Captive audience

A hot-button indie-rock musical takes no prisoners.

BOUND AND DETERMINED Thureen, left, and Cheek sing for deliverance.

BOUND AND DETERMINED Thureen, left, and Cheek sing for deliverance. Photograph: Jeffrey Weiss

We all know that artists see things differently from the rest of us, but how many folks watch a grainy video of hooded captors shouting demands over a shuddering abductee and think, Ah! Romance! It turns out there are at least two: Clay McLeod Chapman and Kyle Jarrow. In their first collaboration, the rock musical Hostage Song, the playwright and lyricist-composer imagine a man and a woman—bound and blindfolded by an unnamed militia—who somehow manage to fall a little bit in love. At first blush, it may sound like an Eli Roth flick with jazz hands, but the result is a devastatingly poignant, strangely philosophical meditation on salvation that just happens to sport a sick downbeat.

The assembled talent for this production, crammed into the tiny Kraine Theater, is an experimental dream team. Jarrow is best known in these parts for his Obie-winning A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, and Chapman has garnered a fanatical following for the Pumpkin Pie Show, a nearly ten-year-old venture that features actors performing his delicate, literate monologues. Director Oliver Butler and two of Hostage’s stars, Paul Thureen and Hannah Bos, are with the up-and-coming Debate Society, and the Waterwell ensemble’s Hanna Cheek plays the female hostage. If they burst into “We Are the World,” you’d have the makings of a telethon.

“This is the closest thing that I’m going to come to a downtown supergroup,” Chapman agrees, gazing at his colleagues after a recent rehearsal. “This is where I most want to be…down here with the—what do you call those algae-sucking things that clean your fish tank?—the bottom-feeders.” A mewl of mock protest escapes from Butler, but Jarrow sort of concurs. “When we were discussing this over calamari a year ago, we knew we wanted to work on a piece that was on a small-enough scale,” the songwriter says. “Both Clay and I are involved in a lot of huge projects—Clay is writing the book for a Bruce Hornsby musical. But big projects, especially film, are beyond our control. We wanted to write something small enough that it would actually be produced.” After flirting with a Western premise (“You really wanted to write about cowboys,” Chapman marvels), they decided on a tale about hostages.

The intention was never to be overtly political. Butler, who seems to have helped prune and focus the work, warns: “Most people will assume these characters are in Iraq. But we never mention it. We don’t want to date it.” Jarrow jumps in, “Because we’re expecting to live off these royalties for years. Years!”

Chapman and Jarrow are interested in the power of fantasy, especially when used for comfort or escape. This helped answer the perennial question in tuners: Why are these people singing? Music blows open reality. According to Chapman, “In the songs, we’re seeing if these blindfolded people can create real worlds together in order to survive.” Still, Brigadoon this ain’t. Jarrow’s brother is in the Army; everyone on the creative team follows the news. “We wanted not a political piece, but one that at least engages the experience of people far removed from our lives,” Jarrow says. “You can’t put a couch in this one. Or a kitchen sink.”

A workshop version debuted at the Crown Point Festival last October, although the piece has changed considerably since. “At Crown Point, we were trying to fit into the enormous space at Abrons Arts Center, so all the songs were turned up to 11,” Chapman recalls. “It was basically a rock concert.” Jarrow, who describes the music as Arcade Fire with a lot of tambourines, adds: “The solution was just to rock really fucking hard. Which is a kind of solution, but not a dramaturgically elegant one.” Chapman nods. “Our dramaturg was our drummer,” he deadpans.

And now at the Kraine? Butler thinks the intimate venue has helped Hostage Song become more about the bond between two fragile people. Thureen and Cheek suggest a casual, almost breezy tenderness, which makes the viewer even more terrified. “The audience becomes sort of sadistic, because we want them to fall in love,” Butler observes. “But their deaths are straight up on the table. That’s how it is for every relationship—someone will die someday, and we all like to thumb the bruise of that reality. But in this situation, the audience is in the same position as the captors. We’re going to let them fall in love…and then we’ll kill them.” Isn’t that romantic?

Hostage Song is at the Kraine Theater through Apr 26, 2008.