Monday, August 24, 2015

Gag reflex: Musical comedy from a world untuned in Phoenix Theatre's "Silence! The Musical"

The queasiness at the heart of "The Silence of the Lambs," the much-laureled 1991 film starring
Bleat treat: The lambs raise their voices
Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster, gets dialed up beyond retching in "Silence! The Musical," a jolly interpretation of an imprisoned cannibal's rapport with an ambitious FBI agent in search of an even more heinous mass killer.

The Off-Broadway hit has been freshly interpreted by the Phoenix Theatre to end its 2014-15 season in the intimate basement confines of the Basile Stage. As seen Sunday at the end of its second weekend, the all-out musical thriller could hardly have been carried off with more gusto.

The cast pins our ears back and props our eyes open (like Alex's in "A Clockwork Orange") with its adroitness and fervor. This goes from the intrusive Lambs — generally grouped in buoyant and nimble choruses reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan — through the dogged law-enforcement crowd to the keenly portrayed, psychopathic blood brothers Hannibal Lecter (Paul David Nicely) and Buffalo Bill (Scot Greenwell).
Phoenix's Lecter never lacks focus.
The text that "Silence! The Musical" might be said to preach upon lies no further off than the opening speech of "Twelfth Night," which many readers of this blog will have seen at the beginning of the month in Heartland Actors' Repertory Theater's production. "If music be the food of love, play on," intones the self-involved Duke Orsino. "Give me excess of it, that surfeiting / The appetite may sicken and so die."

Music feeds the grossest kinds of love in "Silence!" Others must be sacrificed to the voracious, just as the lambs in Clarice's childhood memory had to be. Surfeiting may sicken the appetite of most of us, but not Lecter and Buffalo Bill. The show's creators — Hunter Bell (book) and Jon and Al Kaplan (songs) — have attempted to make excess a comfort food that's digestible only in discomfort, including laughter.

Buffalo Bill wants to be his own rough trade.
To present the show competently requires strong heads, hearts and stomachs, working in organic concert. Bryan Fonseca brings his usual flair to the directing job, smoothly assisted by choreographer Kenny Shepard. Musical director Jay Schwandt seemed flawless Sunday at the electric piano in the chameleon accompaniment.

Nothing detracted from the gut-wrenching funny business of giving offense. So I mean it as a compliment when I say "Silence!" is the most disgusting show I've ever seen at the Phoenix.

That is not to dismiss it.  What we call bad taste is no counterfeit coin. It maintains its value, for it helps us keep a purchase on our limits.  When bad taste comes from the right mint, you can bite it like a peasant trader without leaving tooth marks. If we prefer to invest in good taste, it makes sense, as with more tangible investments, to diversify somewhat. In one corner of our portfolio should be, for example, two of "Silence!"'s ickiest songs:  Buffalo Bill's fantasy of violent self-buggery and Hannibal Lecter's love song (reprised, even!) outlining an olfactory fantasy about Clarice.

The most fastidious American poet of the 20th century, Marianne Moore, notoriously dismembered one of her most quoted poems in her "definitive edition," offering readers a bleeding chunk of the much-anthologized "Poetry." More compact, the poem became more sententious: "I, too, dislike it. Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt of it, one discovers in / it, after all, a place for the genuine." That's the whole thing, all she wanted to say finally about poetry itself.

And it's close to my reaction to "Silence!" But I did discover in it, I must admit, a place for the genuine. In one of the excised lines of the full-length "Poetry," Miss Moore touted the genre's ability to "present for inspection imaginary gardens with real toads in them." This show certainly qualifies: The garden is luxuriant and well-tended, though the toads are damned ugly.

The collective gusto I praised above is a word derived from the Latin for "taste," which is rooted in an older word meaning "to choose." Though the word itself has a bad odor today, discrimination lies at the basis of taste. Nausea thus becomes one of the varieties of aesthetic experience. When Chelsey Stauffer's excellent Clarice was about to ralph a couple of times in the performance I saw, I was with her all the way — and even more often.

Another of the phrases Miss Moore removed from her original may be apt here in conclusion. Among the things "we do not admire (because) we do not understand," the poet points out, is "the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea."

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