Ghost Rings: Theater review by Helen Shaw
It’s a little surprising to show up at New York Live Arts for a Half Straddle show to find you've come to a concert. Weren't we signed up for another wicked comedy by the author of In the Pony Palace/Football? Then again, the company's director-playwright Tina Satter has headed in this direction for a while—warning us, if we've been listening. Satter (Ancient Lives, Nurses in New England) specializes in reminding us of the awkward, you-never-grow-out-of-it sensation that rages in every breast from middle school on, and her plays often have music in them, whether as recitals (Family) or rehearsals (House of Dance). Now, for her pop-song cycle Ghost Rings, Satter trims away the scenic component. It's angst, unfiltered.
Satter and company have made a kind of concert album with no album—songs with inter-song personal revelations delivered by the writer herself.The bulk of Ghost Rings is eight full-throated pop-rock duets for two best friends (Erin Markey and Kristen Sieh) who yearn for each other, bicker about sports (“It was a zone defense.” “No, it was a 3-2!”) and use puppet “spirit animals”—Markey's is a seal, Sieh's a bubble-wrap deer—to ask each other hard questions about masturbation. They're fiercely attracted, but too dorky or cool (which are, in this aesthetic, interchangeable) to quite say it.
So Satter's surreal lyrics are an avalanche of sexual metaphors. “This key's for a fur hand...” sings Markey, as she holds the mic close and jerks her woodgrain jegging-clad hips. It's so hot, Sieh gets pregnant. (Congratulations! It's a bear.)
Chris Giarmo and Markey composed the (often tremendous) songs, and Giarmo, his face painted kabuki white, bops along behind his keyboard. Satter plays too. After an endearingly lame bit of step-touch dancing, Satter announces that she's learning to play drums and flees behind the kit. From behind the snares, the playwright speaks the show's other narrative, interjecting commentary about her sister and the band they formed as children, then hinting at her disappearance. Satter palpably shrinks from performing, yet Sieh (flirtatious, husky, emo) and Markey (brassy as ten marching bands) have the time of their lives. Thus, on one stage we have both real fear and feminine swagger—two emotions we rarely see together. And these feelings are the show: the piece doesn't move forward; it shudders back and forth between them.
Ghost Rings is an odd piece to review, because while ithas thrills, I wouldn't recommend it for the Half Straddle newbie. As with other pop spectacles, a certain amount of preexisting hero-worship comes in handy, and a room packed with fans makes for a very different show than one full of nonplussed subscribers. These artists certainly deserve rabid groupies: Giarmo, Sieh and the astounding Markey are downtown superstars. But while everyone's performing their faces off, and it's fascinating to see Satter's entry in a promising new genre (viz. Young Jean Lee's We're Gonna Die and Markey's own A Ride on the Irish Cream), the show as performed at NYLA is difficult to surrender to. Satter is trying to do something more complicated and personal than this brief set can accommodate, and after an hour, we're left with a partial gesture. But you keep feeling that it's an exciting partial gesture. So may the band play on.—Helen Shaw
New York Live Arts (Off-Off Broadway). Written and directed by Tina Satter. Music by Chris Giarmo and Erin Markey. With Markey, Satter, Giarmo and Kristen Sieh. Running time: 1hr 10mins. No intermission.