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Sunday, November 3, 2013

Ghost Brothers of Darkland County - A Musical of Haunting and Hope

My wonderful wife surprised me last night with tickets to see Ghost Brothers of Darkland County – the musical written by Stephen King, John Mellancamp, and T-Bone Burnett.  Wow – oh- wow, do I love her!  Ghost Brothers combines all of my favorite things – Americana music, gothic horror, theater, and theological explorations. 

The music of the show is a variety of bluegrass, country, rock, gospel, and zydeco songs.  And though my wife (who has an aversion to music that veers towards ‘country / western’) was ‘nervous’ about the accordion, harmonica, and banjo listed in the program, she said that it was much better than she anticipated.  I loved it.  Seriously great tunes!  Especially the songs, That’s Me (sung by a devilish character known as The Shape), Home Again, and What Kind of Man am I?  The gospel number Tear This Cabin Down is powerful – and, along with Home Again – probably suitable for use in church on Sunday.

The play itself bears a striking resemblance to another of my favorite plays – J. B. -a play in verse by the poet,Archibald MacLeish.  J.B. is set in an abandoned circus tent, with has-been actors taking on the roles of God and Satan to tell the story of Job.  Instead of a circus tent however, Ghost Brothers is told through an old-time radio drama (complete with a sound effects crew standing by to create sound of breaking bones, doors slamming, tree frogs and etc…)

Photo from Ghost Brothers of Darkland County home page
An additional similarity to MacLeish’s play is found in the ‘supernatural’ characters representing good and evil, light and dark, God and Satan – They are The Zydeco Cowboy (light) and The Shape (dark).  In the production we saw they were played as a sort of dueling Hank Williams (Zydeco Cowboy) and Tom Waits (The Shape) – a point I liked very much.

Ghost Brothers of Darkland County is a story of brothers – resonating, most obviously, with the story of Cain and Able, but also with stories like John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and Thorton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth, with nods towards southern authors like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner.   But it’s also the story of a father and his sons, and a story about the past, and how the past is passed. It is gone. It cannot be changed. It’s a story about lies and truth that comes too late.  It’s a story about redemption (or the lack thereof) and, despite its ghost story trappings and murderous narrative, a story about hope and moving forward.

This is an odd duck in the world of musical theater – there are no big dance numbers, there’s no orchestra (just a four piece band, right on the stage).  It’s violent.  It’s rough, but also tender and haunting (and not just because of the ghosts…) 

Another point of interest for this geek– the father, Joe McCandless – was played by Bruce Greenwood (recognized by science fiction fans as Captain Christopher Pike in the two most recent Star Trek movies.)

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