How do you describe a show that defies description, yet tell people not to miss it? That is a true reviewer’s dilemma.
Ghost Quartet (2014) is basically a music theatre piece, and the fevered brainchild of American polymath Dave Malloy. The songs and texts revolve around several interlinked stories in a very loose way. As a theatrical experience, it is like watching a dream (or a nightmare) unfold. In dreams, the sequence flow fuses illogical things together in a logical way. That is what Ghost Quartet is like. You hear a character mentioned and you realize that you heard of that person before, and slowly your mind begins to connect the dots, no matter how bizarre the connection. As the show progresses, the links become more and more intricate and complicated, propelled by the songs and playlets. As confusing as all this sounds, Ghost Quartet is totally absorbing, mesmerizing and compelling, not to mention seductive.
As for the interwoven stories, one is a tale of two sisters, Rose Red and Pearl White, the latter stealing Rose’s love interest, and Rose plotting revenge on them both. Another plotline involves a subway murder where someone is pushed from the platform. A third story is a very eccentric retelling of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher. There are also appearances by Scheherazade and the ghost of jazz great Thelonius Monk. The stories are not told in chronological order, but loop around each other in a total time warp. In short, Ghost Quartet is like a fairy tale gone rogue, but one that keeps the darkness and scariness intact.
The songs cover an enormous range of styles. My two favourites are the clever, and very funny, patter song “Any Kind of Dead Person”, where the singer tells us why she only wants to be a ghost, and not a ghoul, spook, poltergeist etc. – and all in rhyme. The other is the melancholy folk song “The Wind & Rain” that ends the show on a very sombre and chilling note. In between Malloy touches on rock, gospel, torch song, country and western, and jazz, just to mention a few. What makes the score so interesting is that no one song sounds like another, and the harmonies are gorgeous. The ensemble is small, piano and guitar for basics, and a whole whack of various kinds of percussion, plus a harmonica, Celtic harp, and Chinese flute. The four performers are also the musicians.
The casting of Ghost Quartet is exquisite. It is hard to imagine anyone else performing these roles. In truth, the men, Andrew Penner (music director and guitar) and Beau Dixon (piano), as wonderful and talented as they are, are eclipsed by the two women, Hailey Gillis and Kira Guloien. The former is a brunette, the latter a redhead, yet they seem to be two sides of the same coin. While the men look seasoned and grainy, the women seem fresh and dewy, and because so many of the songs are gloomy and melancholy, their winsome quality highlights the show’s inherent darkness. The contrast between the men and the women enriches the texture of the show. The women, in particular, are outstanding singers, but everyone can act and sing up a storm, not to mention play instruments up the whazoo.
Kudos to director Marie Farsi who moves her performers so elegantly through the small space. Whether in text or song, she has ensured superb details in characterization. Everyone in the cast is playing from the heart. They are true storytellers of the dark arts. Patrick Lavender has provided a fanciful set as befits the subject matter, and his lighting is ravishing. Lavender has also costumed the cast in old-fashioned/contemporary, for lack of a better description. As a totality, the look of the show is long ago and far away. Incidentally, whisky is served to the audience before the show, the cast imbibes during the performance, and there is a song devoted to the drink itself.
The very weirdness of Ghost Quartet makes it a genuine surprise as an audience draw, but it is well worth a visit.
Crow’s Theatre & Eclipse Theatre Company, Ghost Quartet, music, lyrics and text by Dave Malloy, directed by Marie Farsi, Scotiabank Community Studio, Streetcar Crowsnest, Oct. 5 to Nov. 10, 2019.