Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island (or, The Friends of Dr. Rushower)

Photo/Carol Rosegg

Is it any surprise that a cartoonist's alternative musical plays out similarly to his art? In Ben Katchor's The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, or The Friends of Dr. Rushower (or, Is Indie Opera a Good Thing?), his assertively uneven lines and thin watercolor layers of thick color beam out onto flexible walls that do well to set the tone and mood of his festive anti-capitalist paean. Often sandwiched between two scrims are the actors, trilling their silly lyrics, but doing a marvelously fine job of fitting in, and behind them, the musicians, all four of whom switch handily from calypso ("GinGin's Song") to jittery jazz ("The Birth of Immanuel Lubang") to a throbbing backbeat akin to something you might hear channeled by The Postal Service ("Your Coat Will Be Ready At 9"). All told, the effect is dizzying and refreshingly new, but ultimately not all that satisfying of a production. It's as satisfying as I imagine the codeine-laced Kayrol Cola that's used to drug the stevedore population of slug bearers would be: stuporterrific in the theater, while under constant dosage, and bemusedly benign afterward. (And by "slug bearers," I mean the exploited workers [paid in date nut leaves] who load slugs of metal onto an America-bound ship, so that these ingots can hold down the nominally light electronic goods [like phones or toaster ovens] that would otherwise blow away. Seriously.)

As written by Katchor, this is all explained with a straight face, first by Dr. Rushower (Peter Friedman), and then exaggeratedly so by his daughter GinGin's (Jody Flader) depressive funk (girls and their empathy for the media's victims-of-the-moment). As the wealthy doctor casts about for a white knight to rescue his daughter (by means of some gamely sprinkled strawberry ice cream from the 33rd floor), he meets Immanuel Lubang (Bobby Steggert), an idealist who is drawn to consumer fiction -- that everyday prose poetry of the instruction manual. Steggert's the right choice for the role, laying on the same naive but determined charm that he used in 110 in the Shade, and his commitment to technical arias (not the arias themselves, but what they're about) re-enforces the limited ability of language. (This is perhaps the unspoken theme for the '07/'08 Vineyard season: The Piano Teacher avoided saying certain things, and the upcoming God's Ear speaks in Hallmark generalities.) As GinGin and Immanuel set out to liberate the minds of the slug bearers, they receive dire warnings from unibrowed George Klatter (a devilishly good Stephen Lee Anderson) and cryptic phone calls of love from Samson (Matt Pearson), who turns out (in this topsy-turvy world) to be a slug bearer himself.

For all the physical manipulations of the walls that make up Jim Findlay & Jeff Sugg's set, there's very little attempt made by director Bob McGrath to unpack anything, which is what saves the musical. The heft of the play is meant to be ridiculous, to be a specific sort of gravity (not gravitas) that allows us to simply bask in the satire of our society's ruthless manipulation of foreigners for labor ("They're not like you and I," sings Mr. Klatter, a benevolent rictus giving truth to the lie). And yet, I can't stop drawing comparisons to Urinetown -- the anti-musical twists, the abandoned idealism, the contrasts between social worlds -- and thinking that Slug Bearers is almost a little too out there to stick with audiences. The lyrics are mostly mundane, the music -- while excellent, and varied -- not at all catchy or memorable, and there's almost nothing in the way of character development.

It's a bold new world, and thankfully, the presentation is assertive enough to guide us through the uneven strokes. But The Slug Bearers comes down to being an extreme exercise in style that is entertaining largely in the face of being so defiantly different, not for being extraordinarily engaging.

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