City of Shadows
nytheatre.com review by Amber Gallery
August 21, 2012
When I read the synopsis of City of Shadows, described as a "song cycle" set to pictures, I thought I knew exactly what to expect. In many ways, I was right. In some (very important) ways, I had no idea what I was in for.
Award-winning Australian songwriter Rachel Dease was inspired by a book of photos. Here's the story (or should I say back-story): The Historic Houses Trust put out a book of police crime photos from the turn of the century. The negatives of these photographs were found by the Trust, miraculously unharmed, in a flooded warehouse in New South Wales, Australia. The photos range from ordinary street shots where the crimes may have occurred, to portraits of witnesses interviewed, to the gruesome dead bodies of victims.
What I was expecting was to be musing over the stories behind the photos, stories we'll never know since the photographs were not found with any police reports or paperwork. I expected to be fascinated by the clothes and scenery, by the sadness in the eyes of hardworking folks of a different era—people who lived in a tough city who may or may not have witnessed something horrible. All of this happened. The photos are positively captivating and a rich nourishment for the eyes and mind.
What I was not expecting was a meditative state that sometimes overtook me—the gorgeous, haunting and sometimes nerve-rattling music at times had a physical effect on me when paired with the photos. This is my favorite kind of small-scale theater—the kind that affects your emotions in a more physical way than a cry or a laugh, where your heart skips and the hairs on your neck stand up. There were moments of true compassion, where my CSI brain stopped trying to put the pieces of the crimes together and where I genuinely felt for my fellow human beings from a completely foreign place and time. In this way, I think Rachel Dease accomplished her mission.
From a technical standpoint, the four musicians were great, and Dease has a wonderful voice. The ensemble worked well together. I don't think I understood even 20% of her lyrics, though. It may have been a sound issue, but maybe not, since the lyrics are provided in the program. But the lyrics seemed beside the point since the music was so strong and your eyes won't be torn from the screen of photos to follow along anyway.
It was a courageous and right choice to keep herself and her musicians in the semi-darkness in order to highlight the photos. Unfortunately, the night I was there, one of them was not positioned correctly and was completely lit by the screen which was somewhat distracting from the effect. And it would have been nice to see them actually bow in the light and have their moment for the great work they did.
A show like this doesn't come along too often. I would highly recommend having the experience.