nytheatre.com review by Kat Chamberlain
April 5, 2008
Knowing the premise of Hostage Song—an indie rock musical about two American hostages—I came to the show fully braced for some hard-hitting treatment: the torture, the shouting accusations against American wrongs, and the attempt to "bring the reality home." It turned out that I didn't get any of them, but what I did get was much better. Steering well clear of sentimentality, the show is carried by Kyle Jarrow's impassioned music and lyrics, and Clay McLeod Chapman's superlatively nuanced stories and book.
Jennifer, a journalist, and Jim, a Pentagon contractor, are blindfolded and put in confinement together. An indeterminate time passes, and they seem settled—as much as the circumstances allow—into their predicament, to the point that they pass time by playing guessing games and joking around. They spend time alone too, sometimes literally, other times figuratively. Their reflections on their life before the capture introduce us to Jennifer's parents and Jim's wife and son. Their captors are only shown for brief moments dragging Jennifer or Jim in and out of the cell.
Intertwined with the story are songs sung by the two leads, the rest of the cast, and with the occasional chorus by a band of four: Kyle Jarrow, Drew St. Aubin, Paul Bates and Jonathan Sherrill. These four skilled musicians are positioned ingeniously behind three open panels, and pump out a thrilling live-rock-concert vibe. "Will you tell my father, mother, brother, sister that I'm sorry? Will you tell my wife that I love her, but don't wait for me?" The opening song forecasts what is to come, with tuneful and soulful, no-frills music.
As Jennifer and Jim get to know each other better, they form a fellowship that is tentative, sensitive, and warm. They play word games as they pretend to meet for the first time in a bar. The clichéd pick-up lines have never sounded funnier—or more poignantly human. They also cling to each other physically—at times they sing in each other's arms, and the image alone is heart-breaking. My favorite scene is their make-believe meeting as a pair with Jennifer's parents, after they have supposedly survived the crisis. The emotional force hits its peak as the comical renders huge laughter.
What sets this above many shows about or relating to war, is finding a fresh lens for our media-wary eyes to see through. Though the events might be familiar enough, the reactions and reflections of the protagonists and their loved ones are far from automatic or reactionary. When Jim gets a chance, in his dream, to apologize for not remembering well enough about his son, what he gets in return from the teen is, "Maybe you should've looked harder."
Structurally, Hostage Song is strikingly fluid and organic for its genre; whereas a lot of musicals seem patchy and forcedly linear, this piece finds its rhythm in revealing who these two people are, and their life stories. Director Oliver Butler arranges the stage and entire cast—the band included—with flawless logic and fine artistry, both musically and visually. I enjoyed the quiet performances and the rousing rock-and-roll equally, and with same excited anticipation.
The lead performances by Hanna Cheek and Paul Thureen are understated. They could have played up the extreme emotions forced out by the extreme situations, but by keeping it exquisitely and unexpectedly subtle, they greatly enhance the show's sense of realism. Most of the singing is thoroughly heartfelt, some even heavenly so. When the pair belts out, "I'm never going back, as long as you're by my side," the bond is final and complete.
Hannah Bos plays Jim's wife with sincerity and tenderness. Abe Goldfarb is a convincing son, with affecting humor and angst. Worth mentioning also is set designer Amanda Rehbein's stage divide, letting the transitions between reality and remembrance flow with an ease that typifies the rest of the show.
As impressed as I was, I would have loved to see a couple of more things delved into more deeply. First, what does this war mean to these two victims beyond their work? For me the idea of war feels like a vague shadow hovering somewhere above the show. Something needs to be said about how our protagonists feel about this war, even the unspecified or representative one depicted here, in order to give the play more grit and weight. And second, although these two fully fleshed-out characters walk us through an array of emotions—humor, sadness, regret, guilt, fear, resignation, camaraderie and love—there is no anger here. I find it curious that, desperate souls as they are, they do not once lash out at each other, at their captors, or even at themselves. I have to imagine that I probably would, in their shoes.
After all the rousing monologues and songs are said and sung, however, this is a tender and biting, quiet and deafening, exploration about the intimate connection between staying alive and staying human. The simple lyrics of the songs and their generally non-narrative-pushing content make it all feel like a lovely embrace of two genuine human beings, in their final hours together.