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Powerhouse

nytheatre.com review by Emily Otto
August 15, 2009

Ever heard of Raymond Scott? Possibly. Ever heard his music? Almost certainly, I assure you. Scott's fast-paced, exuberant jazz novelties have been used in countless cartoons and sampled by numerous contemporary musicians. However, Scott cared little about fame or even the widespread use of his music. He was compelled to compose by a fascination with futuristic machines and an obsession with perfection. Sinking Ship Productions' Powerhouse, which tells the story of Scott's life and work, is an energetic, unique exploration of the space in between reality and an artist's imagination.

Powerhouse begins in the mid-1930s, when Scott formed the first Raymond Scott Quintette, and traces the timeline of his life through his increased success, three marriages, touring, the creation of numerous electronic music machines, a heart attack (one of many Scott suffered throughout his life), and his death in 1994. Thankfully, director Jon Levin cleverly sidesteps the pitfalls of dreary biopic chronology by inserting dance and movement pieces (set to Scott's compositions, naturally), snippets of songs, and most thrillingly, a variety of puppet sequences. The puppeteers frequently perform in Bunraku style, where each puppet is manipulated by multiple actors. The puppet characters are clearly inspired by Looney Tunes, but are wholly original, brought to even greater imaginative life by actor/puppeteer Eric Wright's voice characterizations. Carolyn Mraz's brilliant set design uses versatile rolling desks that seem to have a character of their own, serving different purposes in nearly every scene. Like a visual embodiment of Scott's music, all of these energetic elements bring a sense of constant, vibrant motion to the production.

Actor Erik Lochtefeld brings an appealing depth to the role of Raymond Scott. Certain about the exactitude of his musical imagination, yet unable to have patience for the uncertainties of personal relationships, Lochtefeld earns our sympathies even as his character alienates his first two wives and numerous colleagues in pursuit of his ultimate dream of perfect electronic music. We see his passion for the infinite possibilities of machines and somehow forgive his intolerance for human inconsistency. When Scott works on his music, time passes without notice, and Powerhouse uses that idea to the production's advantage with a lovely fluidity of time that will jump forward years in the middle of a single scene, but also freeze moments of music in an almost dreamlike state. The structure of the piece helps us to understand the nature of the man and his mind that refused to be bound by convention.

Throughout Scott's career, he faced a constant challenge of balancing precision with improvisation, exactness with chance, effort with ease. In Powerhouse, the Sinking Ship ensemble successfully straddles the line between the two extremes. The production moves unbelievably fast, and would almost certainly fall apart without absolute precision on the part of its actors. However, to watch their joyful, easy performances, you'd think they'd been running this difficult show for months. The company is—ahem—a well-oiled machine. Raymond Scott would have been proud. It's still early in the FringeNYC, but I'd put money on this show being one of the tightest, most entertaining productions you'll see in the festival. Don't miss it.