By Genevieve Heinrich
Mount Vernon - Reviewing an original piece is a unique challenge. Despite all the many things, both positive and negative, that I could say about the production of Ragged Ascent, I find that all I WANT to discuss is the content. Ragged Ascent takes the well-known story of Orpheus and Eurydice and transforms it into something even more arch than myth - in the hands of playwright Mike Moran, the story becomes allegory. It is at once more personal and more profound than most other treatments I've seen of the familiar tale.
Before I spend even a moment discussing acting, or lights, or music, I want to urge any readers who enjoy reconsidering what they believe to be true, who appreciate a challenge that will have them pondering as they leave the theatre, and especially those who understand that the ancient myths still have relevance to our lives today, to go see this show without hesitation. There are only two more performances - today, May 17, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. The gentle reverence with which Moran treats his subject is a love story of epic proportion.
Ragged Ascent is, without question, a love story. However, it is not the love story between Orpheus and Eurydice that we have encountered so many times. Instead, it is an aching love letter from the playwright to Orpheus himself. This is a play by, for, and about musicians - about the power of music to transcend, perhaps even to heal. It is about our right to seek healing. This is emphasized from the moment you enter the space, by the poignant house music - familiar and unfamiliar tunes emphasizing musicianship, and longing, and failure, with a pervasive trippy, ethereal vibe. Between the music and the set, it is clear that you are in for something both more true and less real than you may have been expecting.
The sparse set, in particular, is elegant. No roles are specified in the program, so there's no way to know which of the designers - Simon Crocker, Stan Crocker, Daniel Kelchen, or Karen Mills - to credit with which visual. The crinkled gauze fabric hung across the back of the stage is beautiful, evoking stone and veil and shroud, and it is distinctly susceptible to the influences of the powerful lighting design. Opening night vagaries may account for the hiccups in the execution of the lighting changes, but the design overall was fantastic, at times deliciously eerie.
The performance itself struggled at times to get on its feet. The opening, in particular, was very presentational, as though the cast hadn't yet decided on its relationship to the audience and to each other. Moments of pushing a bit too hard to find the humor in a scene were balanced by some truly elegantly silly moments. It often felt much like a work-in-progress. The question of humor vs. sincerity was often left unanswered or, frustratingly, was answered in different ways by different actors in the same scenes.
Promotional materials for this play indicated that it was an attempt to morph the traditional Iowa Goatsinger shows into a more lineal, theatrical form. That tension was palpable throughout Ragged Ascent, and the show was at its best when the performers didn't try to control the dichotomy. There were discomforting moments when actors couldn't seem to decide WHY they were singing - they would line up in a static form across the stage, seemingly unsure whether or not they were in character. A traditional Goatsinger variety show, one imagines, would've involved more interaction with the audience - while a traditional musical would've involved more interaction between the actors. These moments of hovering in the in-between were awkward.
However, there were also moments of beautiful transcendence, when the lines between the forms were completely irrelevant. Because the actors were completely invested in these scenes, they contributed to the overall performance, despite their lack of traditional theatricality. Notable among these was the recitation of what I would call the Poem In/To the UnderWorld/Ground. It was quite clearly poetic, and the actors treated it as such (the line "The silence is like soil in your ears" echoes in my mind still). It worked because the performers weren't trying to make it work - they were simply living within it.
Many of the songs were this way, as well - at times forcefully integrated and awkward, at other times simply embodied and elegant. A perfect example is "One of Us is Free," sung by Kim Benesh. It was wonderful that she was afforded a solo tune, as her voice stood out even in the ensemble numbers. More importantly, though, the piece was understated and unforced. It fit because it didn't fit. Benesh didn't fight against the "now I am up here, singing a song" motif - she just let it be.
One notable lack in the program is any credit for a director. As a creator-driven show, an outside voice possibly would have been the kick needed to push this piece over the edge into true cohesiveness. Stand-out scenework, like that between Moran as Orpheus and co-composer Josh Woosley as Charon, was a joy to watch, but sadly emphasized the distances between the rest of the cast. The show found so much clarity in its moments of stillness, and I wish it could have found that in its active moments as well.
A last, somewhat trivial, point. The visuals of this piece were gorgeous, down to the costuming. The gray-ish palate was perfectly executed, except in one instance: Josh Woosley's guitar. I know the attachment that all musicians have to their personal instruments... but its bright color stood out starkly against the beautifully subdued design. Had it been Orpheus' instrument, it might have been justified in its attention-grabbing. As it was, it was unfortunately distracting.
Overall, Ragged Ascent is a fascinating piece that will be of great interest to anyone with a love for the classics and anyone interested in different angles for theatre to explore. With two guitars and seven actors, Mike Moran and Josh Woosley upended one of humanity's best-known myths, and opened avenues into understanding and empathizing with the character of Orpheus that could only be understood viscerally. It is an unsettled, but thankfully also unsettling, play.