song, then you just don't like downtown theater. This is the rare show that works on all levels, from Chapman's arresting metaphors to Butler's relentless direction, Jarrow's serrated anthems, and the cast's raw honesty.
Reviewed by Aaron Riccio
Out of context, it's just a precious, awkward moment between new lovers as, over dinner, Jim meets Jennifer's parents for the first time. The banter is genuine, as is the way the two (Paul Thureen and Hanna Cheek) bask in each other's presence, and the way the father (Clay McLeod Chapman) develops a distaste for Jim's work as a private contractor while the mother (Hannah Bos) thinks everything he says is cute. Familiar territory, to be sure, but then again, that's Chapman's style (as in volume of smoke). Horror is expressed in beautiful images of poetry, and violence -- never quite explicit -- turns beauty into a thing of fear. For you see, in context, Jim and Jennifer are actually blindfolded, and the two other actors -- clad entirely in black -- are simply a dream (and at other points, memories, or their captors).
This cruelly imaginative device works a sublimely sorrowful magic -- a magic that's even stronger when side monologues from Jim's wife (Bos) and son (Abe Goldfarb) reveal that Jim has already been killed, and that even the plot's onstage fantasy (magical realism, without the hope of magic) is nothing more than the past. It also fits the style of Hostage Song, an indie-rock musical (with music and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow) that dwells in active contradictions -- where the sensation of being beheaded is likened to that of a balloon floating freely into the sky, or where characters run the risk of being abducted from their songs, mid-note.
These moments are all starkly directed by Oliver Butler, who distills his cleverness (The Eaten Heart) into the sort of minimalism necessary to hold the distinct pieces of the show together. He uses empty space (and a few eerily out-of-place objects, like an upturned file cabinet) to close in on the characters, forcing them, in essence, to displace all that terrifying emptiness with their imaginations. (Mike Riggs's lighting helps, too, to focus our attention on the elegiac monologues.) Furthermore, by acknowledging the artifice of the show -- the band (Drew St. Aubin, Paul Bates, Jonathan Sherrill, and Mr. Jarrow) is just behind the back wall's three revolving panels -- Butler is able to use Jarrow's music to add the emotion that Chapman's exceedingly smart but necessarily restrained text lacks. This is another contradiction that works, as the deliberate script bleeds into the emotionally charged lyrics of the show.
Within those contradictions, Hostage Song also finds a rare sort of honesty that allows it to be affecting despite the marked lack of realism. When Cheek and Thureen sing, Goldfarb often harmonizes with them (in either a solid baritone or ethereal falsetto), but whereas Goldfarb -- as an outsider -- sings with the once-removed perfection of a recording, the hostages burst out with a rawer, coarser sound. Jarrow's music jags them onward with a false hope that turns even upbeat melodies into starkly pessimistic tunes given their unavoidable fate. Even through that, these Everyhostages find glitter even in the dark of death. (The final image of the play, stripped of illusion, is worth the ticket.) Now, if the characters can make the best of a bad situation, just imagine what this creative team -- a veritable "downtown supergroup" -- is able to do given the best of a good situation. Better yet -- don't imagine it. Go downtown and see it for yourself.
Hostage Song (1 hr 40 min.)
Horse Trade Theater Group @ The Kraine Theater (85 East 4th St.)
Tickets (212-868-4444): $18.00
Performances (through 4/26): Thurs. - Sat. @ 8
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.