I have a confession: I was first introduced to folk music by the Catholic Church, which incorporated it into Mass in an effort to appeal to the young. I brought this prejudice with me as I sat through Reverie Productions' new play, Lay Me Down, a passionate, musical essay about folk music, art, and commerce. Lay Me Down soothed my bias with catchy, tuneful songs, reminding me that folk music is the province of soulful troubadours like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell, in addition to the longhaired cherubs banging on tambourines and singing three hundred year old hymns.
The story of Lay Me Down sprawls over 23 years, following the careers of a group of British folk singers who pine for success, and are eventually devoured by the commercial success they achieve. The tumultuous political and cultural landscape of the late '60s and early '70s has provided a dramatic backdrop to many plays and musicals about rock musicians; this sub-genre can be exciting, but often succumbs to clichés.
But the folk music course charted in Lay Me Down, though overly sentimental at times, tries to tread the path less taken by de-emphasizing conventional crash-and-burn plots. Instead, we are given David and Sarah Trumbell (played by Stephen Thriolle and Teresa Castracane), two lovers who are torn by their devotion to music, their lust for success, and the struggle with the sometime painful compromises needed to maintain both. This conflict is explored without the usual tabloid details.
Lay Me Down's tale of would-be stardom is almost reverent towards its subjects, especially David and Sarah, whose love affair with each other--and with performing--form the play's dramatic backbone. Another plot line involves a cult whose members are burnt-out victims of the recording industry and are deprived of pop culture: this original segue allows for a unique perspective on those years where rock musicians were the closest thing our society had to demi-gods.
For a shoestring, hand-to-mouth, Fringe-type show, Lay Me Down shows off with above-average production values. With flawless light design, apt slide projections indicating locations and moves, sliding scrims, and microphones that never screeched, the production raises the bar in terms of downtown theater. Fluidly directed by Alison Eve Zell, Lay Me Down features beguiling performances shrouded in wildly inconsistent English accents.
As David Trumbell, the heart and soul of the struggling musicians, Stephen Thriolle wears his handlebar moustache well, playing a sensitive, talented, hangdog singer/songwriter who grudgingly sells out . As his partner Sarah Golden, the charming Teresa Castracane conjures up images of a young, feisty Stockard Channing: her character is forced to play an unwilling Lady Macbeth-type, guiding and pressuring the ambitions of her more talented partner. As their first record producer Martin St. John, Ean Sheehy is a hoot, playing a foppish mod who chews a cigarette holder and acts as a de facto narrator. As the hipster-cum-guru Grif, James P. Engel plays the head of the cultural depravation cult that shelters the shattered egos of musicians whose dreams have been smashed.
Although presented as a musical, with a book by Eric Winick, music by Stephen Thirolle, and performed by Deep Sea Adventure, Lay Me Down is actually more of a play with music (think VH1 Behind the Music meets Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill). Winick's play is lean and uncluttered; he hits emotional points with precision, sincerity, and a dollop of humor. Thirolle's songs are wonderful, achieving the desired goose pimples at just the right moments. But at over two hours, the play does tend to drag in some places, and in others beg for another song to pick up the pace. It seems that director Zell, whose effortless staging is evident through most of the play, could not decide whether or not she wanted this to be a musical. The play's length would be more than palatable if buoyed by more numbers, or if some songs were allowed to be finished instead of cut short.
Lay Me Down is a love letter of sorts to artists who dwell in obscurity, and the play serves as a metaphor for those who labor in downtown theater--an endeavor that isn't usually profitable. Folk music was once derided as being not commercially viable, but many persevered and reaped the rewards. Lay Me Down suggests that the act of creating one's art is reward enough, and asks artists to perhaps reconsider their definition of success.