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Off Broadway Reviews

Dust Can't Kill Me
at The New York Musical Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - August 6, 2016

Dust Can't Kill Me, by Abigail Carney (book) and Elliah Heifetz (book and lyrics), is, paradoxically, a good idea forced down the wrong path by its own flawless execution. For some reason (one suspects we're not supposed to ask why), we're at a bluegrass concert, where the six singer-instrumentalists are determined to put on a show about good and evil, sin and redemption, and getting lost and finding yourself, all within the parched Kansas of Dust Bowl–stricken 1936.

Their tale: Two men, Birch (Michael Castillejos) and Abraham (Adrian Blake Enscoe), are gay Catholic refugees from Ireland who are posing in the U.S. as brothers; the women, Lily (Kathryn Gallagher) and Angelina (Elizabeth A. Davis), killed Angelina's abusive husband and blamed it on the itinerant black man Everett (Richard Crandle). After running away to retain what freedom they can, and search for answers, the quintet follows the directions of a creepy, white-clad preacher (Paul Hinkes), who leads them to the "Tree of Life" in the desert—though, laden with poisoned peaches, it may be nothing more than an easy way for them to kill themselves. Which, the preacher argues, is salvation of a sort.

It's definitely conflict-rich content, but for a short, taut one act. Stretching it across more than two hours makes it painfully repetitive and obvious early and often; no one is allowed to progress, whatever that means for them, until they experience and either face down or succumb to their clarifying trial. It doesn't matter if the down-home songs are attractive (which they usually are) or emotionally astute (which is also the case, if far less often)—they come at you so relentlessly and so predictably, you can't appreciate or integrate them. It's all saying the same thing, over and over and over, in the form of a wall of sound (something that is not aided by the almost comical overamplification of both the singers and the acoustic instruments they play).

With the exception of Hinkes, who creates a dullish Preacher lacking any discernible fire-and-brimstone charisma, the cast members all do well at laying bare their characters' tortured souls. And the production, with direction by Srda Vasiljevic, musical direction by Max Gordon (also the sound designer), foot-stamping choreography by Jennifer Jancuska, and spot-on design (the makeshift platform-stage set is by Reid Thompson, the humble costumes are by Stephanie Levin, and the fine lights are by Oliver Watson), is lively enough to keep you engaged.

Not enough to keep you invested, however. Like the migrants who populate it, Dust Can't Kill Me is forever bound to move on to the next thing, and hopefully greener pastures; it's either unwilling or unable to just make the most of whatever territory on which it lands. Because of this, the show is ultimately as dry and unwelcoming as the Middle-American wasteland in which it's set.

Dust Can't Kill Me
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