Curiosity Killed

26. February, 2010 Theater No comments

Show #22: The Gilded, the Curiouser Group, February 21.

Ivan Hardin, Jonathan Reisfeld, Jamie Cunanan, Alexis Wong and Lisa Auchterlone are The Gilded.

Ivan Hardin, Jonathan Reisfeld, Jamie Cunanan, Alexis Wong and Lisa Auchterlonie are The Gilded. Photo by Cheryl Mazak

The first show at San Francisco’s Thick House since founding company Thick Description cleared out, The Gilded is a new musical written, composed and directed by Reynaldi Lolong and presented by the Curiouser Group (which may or may not exist outside of presenting The Gilded). Lolong’s program notes say it’s “nearly eight years in the making,” which really makes you think about how much effort goes into making a musical, and what a shame it seems when it just seems like a bad idea.

The Gilded is set in the fictional city of Commodore in what’s described in promotional materials as a “steampunk-inspired world,” embodied by a cluttered old abandoned warehouse in Tanya Orellana’s set. At the very beginning a traveling theatrical troupe walks in and their leader Elyse says, “It’s perfect!” just like Kenneth Branagh in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which to me isn’t the most hopeful sign.  The troupe is called the Gilded, and they’re living in an unspecified storybook monarchy at war with somebody or other, perhaps with itself, and they put on shaggy-dog fantasy plays of knights and wizards and princesses, in which the characters they play bear the players’ names: Vincent becomes brave Sir Vincent, et cetera. The most intriguing part of the show is Adam Lee Brodner’s curious costumes: patchwork finery in deconstructed quasi-Victorian style—a poofy skirt made of trash bags, for example, or the wire skeleton of a fine ladies’ hat.

Lushly orchestrated by Robby Greenwood for piano, violin and cello, Lolong’s music isn’t bad at all, and strongly sung by the cast throughout.  I say that right off the bat because that’s the good news.  The rest of it, not so good.  His script is clunky, the plot meandering and overly familiar, the lyrics prosaic and uninspired, and the staging unpolished. “There’s nothing greater than art,” the Gilded sing, “and since the world needs art, the world needs us.” They sing songs about yearning for more or having “The Grandest Adventure,” but it all boils down to flat, generic statements set to music. About halfway through the first act I found myself counting down the remaining songs until intermission.

The actors are engaging enough to keep things entertaining for the most part. Alexis P. Wong makes a credible, cultured leader as Elyse, with great poise and mannered quasi-British enunciation, but she needs to project more, particularly when she takes on a cool air of command and her voice gets really, really quiet. Ivan Hardin is a pleasant but subdued wallflower as her right-hand man Arden, who seems like he’s supposed to be her boyfriend but they have no chemistry together. He seems much more like a brother or a trusted chum than a lover. Jonathan Reisfeld sulks amusingly as malcontent leading man Vincent, with pointy hipster sideburns that kept reminding me of Starburns from the sitcom Community.  Jamie Cunanan is particularly charming as childlike, naive Clea who takes the pretty princess she plays on stage way too seriously, and Lisa Auchterlonie is also appealing as Marta, who just wants things how they used to be before Elyse came along. There are a lot of references to a former troupe member who left, but nothing ever comes of it.

Ben Euphrat is Tobias, a callow soldier who doesn’t really want to be there and seems to be a soldier in name only, who luckily has no duties to attend to and can just hang out with thespians all day. Molly Gazay is a brassy presence as his only friend, bar owner Kelsey, who half the time doesn’t even seem to like him much. Most double as assorted townsfolk, especially Jesus Martinez Jr. as the crown prince and various soldiers who may or may not be the same guy.

The story has something to do with a lost princess, government crackdowns on something or everything, and living for art and dreaming of doing anything other than what you’re doing right now.  It’s lively enough at first, but it doesn’t seem to go anywhere but circles and circles toward an incoherent resolution. Someone decides to leave, then dramatically comes back but is really leaving like he said in the first place. Everyone decides they have to move on to another town, but then it turns out that they’re not all going the same way the guy who went ahead to make preparations is going, and for some incomprehensible reason he’s all on his own now—or something like that. It’s really hard to tell. Our fearless leader decides to do something, then has to be convinced to do the thing she’s decided to do, then hangs around for a few more scenes not doing that thing she’s repeatedly decided to do. The ending is so drawn out and anticlimactic that the sparse Sunday afternoon crowd of a dozen (down from 16 in the first act) couldn’t tell the play was over until the curtain call was already underway.

I’d like to say that it just needs work, but really what it needs is a complete rewrite, and it’s hard to see what in the story is worth the effort.  It could be a lot worse—the lyrics, for example, scan just fine and aren’t terribly garbled or anything, and lord knows I couldn’t say the same of some musicals I’ve seen. The problem is just that they’re bland and repetitive and overly obvious. People express what they’re looking for by singing, “I know what I’m looking for,” even thought they know no such thing. Maybe somebody might find this stuff inspiring, but I just don’t see what there is to care about here.

It’s also curious that after the initial box office business was done, no one seemed to be minding the offstage affairs of the house—no one to open the doors, no one in the lobby.  It was like the two and a half hours that preceded it felt—empty.

The Gilded runs through March 7 at Thick House, 1695 18th St., San Francisco.

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