Reviewed by John Herring
Let’s start with the mission statement of Liars and Believers, the company responsible for presenting 28 Seeds, currently at the Plaza theatre of the BCA complex: “Liars and Believers expands the language of live performance, exploring the widest variety of theatrical forms, creating accessible, unique shows that meaningfully engage the world we share.” Multimedia BOOYAH!!! fun is the game, here. Your seat taken, you will wonder at Zeynep Bakkal’s set design, involving the actual bare support structures of the space, evoking forgotten government warehouses, science gone terribly wrong, and gritty urban chaos that extends to and beyond your seat.
All evoke some of the grittier graphic novels, and Ridley Scott’s films, mixed together. Rarely does a live theatre stage start out so completely filled as this. You wonder where the actors go. With Army of Broken Toys then placed around the space, sometimes comfortably seated, sometimes crammed into a small space or in the audience, the ship is full and your ride begins. Buckle up, please. The performers go in the audience, and in the musicians’ chairs, and in-between every part of the grimy, steampunk set. If you are seated next to one of the performers on stage, they’ll probably talk to you during the show, but expect them to be in character. After just a few minutes, so will you be. And then they will bring you into the action. Really. They will bring you onstage with them. If you don’t want to be a part of the show, there are a few seats in the house you might use for personal protection, but I wouldn’t bank on it. Here is a weakness of the production: although they do a great job of knocking out the “fourth wall” between the story and the audience, they lose several good opportunities to keep that fourth wall down. Won’t say where. You’ll figure it out. Here is their strength: They took ideas and energies from ALL of the performers and creators associated with the 28 Seeds, conglomerating these various streams of energy into mighty engine of sight, lies, politics, sexuality, sound and circumstance.
Liars and Believers is the right partner for Army of Broken Toys, at the right time. This collaboration grew from a fairy tale. In 2010, a group called Performance LAB did a little thing called Le Cabaret Grimm. It was a sexy, grim (sorry) trip into the dark side of the audience’s id. But people came, and those people saw the future of Boston theatre. Soon after, conversations began between the director, Jason Slavick, and some of the musical talent incorporated into the performance. If you know Army of Broken Toys, you are ahead of the game in Boston music. They consist of Walter Sickert, Meff, Edrie, T. J. Horn, Rachel Jayson, JoJo Lazar, Mike Leggio, Michael Epstein, and Betty Widerski. Their intransigently iconoclastic styling makes for some of the best, and sometimes most difficult, listening on our scene. But there they were, these cerebral musical beasts and an avant-garde director with something to say, brought together.
This is one of those dangerous long-time collaborations that easily could have grown up to be oh-so-precious as a political message to the world, hammeringly hammered home with great hammers of justice against injustice. Or it could have degenerated into a comedic farce that, while very funny and entertaining, would lose its message in the lust for laughs. But the minds responsible have raised this potentially problem child to be a fun, classy rebel, a fighter, socially adept and sexually confident, with a healthy sense of humor. At some point in the production, you will have your “Oh!” moment(s), connecting the fiction onstage with the actual world outside. Gracefully, the ensemble leaves those moments and their timing completely up to you. And if you (as I did) get a flashback of the 60’s and 70’s, please be patient. The ghosts of Kent State and Vietnam will pass. For the most part…
Now, let me preface this next by stating that the cast – Lisa Dempsey, Steven Emanuelson, Nicole Howard, Matthew Milo Sergei, Ally Tully, Karin Webb, – EVERYONE threw down on Thursday night, a night sometimes (you’ve all seen it) of reserved performances, a warm-up for Friday. Not this time. They handled the absurdist/graphic/postmodern material with aplomb. That said, a few performances stood out the night I attended. Sickert, as the lead interlude vocalist and feathered center-piece of this riveting tableau. Karin Webb, smoothly energetic and disturbingly easy in the role of talk-show host Hannah Montenegro, and later in a Devo-cum-S&M vignette. The lighting and audio designers, the Aarons, Sherkow and Mack, do an amazing job. Lighting a space as chaotic as this is HARD. I’ve done it, but I aged several years in a month, doing it, Sherkow’s lighting hits every mark. Mack’s sound integrations between musician, actor, singer, and special effect were flawless. A nod here to Jamie Horban’s choreography, using the light and space to its limits. And the musical ensemble, who were completely together while scattered all across the stage and audience space. They define the “less is more” benchmark of true ensemble performance: Fill the space with integral people who the audience will want to look at, but who never once steal focus from the story.
If you’re tempted to go search Army of Broken Toys before seeing the show, with the intent to gauge whether or not they’ll click with you, DON’T! It’s like listening to recordings of the zoo, or being there. It’s that different. Oh, by all means, go check them out online, post-show. You might even think, at first listen, maybe you’ve stumbled upon some lost Ennio Morricone charts for a forgotten spaghetti western, pre-Eastwood. Or, does it sound more like a Cirque du Soleil soundtrack? Just as you’re falling away, thinking about checking timelines on the Book of Face, you’ll start up and say, “Wait… WHAT!?” And spend the next ten minutes replaying the same lines three or four times, either laughing your head off or shaking it ‘yeah’ in agreement. Go ahead and check out a little bit of their unique sound at www.armyoftoys.bandcamp.com, AFTER you see 28 Seeds.
Finally, I get to say, “the rest is history.” Well, happily, not quite yet. There is still time for you to make a difference in your own world. The show will go on through May 12. You need to be part of Boston history. Oh, would you like to be a part of Boston history?
Here’s how: (617) 933-8600; www.28seeds.org. Or go to the box office at 539 Tremont St, Boston, MA. 02116.