The Room Sings
Music and crisscrossing narratives tell a tale of murder at a country house in this unusual work at La MaMa.
Technically, The Room Sings is set in the American countryside. But really, it takes place in Experimental Theaterland, a realm where beaver puppets perform operas and an elderly Chinese man screams insults like "Crotch stink!" while ironing clothes. The titular room, as you might suspect, is not merely a room. It is the Room, a character who sings, dances, and wears a boater hat. This orgy of eclecticism, now running at La MaMa's Ellen Stewart Theatre, is the overwrought work of writer and director Paul Zimet.
For all its weirdness, The Room Sings has a discernible story. That story begins innocuously enough, at an American country house in 2015. Residents Sidney (Will Badgett) and his wife, Hope (Abigail Ramsey), are cleaning out their house because they want to sell it. Flash backward to 1987, when the previous inhabitants, brothers Al and Sal (Joe Roseto and Andrew Weems) are at the house for some R&R. Between hunting and cooking, they discuss an opera Al is writing about a fratricide that occurred on the premises. Flash backward again to 1958, when the house was purchased by Mr. Ma (Henry Yuk), a Chinese immigrant who got it for cheap because of the murder. Inevitably, the play backtracks to the scene (as it were) of the crime, which occurred in 1943.
The flashbacks aren't four discrete episodes, though. They interrupt each other, so one minute the audience is in 1958 and two minutes later in 2015. Sometimes the Room (a dapper Ellen Maddow) provides a musical interlude, often singing about her appearance. At her best, she's morbidly entertaining: "This brown spatter was once bright red. / What is now decoration / Splattered from an old man's head." Most of the time she's fetishistically descriptive, enumerating the items in a closet or the illustrations on her wallpaper. As for the human characters, their language alternates between banality ("Sal, I've been thinking." "Uh-oh...") and bizarreness ("Tongue slime!" "Turtle head!").
That most of the actors come off as real people in the midst of this wackiness is to their credit. The best performances, however, are those of the beaver puppets, who figure as characters in the opera Al is working on. Exquisitely crafted by Ralph Lee, these critters sing and, most adorably, dance in unison. They're even cute when rebuilding their dam with a human skull.
Also well executed are the video projections by Baxter Engle, which largely display the forested landscape surrounding the house. Tree leaves and sunlight shimmer on a screen extending along the back of the stage, which the audience sometimes views through a window in the house, seeing the outdoors as the characters themselves would. Kudos for this sleight of hand and eye go again to Engle, who constructed the set, and to Nic Ularu, the scenic designer.
The music, composed by Maddow, integrates less smoothly with the drama. Too many scenes have background music or sounds (such as kitchenware clanging) that make the dialogue difficult to hear, let alone follow. When you have a story with so many moving parts, any barrier to comprehension can become an iron curtain between the play and the people watching it.
So where does all the hurly-burly leave us? Imagine a work for the stage that has the trappings of something filmed by David Lynch — a grisly crime, old-timey music, sexual longing — minus the Nancy Drew-ish suspense with which Mulholland Drive and Twin Peaks are charged. That work might approximate The Room Sings, if anything can. Appealing as parts of the house that Zimet built are, at the end of the day, it's in need of some renovations.