The BROS were in town for one vanishingly short weekend. The Baltimore Rock Opera Society brought their grungy magnus opus Gründelhammer to Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory.
Gründelhammer is a frustrating, but often delightful, combination of storytelling, musical ambition, first rate performances, and a laissez faire approach to stagecraft and audience experience. The enthusiasm and warmth of the massive Society team is evident upon entering the makeshift theater and odd little universe they’ve set up for themselves in Torpedo Factory’s main gallery hall. Costumed and in-character ushers greet patrons with grunts and snarls and offers of beer even as they struggle with a poor house layout and double-booked seats.
Friday’s performance marked the seven-year old company’s first tentative steps into touring, and signs of growing pains abound. A spotlight fell and broke around the midpoint. The sound mix was unbalanced through the first act. And oh ye gods the scene changes. While I loved the look of Joe Martin’s intentionally shabby village sets, the massive flats often took upwards of five minutes to take down or move during the transitions. Given that other technical elements are so strong, costume and prop design in particular, perhaps the BROS should consider jettisoning some of these unwieldy set pieces in the name of tighter storytelling.
In one particularly patience-challenging transition, the team built an entire medieval dungeon. In order to cover the transition they darkened the set, fired up the stage smoke, and brought out a massive, badass Minotaur (an imposing Nairobi Collins) to stalk around. But I ask you, gentle BROS, do you not realize when you you have smoke, darkness and a Minotaur, that’s all you need? The job is done! The dungeon has been evoked! Trust your enthusiastic audience to follow along and get on with the rock!
And oh what rock it is. The true heroes of Gründelhammer are in the band, The Hammered, here somewhat thanklessly shuttled off to a balcony to make room for an on-stage cast of approximately 3,842. Guitarists Chris Baines and John “Smelly” Smeltzer provide a good fifty percent of Grundelhammer’s asskicking. The actors themselves strum along air-guitar style on wonderfully conceived prop guitars. In the fantasy world of Brotopia all power is derived from song. Guitars are the all-purpose tools and weapons of the realm, and the right tune can either keep a kindly farmers crops growing all year round or strike down a foe.
Aside from the fun guitar-as-ultimate-weapon conceit, the story of Gründelhammer is fairly typical high-fantasy stuff of the “murdered king and the long-lost heir who must avenge him” variety. The hero of the day is teenage Benedon, played wonderfully by Christopher Krysztofiak. Bendon’s been raised, Clark Kent style, by hinterland farmers, alongside young Gunnora (a game Moira Goldie Horowitz) with whom Benedon shares a delightfully un-sibling-like chemistry.
Destiny awaits, however, and soon Benedon’s identity is discovered by evil throne-usurper Lothario and a few tragedies later Benedon is off on quest of self-discovery, vengeance and increasingly tricky chord progression. Greg Bowen’s Lothario makes for a perfect villain here, his Bowie-meets-Hot Topic look standing in contrast to the more traditional fantasy trappings of the rest of the cast and his surprisingly deep vocals ranking as best of Gründelhammer’s class. Costume designers Taylor Carlton and Eliza Vlasova deserve a good heap of kudos for decking out the massive cast like Hell’s own renn faire.
The BROS are on to something special with Gründelhammer. There’s something engaging and sympathetic in the BROS disregard for theater tradition. But somewhere around the three-hour mark, the slapdash-ness starts to grate. When you announce an intermission five minutes before the scheduled end of your runtime, you’ve got problems. The show ran a solid hour long. One could dismiss this complaint as against the point of the metal, anti-establishment ethos of the BROS, but if the troupe wants to be taken seriously as a touring company they are going to have to tighten the ship. Not every audience may be as forgiving as the very friendly crowd at the Torpedo Factory.
Baltimore Rock Opera Society performed Gründelhammer March 28 – 30, 2014 at The Torpedo Factory, Alexandria, VA.