Theater Review

You’ve never seen anything like this dark and disorienting production in Deep Ellum

You’ve never seen anything like this disorienting Deep Ellum show

Ghost Quartet
Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell in Ghost Quartet. Photo by Ryan Jensen, courtesy of AT&T Performing Arts Center

Dave Malloy's music isn't for everyone. The yowling, experimental sounds that emanate from the performers and their (often) obscure instruments aren't always meant to be pretty, and the lyrics can be so circular and dense that deciphering the plot is a fruitless endeavor. But, oh, when it's good, it's good.

Malloy made a splash a few years back with Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, an immersive pop-era retelling of War and Peace that played Off-Broadway and is readying for its Broadway premiere later this fall (with Josh Groban attached to star). Ghost Quartet came two years later, with a much smaller cast and an unknown story, but still with the same conceit of mixing the performers in with the audience.

I keep saying "performers" instead of "actors" because in Ghost Quartet, the cast is definitely multidisciplinary. Malloy himself is touring with the show, which AT&T Performing Arts Center has set up at Life in Deep Ellum for four performances only.

He's on keyboard, percussion, and ukulele, while Brent Arnold tackles a truly impressive cello, guitar, erhu, and dulcimer. Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell, Natasha alums who are also tapped for Broadway, play various harps, the accordion, percussion, and metallophone. This is the entire original cast, something that's quite unusual for a tour.

It's also a treat for Dallas audiences, as it's clear this foursome is attuned to each other and at ease with Malloy's style. That ranges from crooning to screeching, wistful snippets of dialogue to shouted recitations.

The songs, identified by their side and track number on the album, tell a circular story about many kinds of death. Suicide, murder, death from grief — they're all here, strung together with inspiration from myriad sources, including Arabian Nights, Edgar Allan Poe, Thelonius Monk, David Bowie, The Twilight Zone, and Stephen Sondheim, to name only a few. Director Annie Tippe keeps the pace brisk, allowing the more abstract moments to wash over in a pleasant haze.

With lighting from Christopher Bowser that's both eerie and festive (one portion of the show is performed in total darkness) and hypnotic sound design from Malloy, it's easy to fall under the spell of these storytellers. They'll make sure you're involved, too, by sometimes handing off their instruments to audience members and, at one point, producing bottles of whiskey and bourbon to be passed around and shared.

You may leave Ghost Quartet not knowing what exactly you just experienced, but the free booze helps make sure you had a good time.

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Ghost Quartet plays at Life in Deep Ellum through April 9.