Arid, Extra Dry
"Awesome" and the Underdeveloped West
Seven members strong and equipped with permanent quotation marks, the band/theater collective "Awesome" has spent the past decade blurring the lines between music and theater while distinguishing itself in both fields. Onstage in a nightclub, "Awesome" plays like a goofily theatrical alterna-rock band with a gift for intricate vocal harmony. Onstage in a theater, "Awesome" plays like a performance troupe blessed with highly musical members. Most recently, "Awesome" set up shop at On the Boards, the esteemed (and Stranger Genius Award–winning) center for contemporary performance, which presented the premiere of West, an original music/theater performance "inspired by the journey of Lewis and Clark and the myths of westward expansion... about the places where the sun sets and an exploration of the people who followed it there."
I include this verbatim description from the OtB website because it answers the question that was clanging around in my head for the majority of the two and a half hours I spent looking at West: What the hell are they trying to communicate?
Themes of westward expansion are concretely addressed by the set—a collection of towering shipping crates made of clean new wood, assembled by designer (and Genius Award–winner) Jennifer Zeyl. The various members of "Awesome" wander among those crates, clad in old-timey workman's garb, occasionally playing music (much of it monochromatic, midtempo dirges) and acting out scenes of westward travel, which ranged from the telling of cryptic riddles to long, repetitive stretches of portentous posing. Director Matthew Richter has gathered the group's exertions into stage pictures and mixed flashes of rich brilliance throughout the crypticness (most notably, a glorious scene of "Awesome" encountering the night sky).
But between each moment of glory—a blast of wit from Basil Harris, the gorgeous voice of John Osebold—are endless stretches of nothing. Minutes crawl by as members of "Awesome" stand around looking dour, or slowly walk around looking dour, or stare dourly out at the audience. In the right hands, such physical minimalism can be explosively theatrical; executed by "Awesome," it looked like a bunch of guys not doing much, for a long time, portentously. The musical joy that has long characterized "Awesome" was nowhere to be found, replaced with a grim seriousness unconnected to a single concrete and communicable idea. Tiny consolation: The band looked as miserable as the audience. Onward.