A ghostly soundscape greets you upon entering the Irish Arts Center: Old movie clips call for our attention against the distant tinkle of a carousel. Strains of Mahler weave in and out. It proves to be the perfect prelude for Camille O'Sullivan, the otherworldly singer and actress who engages our emotions better than any classic MGM film and who creates a symphonic experience with just three other musicians onstage.
This performance marks a return to the Irish Arts Center for the Eire-based performer, who played a sold-out run there in 2014. Her show is not quite a rock concert, nor is it entirely cabaret. With the dark theatrical sensibilities of Amanda Palmer and the steel vocal cords of Janis Joplin, O'Sullivan offers her audience a wholly unique experience.
She audaciously opens the show with the Nick Cave number "God Is in the House," a song about a seemingly perfect small town where, "We've bred all our kittens white/So you can see them in the night." It's a soothing lullaby and a nice way to ease us into O'Sullivan's intensity. "We can be gentle too, you know," she says, sounding very much like an Irish Tina Turner.
The mellow sweetness of this nice and easy first number contrasts highly with the neo-Weimar roughness of another song about the big man in the sky: Tom Waits' "God's Away on Business" (originally composed for the Robert Wilson adaptation of Woyzeck). "Wakey, wakey, New York!" she screams, ringing a schoolmarm's bell. O'Sullivan adopts a thick Scottish accent for this delightfully unhinged number, which feels uncomfortably timely: She sings, "Who are the ones that we kept in charge? Killers, thieves, and lawyers." Wearing a donkey mask hat, she reminds us of the prose-speaking truth-tellers in the best Shakespearean tragedies (think the porter in Macbeth or the gravediggers in Hamlet).
Part of O'Sullivan's charm is her propensity to act each song and commit wholly to her role. A tear glistens in her eye when singing Dillie Keane's "Look Mummy, No Hands." With muted Dutch inflections, she performs a rousing a cappella version of Jacques Brel's "Port of Amsterdam." Her rollicking rendition of Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right" is like witnessing a one-woman marching band.
Of course, she's not the only one up there. Pianist Feargal Murray wows us by tickling the ivories with his left hand while playing the trumpet with his right. This party trick is actually one of the ways O'Sullivan is able to offer a wall of sound with such a tiny band. Andrew Zinsmeister adds to it by switching between mandolin and electric guitar: His solos have a recording studio quality. Percussionist Dan Weiner holds the group together with a steady hand that never overpowers the vocals (excellent sound engineering from John Murray), not that this was ever a question for O'Sullivan.
We hear the full power of her voice during a thrillingly soulful rendition of Nina Simone's "I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl." Her version of David Rawlings and Gillian Welch's "Revelator" is also undeniably moving as O'Sullivan sends her voice soaring to the back row. Wearing a black glittering cape, she could go toe-to-toe with the greatest opera divas.
O'Sullivan's appearance seems to change with each number, especially as she lets down her hair from a severe bun. She pulls on a pair of red sparkling pumps for the fun and spunky Kirsty MacColl song, "In These Shoes." She wears a hat made of shards of mirror for her gorgeous interpretation of the Radiohead number "True Love Waits," the reflection from which beams light out at the audience. All the while, illuminated dresses hang from the rafters behind the band. A bunny lamp occupies a table downstage center. Incandescent lightbulbs hover over the audience, their twisted filaments glowing like so many lighters in an arena. O'Sullivan has a keen sense of the theatrical that is augmented by the sly work of production designer Mac Smith.
It is unsurprising that she wraps up her show with a tribute to one of her great heroes, the ever-theatrical David Bowie. Like Bowie, O'Sullivan is a singular artist, blending classic good taste, impeccable form, and fearlessness, all resulting in an unforgettable live experience. Catch her while she's still here.