Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Sea Cabinet has a slender thread of a narrative, with its book by British writer Heidi James, whose novels ("So the Doves," "The Mesmerist's Daughter," "Carbon") lean toward dark and ephemeral subject matter. In Sea Cabinet, a woman's beloved, perhaps fiancé, left to pursue his calling upon the rough seas and never returns. The woman wanders the craggy coast collecting and cataloging various items that wash ashore. These vary from the expectedsea shells, bottle caps and fragments of fishing netsto such treasures as an automobile steering wheel, a bit of amber, and a shattered violin held together by its strings. Through the cataloging of these items, the woman revisits her former happiness and her grief.
The songs also give an account of the role the sea has played on the British character, whose civilization was built upon constantly casting off to seek bounty in some form, and which led to lives fraught with uncertainty, making joys and pleasures all the more precious. The score, mainly by singer-songwriter Gwyneth Herbert, with Fiona Bevan co-composing "I Hear the Bells" and "The Kings Shilling," are gorgeous, with melodies conveying emotional arcs that match their lyrics, in tones ranging from mournful to ecstatic. The melodies bring to mind the songs of Sara Bareilles, but with a greater leaning toward folk and away from pop music.
The piece is performed by four singer-actors, with voices that can whisper a line or give it a full-throated holler in equally lovely tones. Each of these fourEmily Dussault, Vanessa Gamble, Bex Gaunt and Christine Wadehave a distinct persona on stage, and they switch off taking lead in the songssometimes paired togetherwith none dominating over the others. When they sing together, their harmonies add vivid coloration to the essence of each song. Their four differing hair colorsblack, brown, blonde and redand similar simple shift dresses in ivory, periwinkle, lilac, and plum shades create a sense of sisterhood of diverse moods.
Along with their beautiful voices, these four singers play a multitude of instruments that are set about the stageviolin, guitar, piano, all manner of percussion from maracas to old-style washboard, accordion, and good old pucker-your-lips whistling. Just off stage are other talented musicians providing backing bass, drums and piano, with the mellow tones of a clarinet added in just the right places.
So much for Theatre Elision's interest in story and music. The visual art component of Sea Cabinet is in the form photography by St. Paul-based artist Jessica Holleque, black and white images of non-distinct women standing where the land meets the sea, some close-up shots, some wide-range vistas, curated to match each scene of the cycle. Alternating with the photos are videos of surf rushing in to shore and retreating again, capturing the constantly changing plane of the sea. The photos and the video footage are projected across the rear wall of the Southern's performance space, creating a continuous shifting environment for the songs and the stories they tell.
Director Lindsay Fitzgerald keeps the 75-minute long program moving with fluidity, unrushed but seamless in transitions from on scene to the next. Sea Cabinet establishes hold over the audience from the first notes, the hummed "Sea Theme" that opens the show, and never lets attention flag. That is a measure of success in any performance, even more so in one with such a quiet and tender presence.
Theatre Elision has acquired its own performance space in west suburban Crystal, and announced a 2019-2020 season that will include such highly regarded intimate musicals as Ghost Quartet, First Lady Suite and Annie and Will. Based on the sensitive treatment of the material in Sea Cabinet and the artistry with which it is performed, I eagerly look forward to seeing more of their work over the coming months and years.
Sea Cabinet, through June 9, 2019, by Theatre Elision at Southern Theater, 1420 Washington Avenue S., Minneapolis MN. For performance schedule and tickets, visit www.southerntheater.org. For information on Theatre Elision go to www.elisionproductions.com.
Music: Gwyneth Herbert and Fiona Bevan; Book: Heidi James; Director: Lindsay Fitzgerald; Music Director: Harrison Wade; Vocal Director: Christine Wade: Photography: Jessica Holleque; Video: Cindy Polich; Stage Manager: Megan Gooden; Technical Director: Jake Otto
Cast: Emily Dussault, Vanessa Gamble, Bex Gaunt, Christine Wade. Musicians: Spencer Becker (bass), Lars Johnson (drums), Eric Schee (drums), Harrison Wade (piano, clarinet, accordion).