“I’ve got 1001 stories. Every one of them is a lie.”
With abstract lyricism and a warm boozy glow, composer Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet is a small musical charmer. A cast of four sings and performs this folksy song cycle invoking ghost stories, fairy tales, and tall tales in a casual bar setting.
After a sold out run at the Bushwick Starr, the show is being re-staged at The Heath restaurant which is within the McKittrick Hotel complex (home of Punchdrunk’s long-running Sleep No More). During the winter, the rooftop bar, Gallow Green, has been transformed into a rustic cabin in the woods called The Lodge complete with an actual pine forest, cozy bunk beds, and a “boat house” where you can climb into a fur-lined canoe. It’s worth starting your evening at The Lodge with some liquid courage to face the ghosts or to decompress there after the show ends.
With the smell of bourbon, the wooden ceiling beams, and the musical tonality of some indeterminate place and time in the past, Ghost Quartet adds up to a musical and stylistic piece of time travel. It seems closest in spirit to live radio drama or it was as if I’d stumbled upon a 1930’s campfire where ghost stories and folk songs were shared to pass the time on a long winter’s night; it’s vivid and mystical storytelling set to song. With references to Edgar Allan Poe, Grimm’s fairy tales, and Scheherazade, the song-stories involve sisters fighting over a lover, a child obsessed with a ghost, a subway pusher and victim, and the stars in the sky.
The Ghost Quartet itself is all around you. Brent Arnold and Dave Malloy are nestled with their array of instruments in the midst of the audience which is seated on wooden chairs, pillows and banquettes. On a small stage, Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell sing and perform and sometimes step from the stage to perform on the carpeted central area. At times the instruments are passed around the room for the audience to play. Bottles of liquor are also shared with the audience during the booze-driven “Four Friends” (“ahhh Lagavulin, you lovely lady of the lochs”). This all adds to the collective campfire feeling.
It’s non-linear and it feels less like it is meant to make narrative sense but more to be atmospherically complimentary—ruminations on themes rather than direct narrative connections. Each song is announced as a side and track of the album, giving a break between each to reframe the next, but there is overlapping language, lyrics, and ideas—bears, souls, stars, ghosts, and booze are sung about repeatedly. The lyrics move fluidly between literal and metaphorical discussions as we revisit certain characters and scenarios.
Musically, the songs range from the gorgeously wistful (“Hero”) to the amusing (“Any Kind of Dead Person”) to the folk traditional (“The Wind & Rain”). Malloy has written most of the music and lyrics but a few tracks take from Poe and one traditional folk song. Although I found it at times meandering, the creative puzzle of overlapping themes and stories was smart and intriguing. As we neared the end, I thought it had run on a bit long but then some of the strongest moments came late in the show. The ensemble is buoyant and melancholy as the songs call for, though they are far stronger as musicians than actors (and I was bothered by Ashford’s diction from time to time). Director Anne Tippe keeps the action moving but at times I wished it had been a little more visually engaging. Still, it’s unlike anything I’ve seen and it generates atmosphere to spare.