Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Crow’s Theatre has launched its current season with a double bill of Annie Baker’s The Flick (in partnership with Outside the March) and Tony-Award nominated composer Dave Malloy’s gothic song cycle Ghost Quartet, which is presented in partnership with Eclipse Theatre Company. Ghost Quartet is the first musical produced at the theatre, and features Beau Dixon, Andrew Penner, Hailey Gillis and Kira Guloien.
Not having seen Ghost Quartet, I set about trying to figure out the plot before speaking with Guloien. This proved a head-scratching endeavour: I located two recordings, plus multiple online sources with overlapping but inconsistent summaries. I stepped warily into the interweaving, multilayered plotline of what Malloy describes as a “live performance of a concept album”.
Described ever-so-loosely, Ghost Quartet opens with a camera breaking, revealing a mystery which combines several disparate elements: a fractured fairy tale about two sisters, a treehouse astronomer and a lazy evil bear; a retelling of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher; a purgatorial intermezzo about storytelling character Scheherazade; and a contemporary fable about a subway murder. It features multiple reincarnations of four characters/souls/ghosts, and presents their stories in a non-linear fashion over several centuries. The 17th century is the backdrop for the Japanese/German fairytale. 14th Century Persia (Arabian Nights), 19th Century England (Fall of the House of Usher) and 21st Century America are the other time periods depicted, and these are augmented with references to urban legends, and even the animated movie Frozen. Each of the four actors plays multiple reincarnations of the same character, and they collectively perform musical styles that span gospel, folk ballad, honky-tonk, electropop, doo-wop, jazz and 19th-century broadsheet murder ballads.
Does this sound a bit like the effect of someone having downed one too many? As it turns out, Ghost Quartet traces its genesis to an evening when Malloy and three friends were “playing board games and drinking whiskey”, and decided that “making something together would be wicked fun….Basically, what we wanted to do was to take the narrative form of the rock concept album, with all of its vagary and weirdness, symbolism and surrealism, adrenaline and angst, and theatricalize it. So we call them ‘track numbers’ in live performance to reframe the narrative and encourage a looser frame of mind, and in homage to these great masterpieces made on vinyl.”
So a wiser approach would have been to take my questions to Guloien before the online search. “The four interwoven plotlines within Ghost Quartet can certainly be confusing,” she grants, “but if you’re able to let go of your desire to understand the plot on a cerebral level, you might allow yourself to experience it emotionally.” She elaborates that the show should have a “community feel to it, as if we’re all gathered around a campfire to tell ghost stories. We drink together, conjure spirits together, laugh together, grieve together.” Guloien laments how our country feels more polarized than ever, and offers Ghost Quartet as a corrective, suggesting as it does that “we are all connected, whether it be through our ancestors, our past lives or our current selves. It encourages us all to take an honest look at ourselves…to put down our cell phones /our resentments/ our regrets/ our feelings of jealousy, and open ourselves to the possibility of connection.”
To enact this ethos, director Marie Farsi has asked her cast to let go of the idea of “character” itself, and instead to bring their true selves to this piece. In Guloien’s estimation, this approach has yielded a “beautiful” opportunity to witness co-stars Hailey Gillis, Beau Dixon and Andrew Penner sharing intimate moments with the audience: “That’s the incredible thing about this show. While the songs/scenes weren’t written FOR US, they still apply to us in so many personal ways. The themes of love, death, depression, addiction and enlightenment are absolutely universal.”
Despite her vast experience, she confesses that Ghost Quartet represents an entirely new genre for her. Within its unfamiliar style, she has been challenged to “sing in new ways, play new instruments, and put her trust in a very unique way of storytelling”. And this despite the fact that Edmonton native Guloien’s musical and performance roots run deep. Her mother recently retired after a 50-year career as double bassist in the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra, and her father is a Juno-Award winning Jazz saxophonist & member of the Order of Canada. Guloien herself studied singing and dancing from her youth. After being selected as a top 12 finalist on CBC Television’s inaugural season of Triple Sensation, she decided to pursue a career in the performing arts. At the age of 17, she moved to Toronto to pursue an Honours BFA in Acting at Ryerson University. Within a year of graduating, Guloien was cast in Des McAnuff’s revival of The Who’s Tommy at The Stratford Festival. Since then, she has gone on to perform with several companies – including the role of Young Edie in Musical Stage Company’s production of Grey Gardens (for which she earned a Dora-Award nomination), and as part of the pre-Broadway cast of the Tony-Award winning musical Hadestown. She also made her Broadway debut in Doctor Zhivago at the age of 24.
This range of triple-threat roles stands is advantageous here, as her vocal parts in Ghost Quartet run from legit classical soprano to folk and blues all the way to pop-rock, with even a touch of traditional Balkan singing. “It’s been a really satisfying (and SCARY!) undertaking to jump back and forth between styles, all while trying to keep up with my cast of very accomplished musicians. Our brilliant Musical Director, Andrew Penner, has thrown some very inventive, unconventional instruments at me, and I’m having a blast jamming with the band.”
Beyond the music, Ghost Quartet’s mythic, supernatural premise has even helped to put Guloien in touch with the “magical, spiritual happenings in life that cannot be explained with science, reason or rationale”. She is not sure whether she believes in ghosts, but has started to feel like she is “perhaps being carried through life by the spirits of my ancestors, my lost loved ones, and my past selves (whether they be a person I used to be in another lifetime, or simply a younger version of myself). I find this to be a very comforting thought, and it has given me a lot of perspective about who I am.” She hopes that audiences will be open to similar insights, and may “leave our show with a deeper curiosity about the things we cannot always explain”.
Considering that the show is often referred to as a “haunted song cycle about love, death, and whiskey”, it has had one final, unexpected side-effect: “The show has also inspired me to start drinking Lagavulin.” But the journey, not the whiskey, should be the true source of excitement: “Dave Malloy has created something really special, and I urge you to come travel through time with us!”
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What: Ghost Quartet, music, lyrics, and text by Dave Malloy | Directed by Marie Farsi | Musical Direction by Andrew Penner | Set, lighting and costume design by Patrick Lavender | A Crow’s Theatre and Eclipse Theatre Company production
Performed by Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Kira Guloien, Andrew Penner
Who: Audiences 14 years of age and older
When: On stage until November 10, 2019; running time: 100 minutes (no intermission)
Where: Streetcar Crowsnest, Scotiabank Studio Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: crowstheatre.ca
© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / Sesayarts Magazine, 2019