Come to think of it, scratch that, too. Accurate though the term “musical” may be — there is an eight-piece band (conducted with guts and brio by Dominick Amendum), there is choreography (by Chase Brock, easily erasing memories of his limp, MTV-drunk dances for Spider-Man), there are characters who sing about things happening within and around them — it captures only a fraction of what The Blue Flower is. “Art installation” comes closer, as the show is utterly dependent on a collection of films (also by the Bauers) constantly projected on one of two upstage screens that cheekily outline the universe, the players in it, and what they all endure over the course of six turbulent decades. This is where much, but not all, of the vital Verfremdungseffekt is centered, and the distribution device for many of the threads of narrative that will constitute the “plot.”
Another footnote is required here. The story exists primarily as a collage of images and impressions culled from the lives of four people as they witness a series of startling historical shifts that begins on the day of the 1889 death of Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, and ends nearly six decades later in New York. Max, Franz, and Hannah, are all artists — the first two with paper and paint, the third with her body and voice — and Maria is a scientist. Through revolutions, assassinations, roiling social change, and even two Great Wars, they attempt to maintain their friendships and feelings for each other, which are often as complex and wrenching to them as the portraits, performances, and discoveries that define their professional endeavors.
For that, credit the Bauers’ remarkable writing, so colorful, so rich in its characterizations, so cohesive in the interplay between the music, lyrics, dialogue, and the very atmosphere that surrounds it all. You get everything you can think of, and much that no one has conceived of before. “Wild Horse Dancing” is Max and Franz’s galloping, intoxicating tribute to artistic inspiration; Hannah presides over two pounding Dada riffs (“Puke” and “Pro Patria Mori”) that highlight the age’s performing underground; and Maria, in the wake of a crushing personal loss, sings “Eiffel Tower,” one of the most gorgeous theatre songs of the last decade (and perhaps further back still), and steeped in memory and emotion in a way that theatrical ballads are always supposed to be, yet rarely manage these days.
It all cohabits so consummately as a piece of writing that I would love to report that it’s just as impeccable onstage. Unfortunately, I can’t do that this time around. At both NYMF and the Prospect Theater Company, where The Blue Flower was performed in 2008, the production elements jelled in a way they don’t quite manage here. (The films, which to my eye have remained essentially unchanged since 2004, are exempt from this.) Beowulf Boritt’s set is distressingly drab, a clumsy-looking assemblage of wooden platforms and staircases; paired with Donald Holder’s almost comically bright lighting, there’s no way to plunge into the show’s dark realities enough to become immersed in them. They make things look more real than hyper-real — a crucial mistake.
More damaging still is the casting. Neither Marc Kudisch, as Max, nor Sebastian Arcelus, as Franz, does anything wrong, but they never do everything absolutely right. Kudisch is spectacular in the Maxperanto scenes, so soulful and committed that you don’t need to comprehend the words in order to understand every nuance, but when speaking in English he never achieves equivalent depth; Max is, in many ways, a victim of history, and Kudisch does not communicate that. Arcelus communicates almost nothing, coming across as completely shallow and bereft of spirit, even though Franz undergoes the quickest and most drastic changes of anyone. Worse, they kindle no spark of friendship together, and if you don’t believe their relationship everything else that occurs is mighty difficult to swallow.
In the previous incarnations of the show, that character (called then Fairy-Tale Man) was Hannah’s otherworldly counterpart, explaining (or at least tacitly justifying) the “why” behind everything she did. Meghan McGeary remains unparalleled as Hannah, driving through her role with the smoky, energetic intensity of Lotte Lenya in her heyday, but no longer fits as snugly into the action as do the other three. Her turns must be the centerpieces of the show and of the era itself, chronicling the myriad ways and reasons it spun out of control, and the forces that anchor us in an existence that’s now all but lost to memory and is destined to soon be lost to imagination as well. That they’re not is a devastating shame.
The saving grace is that The Blue Flower itself is so exquisitely crafted and realized, it survives all these problems even when it doesn’t thrive. But I remain convinced that the show can and will again. Its title is even an aptly chosen tribute to this notion, referencing the symbol for Novalis and other 18th- and 19th-century German romantic poets of the never-ending quest for artistic perfection, and which later signified the beginning and end of everything, eternal reincarnation the ultimate result. What the Bauers have wrought is capable of outlasting the first, and what will hopefully be the last, production incapable of showing this moving and magnificent work to its best possible advantage.
The Blue Flower