Here’s a subjective question for you: Do you prefer your art to be fully understandable or more abstract? Would you rather gaze at a Norman Rockwell or a Jackson Pollock? Some artistic works invite us to wrap our minds around them and others bypass our heads all together and pull directly on our heartstrings. I love the musician Bon Iver even though I can’t understand 99% of his lyrics. I like this for the same reason I love putting on dramatic French art songs when I’m cleaning: some music, or poems, or dances can convey their meaning without needing clear words. On the other side, I love long winded folk songs and clever poems where clear structure arrives at a focused message.
I offer this musing not just as philosophical exercise but as the crux of the matter in appreciating Theatre Elision’s production of Sea Cabinet. The Sea Cabinet is an album of 13 songs released in 2012 by British singer-songwriter Gwyneth Herbert. The tracks are loosely connected in their perspective of a single protagonist and in their subject matter of maritime whimsy. I stumbled upon this album shortly after it came out and I’ve loved it for seven years. I always thought of it as a ‘concept album’ (in the same vein as Hadestown) but in truth it’s always been a ‘cast album’. Apparently when the music was composed (circa 2011) it was part of a theatrical staging from the beginning. This work lives a double life; as just audio in the album and also as a live stage show. So what little box of ‘genre’ shall we put it into? It’s a bit of a tricky biscuit and only seems to make sense under the category of ‘song cycle’.
A fairly unique ‘genre’, the song cycle intentionally rides the middle ground between clarity and obfuscation. In Theatre Elision’s staging of Sea Cabinet there is a clear protagonist, a woman who lives on the English coast and has her reasons for being a bit of a recluse. At the same time, the protagonist defies definition in that the single character is simultaneously portrayed by 4 different actors. Emily Dussault, Vanessa Gamble, Bex Gaunt, and Christine Wade are all the main character. They all dress similarly, they all inhabit the same persona and they all give us hints as to who this single character is. I LOVED THIS!
Seeing one character shared among 4 bodies was surreal and magical in all the best ways! Hearing each of these songs sung by 1 character who can harmonize and accompany herself was wondrous! In comparison to the album, this made perfect sense. The recording studio tricks of overdubbing vocal harmonies were done live by the 4 talented women while maintaining the narrative of a solitary character. As I was sitting in the audience and realizing what was happening, I was slowly filled with more and more delight! Having already loved the recorded album, it was dreamlike to hear it come to life. I can only imagine it was similar to a Harry Potter fan seeing the first movie in theaters after they’d read the books.
Each of the four women brought different strengths which yielded a wildly complex protagonist. Christine Wade gave us the first impression of the character as being meditative and fascinating. Bex Gaunt’s musical virtuosity and unflinching confidence offered a character who was not young nor naïve. Vanessa Gamble’s emotional complexity continued this portrayal by showing a character who knows all the joys and sorrows of life without flinching away from either. Emily Dussault’s portrayal was calm and steady in a way that almost defies description. Watching her sing (especially in moments of a cappella vocal harmony) is so tranquil and compelling that it feels like the entire culmination of the piece. This captivating presentation of whimsical songs pulled me in so completely that (for those moments) nothing else mattered. All questions of what a ‘song cycle’ is and isn’t didn’t matter: a song cycle is a device that transports the audience into a world where you can get hypnotized by one character split among four souls singing songs of how life is so terrible and so wonderful and how she wouldn’t change a bit of it if she could.
For many magical moments, I loved everything about this piece. In other less-magical moments I was distracted by a few things. In the spoken dialogue (by Heidi James), our protagonist is increasingly closed-off and aloof. Though she has four bodies to occupy, all of the narration uses the 3rd person pronoun of “she” rather than ever speaking in the first person. This sometimes left me with a feeling that the writing was impersonal and never quite arriving at the emotional openness it promised. Staging wise, the dramatic rules of our four protagonists weren’t always clear. A theme of the show is that our protagonist lost her betrothed to the sea, yet some of the actors wore a wedding ring and some didn’t. Being a specific plot point, this inconsistency left me distracted. Also, the four women playing the one character mostly ignore each other (as the theatrical surrealism would demand) but sometimes they interact with each other as though four roommates. Perhaps this could make dramaturgical sense but it felt more accidental than intentional. Lastly, for such a musically-focused show I felt the sound design left something to be desired. In many moments, the on-stage singers (playing a plethora of real instruments) and the off-stage band sounded perfectly balanced. In many other moments, my ears had to ‘squint’ to hear what they wanted to hear.
On the whole, I LOVE that this show exists. I LOVE that Theatre Elision found this brilliant work and gave it its American debut. I LOVE that I live in the city where this happens and I LOVE that the Southern Theater looks like the inside of a haunted castle. Go see this show. Maybe listen to the album ahead of time or listen to it after you get home. Calibrate your expectation between where you would for a great concert and for a great play. Be ready to absorb it like a poem, or a dance piece, or a lovely dream.