Marla Mase’s “Miracles – Lost And Found A Rock And Roll Rumination,” At DCTV, Saturday, December 17th, 2017, Reviewed
Twenty minutes into Marla Mase’s rock and roll rumination “Miracles – Lost And Found,” at the DCTV on Lafayette Street last night, I reached the conclusion that Marla Mase was either a genius, or insane, or both. I’ve followed her career for some five years now and this year, 2017, was her most accomplished, starting with the October 2016 release of her splendid, and template for last night’s presentation, recording Miracles – Lost And Found, and ending with last nights uncategorizable performance, she has evolved into an eccentric and sublime artist, equal parts great and strange. Unfortunately, all her achievements feel scattered on the wind following the tragic passing of her daughter, Lael Summer, on July 26th, 2017, at the age of 24. But genius?
“Miracles” was buzzing along nicely, an introduction, a song, a set piece with her delightfully daffy Mom on film discussing Lifetime Movies as the answer to all life’s problems, another song, and then the entire program shakes itself loose from whatever confines you had it moored in, like the Enterprise hitting warp drive. Marla sits on a stool as the story of Schlomo, a fishmonger, who, when the prophet Mordechai (“great among the Jews, and accepted of the multitude of his brethren, seeking goodliness for his people, and speaking peace to all his seed”), returns as a talking fish to give Schlomo a mission from God to save the world. Schlomo is scared and bewildered and though this is the moment he has prepared for all his life, kills Mordechai. Martin Vidnovic as Schlomo, and Peter Appel as Mordechai, perform a terrifying in its intensity pas de deux, Appel sounds like an old world emissary from Yahweh, his voice shakes the room, and Vidnovic is the sound of all of us: his weakness leading to violence. This would have been powerful under any circumstances, but it is being performed in the middle of an end of the year party, right in front of us, among us. It is an indictment of us not unlike the old story of a Rabbi explaining to a student that God no longer speaks because we can’t kneel low enough to hear him. Mase tells us: we can’t deal with miracles even when they are handed to us on a fish platter. And as if to prove her correct, some members of the audience were handed slips of paper with “You have been chosen” written upon them -now, what will they do with it?
It was around about here, I decided Marla’s memory play “The Pill,” to be performed at La Mama early next year, was no accident. It was also when I decided that the flaws in “Miracles” run deep without distracting from its essential genius, where “The Pill” is Greek mythology, “Miracles” is Old Testament insurrection. “The Pill,” certainly enough of an achievement for any lifetime, is better in the same way Greek theology is superior to our tedious One God stuff.
Marla Mase decided to perform the theatrical cum musical cum spoken word as part of a private party she gave for friends and family. It is well beyond immersive, Marla performed it in a room where, as her son mentioned to me, he, at least, knew just about everybody. This worked both for and against her, it weakens the transmogrification when the entire audience is placing the story within the framework of who she is. That isn’t her attention, her attention is something iterated late in the evening, the performance is what we do with memories accumulated in a lifetime.
The evening started with folks milling around, eating from a lavish buffet, usual Christmas party stuff except everywhere I stood I was moved from. The reason being that the stage was a labyrinth that snaked around the tables and chairs, as choreographed (though it claims movement on the playbill) by Heather Benton, the actors and actresses are often in motion, exits and entrances through a stage door, sitting on stools, dancing, running, stabbing, shooting, stuffing their face with chocolate cake. Lisa Milinazzo directed the show, and she did one difficult thing, she got the actors to con their words, and she did another thing, perhaps not entirely built into the evening, helped by the background music she made the segues so effortless we forgot they didn’t entirely fit together. Milinazzo recently directed the world premiere of an adaption of John Fowles short(ish) story “The Collector”. Fowles was one of my favorite novelists of the second half of the 20th Century, and his mythic (not to mention Jungian) writing, affects everybody who works in fictional mythology. Similar to “The Pill,” Marla’s characters are both archetypes and flesh and blood and part of a landscape of the mind.
I haven’t mentioned the album, when I first heard it I thought it was excellent and now I think it is excellent and I still managed to underestimate it. The thing is, “Everybody Dies” and “A Gun” overpower the album without actually being the best songs. Both the early “Dreamland” and the penultimate “Always” are the best songs, they are beautiful and meaningful. “Dreamland” is a hard beat pop bubblegum, Marla sang it to her mother (“time has taken its toll…”), though directed at a potential lover. “I don’t have any answers that you want to hear,” she claims, but really this is all answers; the singalong “Always” is a benediction, it is the found in the lost and found. Tomas Doncker, who co-wrote the songs with Marla, keeps the True Groove All-Stars, a band known for letting loose, under a tight discipline because he has to be at service not just to his songs but also to Lisa Milanazzo’s skilful transitions. The band emerge as a protean East Coast Wrecking Crew, they should remake themselves as guns for hire, they can do anything.
Yes, the performers.The six performers play numerous roles, Sammy Spellman doubles as the stage manager. Ingrid Roumengas is the central woman, and she brings a well of sadness to the role of May, as a heroin addict whose infant daughter has died, she seems out of control in her love and her sorrow, deadening her pain before exploding in anger. The best moment from a purely theatrical standpoint is Ingrid with her love Angel, as played by Declan Maloney Drummond as a working class disaster. “Your daughter is dead,” May cries to her husband, “A part of me didn’t hear it…,” before a scream of “no,” filled with all the sadness and horror. In the background the intro to “56 Trees” begins to play. This segues into a fashion show and “56 Trees” and the transition is so seamless the entire show appears to be happening in a dreamstate. Roumengas and Drummond have real chemistry (they remind me of the white trash couple at the center of “I, Tonya” but with much less to work with) and it is outstanding. Meanwhile, Marla as an actress disappears into herself, is it Mase or isn’t it, and if it is, what does that mean? Is it spoken word or is it acting? The thin blue thread she hangs on to come to life? What is it?
Therein lies the central flaw here, what is “Miracles – Lost And Found”? It may be a new mutation on spoken word or a dry run for a musical that needs to be more of a piece. Can she tour it, rework it, leave it behind her as she now leaves this horrifying year? Is it a study of miracles? Surely not. A protoplasmic, prestigiously gifted, and yet unknowable sink into a deeply troubled psyche? It is most like a virtual reality game where you are let loose in Marla’s subconscious, a powerful self-awareness. The bride stripped bare as Marla s ends the story by telling us that she actually feels good. “My baby never had a chance,” Ingrid as May claims.The baby didn’t but we do stand a chance, that is the miracle: the truth comes down and we are chosen.