Beautiful and little spooky, Ghost Quartet makes a prefect Halloween month treat
Ghost Quartet, a hipster-inflected song cycle by Dave Malloy, is described as being “about love, death, and whiskey.” As you enter Eclipse Theatre’s grotto-like space at Streetcar Crowsnest, whiskey shots are on sale, and a thick haze hangs in the air.
With reality sufficiently altered, you’re then treated to a puzzle of a story that’s cyclical, freewheeling and a bit scattershot, mixing together the tales of Rose Red and her sister Pearl White, Scheherazade and the One Thousand and One Nights (with references to Thelonious Monk), The Fall of the House of Usher, and a modern fable about a tragedy that befalls a woman waiting for a subway train. Characters weave in and out in a dream-like dance, and the world bends at its seams. It’s a spellbinding and spooky evening of song, perfect for Halloween month.
Malloy’s music, inspired by a wide variety of music, from folk to gospel to bebop to English murder ballad, is lovely, surprising, and propulsive. The four performers, Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Kira Guloien, and Andrew Penner, all playing instruments and singing, never let the energy or focus wane; their enthusiasm for the material is infectious. Everyone’s voice is a treat, with Guloein’s high float and Gillis’ brassier belt the particular standouts. Penner, as music director, did a lot of the instrumental heavy lifting, but shone in his solo as The Astronomer. I wanted to hear more of his voice. An a capella quartet near the end of the show was pure bliss.
Lyrics are more variable, running the gamut from profound observations about the past self as a ghost that may no longer have time for you, and the need to forgive this ghost and move on, to the occasionally jarring or pedestrian: “Guess I messed up/Guess I made a bad call” sings a character, presumably about her choice to murder a family member. Some pieces contain gleeful, welcome humour, including the delightful lyrics of “Any Kind of Dead Person” and the ode to four different kinds of whiskeys.
As the drinking seemed to be fairly constant, I wanted it to have more to do with the main story or theme, or have some sort of effect on the characters. Though the narrative was non-linear, all of them seemed to remain crisp and polished throughout, even as things came undone.
The lighting design deserves a special mention as the fifth star of the show; Patrick Lavender has created beautiful effects with haze and strobe, electric blue light and strings of tiny white bulbs. At times, one actress begins to resemble an animation, and another fades into ghostly profile. Bottles hung from chain-vines glow ethereally, small parts of the set illuminate on cue, and constellations fade in and out overhead. It all creates a gorgeous, fantastical space, an impression confirmed by the shabby-chic set (also Lavender) that intrigues with detail, down to the colours of the moss on the floor, and that seems pulled out of time. As my guest observed, it effectively straddles the line between cozy and creepy.
The show impressively creates a genuinely unsettling vibe, often due to these design effects. Guloien’s high notes merge with the instrumentation to make something that sounds simultaneously human and inhuman, and the dead-eyed flash of a camera catches a character stuck in a silent scream. The story of the subway train, returned to again and again, has a terrifying forward motion and inevitability to it, and the judicious use of toy instruments carries a ring of lost innocence.
The performances were fantastic, the music beautiful, the set stunning. And yet, I found myself watching the piece as if it were a particularly well-crafted museum display, reserved and preserved as if it were itself a ghost. The convoluted storyline is interesting, but also a bit self-important, and I longed for the heightened emotional connection that the music, but not the characters, demanded. Perhaps this is just a hazard of the song cycle medium, caught between the realms of concert and musical theatre. Perhaps I should have partaken in the whiskey.
Despite my emotional reservations, I would enthusiastically recommend Ghost Quartet. It’s a unique piece of theatre, beautifully designed and performed, and it will probably send at least a few shivers down your spine.
- Ghost Quartet plays at the Streetcar Crowsnest Scotiabank Community Studio (345 Carlaw) until November 3, 2019.
- Shows run at 8:00PM Tuesday-Saturday, with 2:30PM matinees Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday. (No show Tuesday, October 22nd)
- Tickets are $27-47 and can be purchased online or by calling (647) 341-7390 ext. 1010.
- The show includes mature content and the use of hazer, and runs 100 minutes without intermission.
Photo of Beau Dixon and Kira Guloien by Dahlia Katz