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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - August 27, 2016

Kaitlyn Moise and Andy Dispensa
Photo by Taylor Wobbler

It's a bleak, bleak, bleak, bleak world that Celeste Makoff has conjured up in Crashlight, a highly ambitious if bumpily executed work about an Orwellian society in which millions of people are literally kept in darkness for all but three minutes a day.

The show, at the Cherry Lane Theatre, incorporates plaintive songs by Ms. Makoff, who is also responsible for the book and direction; elements of ballet choreographed by Kaitlyn Moise; and 1984-inspired film projections by Aaron Duffy. The films, aired to all of the residents, provide a bit of edgy satire to the portrait of this dystopian universe through fairly outlandish public service announcements extolling the virtues of the primary food sources of potatoes, mushrooms, and rhubarb.

Many of these announcements also serve the purpose of rhapsodizing over the gloriousness of Supreme Leader Marcus (played with a nice balance of public charisma and personal cruelty by Andy Dispensa), as well as to send out calls for the populace to be ever vigilant against "illegal musicians." Music that is not under Marcus's direct control is deemed to be subversive. As a consequence, he keeps close tabs on his only trusted musician, Anthony (Caleb Schaaf), who is charged with writing anthems to the leader's greatness. Right now, Anthony is working on an opera to commemorate Marcus's fifteenth anniversary as dictator.

Anthony neither likes Marcus nor the way he runs things, but he feels he has no other option available to him. And, admittedly, he does prefer to live the far more privileged life available to those who are part of the inner circle in the sun-filled Upper Country. But then he meets up with Rian (Lindsay Danielle Gitter).

Rian and her two sisters eke out a living by making and selling violins out of their humble home in the Lower Country, where Marcus has found a way to block the sunlight for almost the entire 24-hour cycle. Rian has come upon copies of some of Anthony's music, and when he shows up to retrieve it, she ends up going back with him to the Upper Country. Together they cook up a scheme to use the performance of the new opera to expose Marcus and foment an uprising.

In creating the show, Ms. Makoff has said she was inspired "by the stories of North Korean defectors," and certainly Marcus reminds us of that country's leader, Kim Jong-un. There is also a compelling mythic quality to the way the central story unfolds simply and slowly over the two-hour production, with the songs providing much of the exposition. The key performances by Mr. Schaaf, Ms. Gitter, and Mr. Dispensa help to carry everything along in a fable-like way. But there also are a lot of extraneous plot turns, and too much of the production is overwrought, distracting, and confusing, demanding a great deal of our attention in order to follow the storyline. Crashlight is in need of both trimming and clarification, and perhaps reshaping into a shorter sung-through musical or opera. There is certainly enough there to make it worth the continued effort.

Through September 11
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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