An Uplifting (and Brief) Private Concert
The Tragedy of Icarus – Bryant Lake Bowl
“It might be too late to dedicate a song to you.”
The Tragedy of Icarus landed on my Top 20 list this year on the strength of the premise. Try as I might I couldn’t get any additional information to make me a little more sure of my decision to see it. Still, I figured that a show mixing original songs and text, as a tribute to a lost brother who died too young, was bound to be at the very least heartfelt on the part of the performer, and could likely be moving for the audience as well. Good thing I trusted my instincts. The Tragedy of Icarus was exactly what I expected, which is to say that it was quite good.
The Tragedy of Icarus is short, just barely over a half hour long, but the time is very full. Often, you get the feeling that the play is teetering on edge of being just a bit too raw. The performer, Joshua Caleb Larson, takes on several personas, but one is clearly a stand-in for himself. During those sequences channeling his onstage alter ego, when he cries out to his brother in song, you almost feel like you shouldn’t be watching. It’s not out of control, but it’s just barely in control. When I experienced a moment like this in another recent production, I likened it to “emotional porn.” The Tragedy of Icarus flirts with that boundary line but doesn’t cross it. It’s partly that potential that the actor might completely lose it in front of you which makes it so compelling. It’s mildly unsettling, but it keeps you from getting too comfortable, and thus keeps you engaged, which is a good thing. It’s that live wire running between an actor and audience that you can’t get anywhere else, with the voltage turned up very high.
“I didn’t want to figure it out. I would rather remain in doubt.”
If the whole show were only that one character, the production might be in trouble. After all, there’s only so much of that a performer can handle, and only so much of it an audience can take. Wisely, Joshua Caleb Larson slides into the skins of several other musicians quite unlike himself – a country crooner, an old-school British rocker, and a folk singer. The folk singer, clearly a stand-in for Bob Dylan – raspy voice, harmonica and all, cranks out a song about Hamlet, “Hard Times Down In Denmark,” which is a lot of fun (probably even more fun for fans of Shakespeare, but the ditty itself is quite enjoyable without the dramaturgy homework). A young man, a little mad, dying young, ties right into the theme for the evening. The British rocker – probably a reclusive Beatle – talks, as did the Dylan character, about his troubled relationship with his audience. It’s hard to reach out and try something new, when the audience is more comfortable keeping you in the same place. We don’t get a song from the Brit, he’s on an artistic hiatus.
“Is this one of those existential plays that don’t make any sense?”
The country singer gives us the most direct insight into the performer’s fallen brother, Derek Larson, and even that’s a bit sparse. Now matter how easily you fall into conversation with someone, how well can you know the stranger who comes to paint your house. And the dead brother himself, in the guise of Icarus, can’t be of much more help. The brother’s death was unexpected, and didn’t provide a lot of answers for the family left behind. The play isn’t about solving the mystery so much as it’s about coming to terms with not knowing. Larson is a reserved presence onstage, but then so are all his characters, so it’s a good fit.
“I got older, you got younger. Life is short of breath.”
The songs are all well-crafted and entertaining. Larson’s voice is strong and easy to listen to, plus he funnels it into the different characters he plays with ease. When he dips down inside the music, Larson lights up a little, even though the wall is still there. Productions like this can run the risk of going overboard, of sharing too much and thus becoming muddied in a welter of unrelated details. Larson is treading more lightly here. It’s probably a two-fold thing – he seems like a private person, and he really doesn’t know what happened to his brother so he refuses to create a legend out of fragments that may be unreliable. This likely accounts for the brevity of the show. The program note states that in developing the piece, the performer came to the realization that how his brother died wasn’t as important as how he lived.
“You died before the sun could change your mind.”
Right now, The Tragedy of Icarus is a bit chained down by the reality that spawned it. Given Larson’s ability to juggle multiple characters and sing as well as speak in their voices, it would be a shame if it didn’t go further. Taking the whole thing one more fictional step away from the real brother might set loose all sorts of things. The universality of loss of a loved one, and the way music can bond widely different people seems like rich territory to continue exploring. It needn’t lose its mystery. After all, there’s always something about each of us that remains unknowable, even by those who love us best. The Tragedy of Icarus is powerful now, but just imagine…
4 stars, Highly Recommended
NEXT PERFORMANCE – Friday 8/13 at 8:30pm
(Final Performance – Saturday 8/14 at 10pm)
Fringe show #26 – Monday, 8/9 10pm