A review of Rock Saber at the Magnetic Field

“Songs are so antiquarian,” laments Heyman, the frontman of the faux band The Old Gray Goose is Dead. The Magnetic Field’s deliciously disgusting Rock Saber, a “rock ‘n’ roll anti-musical,” features what is advertised as “possibly the worst band you’ll ever see,” devoted to shocking crowds with abuse of their instruments. In Rock Saber, Goose bandmates traverse between a venue creepily called “The Suppositorium” and their porn-den of a shared hovel. What ensues is 90 minutes of filth, sometimes outright hilarious, and sometimes too inane to process.

Rock Saber, written by Julian Vorus, has a colorful local history, and an earlier version enjoyed success at the Asheville Fringe Festival in 2009. This production, which the Field claims to be “slightly afraid to present,” tries its darndest to shock and horrify. Amid literally hundreds of oral-fecal jokes and a dash or two of misogynist gags, there are certainly moments that, as advertised and warned against, shock. The rest? A wash of cleverness, absurdity, confusion and a few instances of “wait, didn’t they just do that joke?”

What is truly striking and successful about this production is how excellently it fits the venue. Chall Gray, the Field’s owner and producer, knows this space down to his bones, and it shows. The play is at its funniest when it is about a crappy band with a captive audience, and the Field’s small stage suits such humor perfectly. Where other, more delicate Field shows (Ruth, for example, or even the slightly more loudmouthed The Labyrinth) during the company’s impressive and frenetic first year have suffered from the adjacent bar’s raucous noise, loud plumbing and the inevitable knocked-over beer glass, here it only amplifies an atmosphere of rough-edged defiance. Gray transforms directorial puzzles into ripe staging. I was particularly impressed by one instance in which the rather small area of the stage was stretched to accommodate representations of a bathroom, the adjoining rooms and a roof above it all. Praise is also due to scenic designer Annette Griffin for a simple and clever set to enable these seemingly effortless resolutions.

The ensemble is composed of Goose band members, their roommate Leeeeee (Ryan Madden/ Jason Williams), their sometimes-protector Big Paul (Darren Marshall), and their sometimes-bedmate Liddy (Lucia Del Vecchio). There are great performances across the board, but either the script or the direction has landed the bandmates indistinct. Steve Shell’s Kirk has a true musician’s M.O., and the vision to finally “strip away the performance art,” leave home and maybe even “make a rikkard.” His barked comebacks are highpoints for a while, but the delivery becomes repetitive. By the second act, his character merges with frontman Heyman (Julian Vorus) in their haphazard hunt for the “golden stag of art.” Erik Mollering’s strung-out bassist Thomas is a vegan with an unfortunate history of accepting drinks laced with crystal meth and a horrifying substance called “duck butter.” ]John Crutchfield’s Babe, the guitarist, exists as the sole point of contrast to the vortex of lewd spiraling at the center. His sensitivity is carefully played and directed — daintily whipping away an inflamed audience member with an audio cable, or prancing through firs in a video realization of somebody’s totally misguided fantasy. The proprietor of the Suppositorium, Max, is a satanic, awful antagonist for the brigade of inept, if well-intentioned, scumbags. Jim Julien’s begloved, cape-wearing Max is truly and originally horrifying — his performance is perhaps the most successful encapsulation of Rock Saber’s intent, and I look forward to seeing him develop such full characters in other roles.

Ryan Madden’s lighting is fitting — washes of acid green for Thomas’s drug trips, for example — save for one mishap that landed John Crutchfield perched on a toilet in the middle of someone else’s scene (which, given the rest of the material, seems like it should work, but it doesn’t). Ken Klehm’s sound design is good; I would have loved to hear more, and worse, music to amplify the many transitions between venue and bachelor pad.

Even though it is made infinitely clear that standard markers of a refined production are decidedly not the point of this one, it would not have been a compromise to have smoothed some rough edges. Sluggish cues undermine the otherwise funny gags that follow them; lines like “you completely fail to grasp that I’m a psychopath!” seem lazily heavy-handed, and weigh down comedy that is generally smart. As a piece, though, Gray and the ensemble have created something that, if not totally successful, is an exciting departure from some of the the Field’s previous work, and certainly from sleepier canonical work and tourist fare around town. That bravery, I think, is well worth the attempt. Recommended for cheap — but very loud — laughs.

Rock Saber runs Fridays and Saturdays through Nov. 19. All shows are at 10 p.m.

Rock Saber | By Julian Vorus | Directed by Chall Gray | With Julian Vorus, John Crutchfield, Erik Moellering, Steve Shell, Ryan Madden, Jason Williams, Jim Julien, Lucia Del Vecchio, Darren Marshall, and Chall Gray | Stage Managed by Lauren Alleman | Lighting: Ryan Madden | Scenic and Prop Design: Annette Griffin | Sound: Ken Klehm

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One thought on “A review of Rock Saber at the Magnetic Field

  1. Viking

    Hi Elizabeth,

    I wrote film criticisms at NC School of the Arts and can state undoubtably that your level of critical investment is truly massive. I mean to also say that you have real, definitive skill in evaluating what is artistic and what is less so.

    In the end, you compel the reader to go to the ‘Rock Saber’ and not question why. Thus, you are a great support to the artistic world; a kind of supportiveness which has to be part of the background mission of the conscientious art and/or music critic.

    Cheers

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