Mixing a dark, classical baritone voice with pop music harmonies and irreverent lyrical asides, Joseph Keckler’s song cycle, Train With No Midnight, creates its own theatrical beast immediately and distinctly.
Having its world premiere in the 2019 PROTOTYPE festival, the performance I saw began at 9:30pm in the basement of the HERE Arts Center. There were black cloths on the tables where we sat and the instruments, microphones, and some sculptural animalesque co-stars were all shrouded in sheer fabric as if they had not been uncovered for ages. A healthy dose of haze and dim lighting also pervaded the space. It all contributed to the mood Keckler establishes, that of an out-of-body-and-time train ride across the terrain of his mind.
The songs often concern failed relationships, most notably in a song about a cute pet-name given to Keckler by a lover who moved across the country and then gave a similar pet-name to someone else. Keckler’s parents and roommates also show up at various points, painting a self-portrait of the artist and giving us enough backstory to connect to his tales. In the stunning final sequence, Keckler recounts an illness that prevented him from taking a scheduled flight to New York before New Year’s Eve. When he was feeling better, he purchased an Amtrak ticket that would carry him home as the ball dropped. On board, nothing was happening – the train sped east across time zones, and they’d jumped from 11:30pm to 12:30am with no midnight countdown to be had. Thus, the show’s title.
Keckler’s songs all exist in the space between earnestness and satire, bouncing from confessions of heartbreak to wry observations about his own choices. His rich, deep voice brings a resounding sense of weight to the melodies. Composing for his own voice, Keckler emphasizes his statements with long sustained notes and punctuates them with comical juxtapositions of tone and pitch. Backed by Matthew Dean Marsh on the elegiac piano, Michael Hanf on the heartbeat percussion, and Lavinia Pavlish on the rapturous violin, the musical texture of the instrumentation recalls Sam Smith and Rufus Wainwright mixed with Lorde and maybe Adele. This is all slyly subverted by Keckler’s operatic vocal style, turning the bop into an art song.
As the seventy-five minutes transpired, Keckler drew us in, but maintained a mysterious distance; his patter was arch and rehearsed, not the kind off-the-cuff dialogue meant to resemble conversational speech. Keckler’s style is fully performative, from entrance to exit, and though he isn’t exactly unfriendly, it’s clear he’s not on stage to make friends. So many cabaret artists act like we’re all one happy family, like we’re at a party in their living room. Keckler isn’t worried about your finding comfort, he’s only there to tell you what he wants to tell you, to ask rhetorical questions, and to look somewhere above and past you, never in the eye. The effect is jarring – in the most fascinating way. It’s not that he didn’t want us there, but it’s like he was performing in a mirror, self-examining while fifty people watched. If you’re going to talk about yourself, why not say it directly to your face?