GHOST QUARTETBy Dave Malloy
Director: Ashley H. White
Musical Director: Adam C. Wright
Assistant Director: Taylor Owen
Stage Manager: Theresa Kellar
Costume Designer: Jessie Wallace
Scenic Designer: Billy Betsill
Lighting Designer: Lori Honeycutt
Sound Designer: Brian Christensen
*Actors' Equity Association
Reviewed Performance: 5/31/2019
Reviewed by Ann Saucer, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Ghost Quartet is for music lovers. Its creator, Dave Malloy, also authored Natasha, Pierre, & the Great Comet of 1812, which played on Broadway in 2016 and 2017. He composed Ghost Quartet for himself and three of his friends, whom he described as, "amazing musicians and singer/songwriters, who shared a certain thrift store melancholy and haunted forest wonder." That is an apt description of this musical experience.
The first thing I noticed walking into the intimate Bath House Cultural Center space was the eclectic, welcoming set—my favorite in a long time. The performance space is surrounded on three sides by plush seating options. It is an endearing mash up of shabby chic stuffed armchairs and couches. Think your parents' most comfy sofa but without the cat hair. A combination of braided and oriental rugs of assorted sizes are strewn on the black box floor. Plenty of throw pillows also allow audience members to sit on the floor—which I recommend if you want to play an instrument during the show. There is not a bad seat in the house.
If the audience's comfort is not obviously paramount from the ultra-comfy seating, a whiskey bar drives the point home. Both booze and instruments are passed around at different points in this production. In a musical ode to quality libations, the cast starts passing out different celebrated brands of hard liquor in red plastic cups. It is great fun.
The overriding focus here, on top of our comfort and whiskey, is the array of musical instruments, which are situated at different locations on the set, and which are played by the shape-shifting cast. The talented cast of musical polymaths seamlessly switch places as they croon, strum, drum, and dance their way through a nonlinear series of stories.
Many of the stories feature the female characters Rose, her sometime sister Pearl, and/or a child named Roxy. Arabian Nights and Scheherazade's story-telling are a major structural influence on Ghost Quartet, which is also structured as a two-part album set with four sides. Like Scheherazade's tale-telling, which nests stories within stories, each vignette in Ghost Quartet is contained within another story in some fashion.
The first song we are treated to opens with the line, "I don't know but I've been told . . . ." In the richly poetic lyrics, the four singers question their identity: Am I a ghost tale I used to tell myself to sleep? A later crowd-pleasing song has the refrain, "I just want to be a ghost."
Devin Berg emerges as a powerful singer with a rock star quality. She and the other cast members are having a grand old time, and they want you to too. When, toward the end, Berg takes center stage at the piano and belts out a ballad of wounded remorse over an ill-fated romance—she has the whole room eating out of the palm of her hand. Berg's searing delivery of that one song is worth the price of admission.
But there is a lot more here for music lovers. Mindy Bell's beautiful voice and fragile dignity are also showcased. She has a marvelous turn explaining that, "My younger self doesn't have time for me—for anyone so used up."
The formidable talents of Benjamin Brown and Brandon Wilhelm as multi-instrumentalists are on display. Both men also have great comic timing and a fun stage presence.
A scene set in a camera shop sets up a recurring theme inspired by Rose Red and Pearl White, a source material for Snow White. The experience of telling and hearing stories is explored in different innovative ways; at one point an extended blackout scene is interspersed with flashes of carefully staged frozen tableaus. It reminded me of the experience of a bedtime story facilitated by a picture book.
The revisiting, and retroactive understanding, of our own personal journeys is another theme. "I was empty then and I'm empty now but it's not the same at all," is another example of the haunting poetry embedded in Ghost Quartet.
A kidnapped baby girl, a star child, and a ghost child appear in the story vignettes. In one particularly poignant but also funny scene, a seven-year old Roxy is implored by her parents to give up her "imaginary friend," who turns out to be the ghost of her dead sister. When she commands her parents to, "shut the __ up," it is both endearing and hilarious.
During the ninety-minute production, I came to covet the costumes. I want all of those clothes (ahem, in my size), even the man's plaid pants. Bell and Berg are adorned in functional hippie retro chic. (I never thought I would want to wear anything with a rose pattern—but there it is.)
The impressively complex and demanding light and sound design work seamlessly here. At one point we are in black-out, with flashes of still images, and the light design facilitated these effects without blinding the audience. With so many changes in instruments and players, the sound design has to be, and is, first rate. At one point, strings are used as amusing sound effects to punctuate the comedy.
I recommend Ghost Quartet for music lovers and anyone who wants to just kick back, let the music flow over you, and have a drink. One of the apt opening lines is, "we recommend a loose frame of mind to go on this journey with us." With the poetic lyrics and deep themes, combined with the romantic Bath House locale overlooking White Rock Lake, I recommend this to anyone trying to impress a date. And, if she or he can't have fun with you at Ghost Quartet—throw that fish back.
Bath House Cultural Center
May 31, 2019 through June 15, 2019
For more information go to www.imprinttheatreworks.org.