The title of Theater J’s world premiere musical, David in Shadow and Light, refers to the process by which motion pictures work. As described in the show’s playbill: ”Film moves through a movie projector at 24 frames per second…. When the film is stopped, the image shines on the screen. Then, the light from the projector is blocked by a shutter for a fraction of a second…. We do not ‘see’ the temporary darkness.”
The David that we are seeing in shadow and light is the great biblical King David — known to even those whose formative years did not include Sunday school or temple as the young man who killed a giant armed only with a slingshot and a pocketful of stones.
The conceit devised by librettist Yehuda Hyman and composer Daniel Hoffman is that we, along with Adam (as in Adam and Eve) and the Angel Metatron (a character from Midrashic tradition who played a crucial role in the life of King David), are watching David’s life unfold as if it were a movie. It’s reality television Old Testament style.
Unfortunately, no one involved with the creation of this new musical took to heart the most important thing in the creation of a motion picture: editing.
David in Shadow and Light is an ungainly, unfocused sprawl of a show. Lacking focus and aesthetic coherence, it is a collection of ill-fitting elements that are individually not without promise. Bits of songs, like the lovely, simple prayer David (Matt Pearson) sings over his infant son Absalom, ache to take their place as major set pieces. But most simply wither from neglect as the stage becomes increasingly overcrowded and ideas begin to choke one another out.
Making the experience of the show more disappointing is the fact that it boasts a powerhouse cast that includes D.C. favorites Bobby Smith, Donna Migliaccio, Will Gartshore, Russell Sunday and Lawrence Redmond. The actors involved deserve great applause for standing as strongly as they manage to do with such soft footing beneath them.
They even gamely take on choreography by Peter DiMuro and Shula Strassfeld of the renowned Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. And again, there are individual moments that are absolutely beautiful.
In one pivotal scene Smith, playing King Saul, falls backward, his body seemingly held in defiance of gravity thanks only to Pearson’s hands beneath his head. It is a gorgeous piece of movement. But the stage at Theater J is not filled with modern dancers and the sharp angles and embracing rounds of the form evaporate and lose their meaning in untrained hands and without a firm reason for being there.
In writing there is a process called ”killing the darlings.” It means to step back, look at one’s work with a cold and unflinching detachment, and weed out all those clever phrases and lovely words you fell in love with when they hit the page. It’s a phrase that has a place when considering a work like this world premiere. The love and passion and enthusiasm that went into the creation of David in Shadow and Light are obvious. But there is too much clamor for it to come through. It’s a musical struggling to find its true voice.
You can stop wondering. Playwright Sheila Callaghan has figured out what these walls would say if they could talk. And it is not good.
Of course, she’s not necessarily speaking on behalf of your walls. You might be keeping a diligent eye on those spider web-like cracks inching their way across your plaster ceiling. The hinges on your kitchen cabinets might be well oiled. And your floorboards… well, mind the floorboards.
In Callaghan’s Crumble (Lay Me Down Justin Timberlake), now being performed by Catalyst Theater Company, the walls of the apartment (Jason Stiles) do talk, which is good because its occupants do not. At least, not to one another.
Pre-teen Janice (Casie Platt) and her widowed mother (Elizabeth H. Richards) live in a barely functional state of depression. Unable to find solace in the real world, mother and daughter instead seek comfort in the arms of imaginary men. This would be where Justin Timberlake (Eric Messner) enters the picture.
Crumble is a beautifully written play that manages to walk that fine line between the experimental and the accessible. Sad without seeking pity, funny without pandering, Callaghan’s is a refreshing talent. Her work has found its own nurturing and wonderful home with the folks at Catalyst Theater.
Kathleen Akerley plays Janice’s aunt Barbara, a woman who faces her own struggles by doling out advice with the smug certainty of Oprah Winfrey and the aggressive zeal of Suze Orman. As she so often does, Akerly gives a thoughtful and well measured performance.
Platt and Richards share a magnificent chemistry and the building tension between the two actors is well contrasted by the unrestrained energy of Stiles.
Come next season Catalyst will make the move from Capitol Hill Arts Workshop’s black box space to the Atlas Performing Arts Center. It will be exciting to hear what those new walls have to say.