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A starchild searches for a home. A love-lorn woman seeks revenge on the lover (and sister) that wrong her. A father and son duke it out over the dinner table. The House of Usher mourns a kidnapped child. Scheherazade tells her sister one last story. And a traumatized witness to a horrific subway accident discovers that her association with the victim may date back more than a few lifetimes. Each of these stories, in Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet, exists somewhere between fact and invention, narrative and chaos. Characters blend into one another – whether they are their past or present or future selves is unclear – in one scene, we are in the late 1870’s, in another, we are on a crowded New York train. Sometimes the dialogue is cribbed from Poe, sometimes from 2001: A Space Odyssey; sometimes from everyday life (“why don’t you just fuck all your fucking books”, asks one spurned woman of her former lover, in a scene that logically should take place sometime in the 19th century). It doesn’t make a lick of sense.
And it doesn’t matter.
Ghost Quartet – perfectly situated in Sleep No More’s achingly atmosphere McKittrick Hotel – is an extended dream-scape, one whose emotional through-line is so consistent (and convincingly realized) that niceties of plot hardly seem to matter. The four actor-musician-singers who comprise Ghost Quartet – Malloy, Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, and Brent Arnold – are at once themselves and an infinite spectrum of others: telling a story that is, at its core, an elegy to those moments that haunt us, that make us children again.
Malloy’s often brusquely literal lyrics (in his earlier War and Peace adaptation, Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812, whole songs are taken verbatim from Tolstoy’s text) are here all the more affecting for their directness. “When I was a child I used to play/play with all the voices in my head,” goes the opening number. “Long long ago/that’s not me anymore/now I ride the subway every night/staring on the game on the phone/keep my head down/I’m all alone.” As those voices slowly come back to life in the wake of a great tragedy, our characters learn to re-discover themselves and one another.
Sure, we’re never quite sure who’s who. (“Are you my sister, my mother, or my lover?”, performer Brittain Ashford asks at one point of her co-star Gelsey Bell; at this point she’s been all three), but what could in lesser hands seem like a vague hand-waving away of internal inconsistencies becomes in Ghost Quartet a paean to the folk-tale: which changes every time it is told.
And, indeed, it is folk music (of the classic American variety) that underpins the haunting sound of Ghost Quartet. Malloy and his co-performers are unafraid of anarchy when it comes to their influences – some songs are hard rock, others are inspired by tango – but the production as a whole feels like an extended ballad: stories of love lost and found in which the facts constantly change, but the heart of the matter remains the same.
This is in part due to the stellar performances of Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell as Rose (usually) and Pearl (sometimes): the two sisters whose story underpins all other narratives. Ashford, whose show-stealing performance as the timid Sonya in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 I raved about back in 2013, sounds – in the best possible way – like she’s singing from the bottom of a sea of honey; her voice is at once lovely and perfectly eerie; she is perfectly complemented Gelsey’s unearthly soprano, which can range from beautifully operatic to – in one memorable sequence – downright wraithlike.
Yet many of the best parts of Ghost Quartet are impossible to write about without spoiling the surprise that makes them so fantastic. Although Ghost Quartet is largely performed as a concert, director Annie Tippe’s theatrical elements (involving lighting changes and audience participation) are so subtly, gracefully integrated into the production that, when they occur, they feel downright transformative: moments that harness the power not just of an extraordinary cast and crew, but of our own repressed memories, desires, childhood stories we have forgotten, and – perhaps – our own awakening ghosts.
Tara Isabella Burton
Tara Isabella Burton is the Arts Editor at Litro NY. You can find her writing at National Geographic, Al Jazeera America, The Atlantic, and more.