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By John Quinn
The artist can draw inspiration from limitless sources, some achingly beautiful, some grotesque. Consider “The American Crowbar Case” and the miraculous survival of Phineas Gage. On Sept. 13, 1848, 25-year-old Gage was foreman of a work gang blasting rock while preparing the roadbed for a railroad. After a hole was bored into a body of rock, one of Gage’s duties was to add blasting powder, a fuse and sand; then compact the charge into the hole using a tamping iron – a large iron rod. The powder exploded, sending the 44 inch rod under Gage’s left cheek bone, behind the eye, and out the top of his head; it landed some 80 feet away. Gage lived. He led a reasonably normal life for 12 years with a left frontal lobe curdled like cottage cheese.
“The American Crowbar Case” is an original musical by Gray Bouchard featuring the music of Match by Match. Originally it was a song cycle, exploring the emotional and personal consequences of such massive trauma. Playwright Jason Sebacher wrote the book to “match” the music. It’s a play of “what ifs.” What if Gage’s brain damage changed his personality? What if it compromised his memory and time perception? What if, when picking up and relocating to Chile (where he drove a stagecoach), he forgot about important things left behind – such as a wife?
Reflecting the tenuous grasp Gage may have had on memory, the plot is not linear. Instead, it moves back and forth through time and location in fits and starts. It’s a device that challenges the audience to sit up and pay attention. It’s a simple enough story to survive the disorienting narrative.
In the here and now, two college professors (Jamie Weeder and Dan Johnson) meet by chance in a hotel hosting two different conferences. Each is presenting a paper on their common area of interest, the American Crowbar Case. Judith and Ian have differing views of Gage’s personality changes because they are trying to fill gaps in the historical record from different disciplines. Their intense sparring revives the past for us, and we meet the historical characters as they might have been. After healing from his accident, Gage (Peter Geissl) no longer recognizes his wife, Constance (Julia Garlotte). He leaves home and ends up in Valparaiso, Chile shacked up with a hooker (Melissa Coppola). Constance follows. Can she revive his memory of their love, or has she lost him to “Missy?”
The prime plot, then, hinges on a single turn of events. If Gage don’t go, there is no show. No dialogue, subtext or song provides reason for Constance’s weakness as she tries to persuade him to stay. She doesn’t even identify herself as his wife. She lets him go, thinking he’s spent the night with some other man’s wife.
The music is engaging and is a solid effort in the folk-rock tradition. Because the score predates the book, it does not so much further the narrative as provide commentary on the emotional context. There are some truly dissonant passages to match the characters’ turmoil. Bouchard performs many of his own songs, becoming master of ceremonies and our guide. The performances are good, yet some whole phrases seem to be lost in the central microphone. Anything sung more than two or three inches away tended to fade.
A special note must be made of Melissa Coppola of Match by Match, who not only acts as music director but also plays “Missy” when not playing the piano or doubling on accordion or guitar.
Keith Paul Medelis, artistic director for The New Theatre Project, is responsible for bringing this together for the stage. The multi-media work by Janine Woods Thoma that accompanies the action works well in setting place and mood, and even allows visual reference to some of the clinical discussion of Gage’s condition.
For a project based on 19th Century folklore, “The American Crowbar Case” feels surprisingly avant guard. Performing in a tiny “black box” theater behind Mix clothing boutique, the company is following in the tradition of the post-war theater underground. While Michigan Avenue will never be Broadway, it’s a decent start.
‘The American Crowbar Case’
The New Theatre Project at Mix Studio Theater, 130 W. Michigan Ave., Ypsilanti. Friday-Sunday through Oct. 23. $15. 734-645-9776. http://www.thenewtheatreproject.org