What to call the rare and precious experience of sitting in the darkness of a theatre where something has broken out of its own self and taken wing? Some say a magical work of art is one that defies genres and keeps surprising us as it unfolds. This new production of Rooms, with just two characters on stage, has done just that on its return to MetroStage where it debuted ten years ago,
I’m still struggling what to call this piece of music-theatre. What was this performance that started out with such “tentative steps,” trembling and tender as a bird’s beating heart? Surely not a rock musical? And when two people, donning black leather and metal studs in their performance personas of Lilian Filth and Perry Comatose, deliver just one song as a screamingly funny parody of the genre, are we supposed to lump the show under the header of a “punk romance?” Quite honestly, the work is so through composed I might be tempted to define it as a rock opera, but wouldn’t that send audiences from both the rock and opera worlds fleeing?
It still doesn’t convey the intimacy and the sometime-rawness, sometime sweetness of the show, where the audience, just a few feet away, shares every moment, and where nothing can be faked and every moment is exposed. Let’s just call Rooms a journey about two people learning to love and growing up through music.
She is Monica, an ambitious young singer-songwriter from Glasgow, who comes from a nice Jewish family. He is Ian from the other side of the tracks, with an alcoholic father and a mother with a medical disability. She’s restless to bust out of her room where “nothing ever changes.” He never wants to leave his room where he’s “been for ages.” She’s got grit and attitude. He’s got problems.
In the first song, we’re not only introduced to these two characters but to the central metaphor of the title of the piece. We see their attraction immediately, and the two display sure comedic abilities as they both fight their initial attraction. She snaps out snarky comments and puts on body armor by convincing herself that she’s all about reaching the top WIT (whatever it takes.) He tries to deflect and avoid but is inescapably drawn to this woman’s sheer energy and ability to draw him out of himself.
Candice Shedd-Thompson and Matthew Schleigh are perfectly cast as the young couple and have established a wonderful chemistry. Shedd-Thompson is bold, flippant, and at times wildly reckless. (And Michael Sharp has decked her out in costumes that are a trip, defining her multiple-changing personas.)
Schleigh, who plays the guitar for real and so lends his character a certain authenticity, embodies the role of the talented moody musician. He’s the guy hiding his shyness and pain behind alcohol or drugs, the one that makes every girl want to coax him (“Come out of the darkness”) and save him.
The book, written by husband and wife team Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon, creates both a hilarious and moving story, and he has crafted beautiful lyrics. Almost every song has a different musical vocabulary, which lends terrific variety but also amplifies the many journeys contained in the work.
closes November 11, 2018
Details and tickets
In “Fear of Flying,” Schleigh delivers a tour de force performance of a man, afraid and claustrophobic, flying in a metal capsule miles above the Earth. He delivers the short fast bursts of lines at an almost dizzying speed yet no word is lost, and the song builds to an emotional pitch.
When the two first arrive in New York City, their Glasgow songwriting takes on a decidedly American funk turn. Later, fallen on leaner times and going it alone, Monica tries a cabaret turn but it comes off more like a folksinger gig, complete with a TMI personal intro (“I was sitting in my kitchen eating fried eggs and shaving my legs when…”) We’re laughing at her, then, as if on a dime, Shedd-Thomas pulls us in emotionally.
This writing team was fearless in their creative process. Has anyone ever tried to write a song about taking a pregnancy test (with the internal rhyme of “leaving the rest to science?”) And who else would have taken the challenge to capture in song the journey of a woman heading to an abortion clinic, facing both staff and other clients, and having to make the harrowing choice of going through the procedure or not?
Perhaps the most powerful song in the whole show is “Clean”— and talk about a journey in a song! This one is about the very real struggle so many have been through or seen loved ones go through to get sober, one day at a time. Schleigh takes us through the terror and slips, all the emotional vulnerabilities, and finally the accumulation of time and integration of an emerging “recovering” self, free of the fear, shame, and self-loathing.
The variety in musical language not only keeps us tuned in but allows both singers and especially Shedd-Thomson to move up and down her considerable range and to give parts of her vocal chords a chance to rest. Now, this ‘wee lass’ can put the equivalent of pedal to the metal when she needs to rock the house, as she does on something like “Bring the Future Faster.” Wisely though, there are plenty of songs where she shows us she possesses a beautiful soprano sound, as in a couple of the ballads, but the choices are always motivated by the character’s intentions.
Sometimes a song simultaneously parodies and honors. Director Thomas W. Jones II is a keen observer of artists and their stylistic ticks. It’s great fun to watch how he and the actors have nailed the detailed physicality and clichés of cover artists at bar mitzvahs and weddings, head-banging punk rockers, urban funk artists, strutting rock stars, crooning mic-caressing cabaret singers, and earnest folk-rock personas.
Jones also has an eye and mind for clean, spare yet effective choreography, and he knows how to create delicious transitions. He might downplay this talent as “chair-ography,” where with swift and exact turns the actors move chairs to positions that moments later reveal a new spatial environment, but it’s exhilarating to watch. The show moves seamlessly from interior rooms to performing clubs, and at one point, with a great sweep of fabric unfurls, from being Monica’s scarf to a long dining table for Friday night shabbat dinner, simply by the two actors holding up the ends and letting the side-fabric drape to the floor. A single revolving door frame becomes the symbolic structure that pulls the two characters together into sharing the same space then separating them, to bring the world in or shut it out.
Set Designer Carl Gudenius has defined the several worlds in the show with simple yet functional metal risers and a series of short interlocked staircases. With these he has made possible great levels and fluidity of movement, where the actors, clambering up and down, pass through the cobbled streets of upper middle class of Glasgow then the crammed quarters of underclass of the same city, and finally just as easily to a (probably) lower east side walk-up apartment where the young immigrant musicians are trying to break into New York’s music scene, not to mention various music clubs on both continents.
Symbolically, at the apex of this metal pyramid-like structure is where the orchestra of five musicians sit. Sometimes the guys function as the back up band in a club, at others they recede into the darkness but remain always present as the interior music in the heads of the two song-writing collaborators. Music Director Matthew Stephens, playing keyboard, effectively leads the ensemble. David Cole and Tony Harrod playing guitars, with Greg Holloway on drums, and Yusef Chisholm on bass never missed getting the groove of the criss-crossing styles. It was a pleasure to see how these guys got the balance just right with the singers.
However your tastes run musically, this is a show which will make you laugh and get weepy, and yes, believe humanity will make it through — “with a little bit of love.”
ROOMS. Book by Paul Scott Goodman and Miriam Gordon. Music and Lyrics by Paul Scott Goodman. Directed by Thomas W. Jones II. With Matthew Schleigh and Candice Shedd-Thompson.Music Direction by Matthew Stephens. Set Design by Carl Gudenius. Light Design by Alexander Keen. Costume Design by Michael Sharp. Projection Design by Patrick W. Lord. Sound Consultant Gordon Nimmo-Smith. Produced by MetroStage. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.