by Ed Cohn
This was my first visit to Kitchen Theater, having moved to the area within the last year. I am always excited about a new (to me) theater space. Theaters are places of magic, where worlds are unfolded and exposed, bringing to life the imagination of playwrights, performers, directors, technicians, costumers, make-up artists, and all the other supporting roles behind the scenes. Anything is possible, even the impossible.
Death Boogie, written, composed and performed as a one man show by the veteran talent of Darian Dauchan brings to life on the stage what is, if not the impossible, certainly the unexpected and often amazing. And he does so with a tour de force performance of non-stop energy lasting over an hour.
The stage in this intimate black box theater is set minimally. Downstage on the floor we see an assortment of costumery and a row of “stomp boxes” – those electronic effects foot pedals used by performing musicians that can manipulate the sound of their instrument, in this case the human voice, in a myriad of ways. The stage is open. Flanking left and right in the rear corners are two musicians, double bassist Desmond Bratton, and violinist Matthew Silvera. On the rear wall of the stage hangs a large projection screen. That’s it.
A musical, compositional technique called “looping” is employed as a major element of the musical landscape. This technique is not new and has been in development in its current incarnation since the mid 1990s and has become a genre unto itself. The general idea is that a phrase, usually fairly short, is recorded in real time into the device and can be played back in a loop. Loops can be layered, one upon the other, and each loop can be altered in pitch, tone, ambiance and more while being edited in and out – all on the fly. One needs a technical mastery of the device to use it to its full extent, and Dauchan does an admirable job, setting the beat using vocal percussion (beat box) technique, then layering in sung and spoken elements, morphing them and affecting them, bringing them in and out to musical and dramatic effect, all the while accompanied by the bass fiddle and violin which accompany fairly non-stop throughout the course of the show. Dauchan raps and sometimes sings over this thick brew. It gets very – I couldn’t come up with a better word – intense! The tempo can be relentless, and Dauchon’s vocal dexterity is an assault on the senses. But in a good way! It’s no surprise that he has been crowned the 2007 Urbana Grand Slam Champion for the Bowery Poetry Club among other poetry slam competitions. And his singing, though not refined in this setting, is in tune, solid, and works well in this context.
But, thankfully, there is a good balance of the frenetic rapping with slower, calmer sections, bringing a diversity to the drama and flow that allows the audience to relax just enough until the next exciting onslaught.
The show is comprised of 24 scenes that segue from one to the next. The theme is a look at worrisome elements of our society and world from the perspective of the main character, Victor, who is caught on the treadmill of American life: waking, eating, working, eating, breaking, working, going home, “consuming”, watching TV, masturbating, sleeping, and then doing it all over again. Disturbing dreams are represented in a number of scenes, which deal with war, politics, family, racial issues, out of control law enforcement and more. Heavy subjects all, but Dauchan peppers the script with ironic humor, a wise choice, for without it the show would be bleak.
Dauchan’s lyrics, poetry, and script are deep and rich. The raps are at times so rapid-fire that they are difficult to keep up with. I would greatly enjoy reading the book for this show so as to fully appreciate it because I believe it’s masterful. What I did catch was a witty and eagle-eyed view of modern life delivered with musical precision and emotional intensity. Dauchan easily slipped from one distinct character to the next, donning single costume elements to elicit the essence of the characters, all with great physical energy. Under the direction of Jennifer McGrath, he used the stage fully, enhancing the drama.
The interactive projections featured the bold, monochromatic, comic book styled graphic artwork of David Ayllon. They were simple and effective, often synchronized with the music and dialog. I use the term “dialog” because at times Dauchan’s characters converse with prerecorded voices, all presumably done by Dauchan himself.
The show was musically diverse, employing elements of hip-hop, blues, jazz, and classical. Using string bass and violin was an interesting choice considering all the possibilities. The two instrumentalists played from memory, at times as accompaniment in the musical numbers, but also imparting incidental sections that directly reflected the text. Almost all of the accompaniment was austere, not resorting to flashiness or pyrotechnical flamboyance. Each player did have some spotlight moments, but they were minimal. Occasionally Dauchon’s character would interact directly with them, and they were an integral element of the show.
Little was left wanting. I was frustrated at times, however, with the sound quality, which was thin and not as clear as I would have hoped. And Dauchan’s choice of microphone could have been better both in quality and placement. There are many choices these days, and he opted for a headset model with a flexible “boom” that places the mic right near the mouth. It was white, taped to his face, and had a white wind screen on the end. To me this was visually distracting, and made worse when about halfway through the show his perspiration was causing the tape to detach. I feel that the sound is a very important element that needs as much care and attention as any other. A fix in this department would be well worth the expense.
Death Boogie is an experience well worth having. Even the all-white, mostly over-50 crowd apparently felt that way by expressing their satisfaction with a standing ovation. Dauchan is a force of nature, a quintuple threat as writer, composer, actor, singer and rapper. Maybe he can dance too! We will be hearing and seeing much more of this talented artist.
The Kitchen Theatre is located at 417 W. State/MLK, Jr Street. Phone 607-272-0570 or online tickets at www.KitchenTheatre.org. Death Boogie runs November 15 through December 4th with matinees on Sundays at 4pm and on Thursday November 27th at 2pm. Get thee to the Kitchen!