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The Sound of Despair, Played on a Door

Date: Feb 13, 2013


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The characters in Clive come and go abruptly, usually driven away by the toxic narcissism of the titular character, played with a peroxided snarl by star and director Ethan Hawke. But the doors through which Clive's compatriots, enemies, and conquests enter and exit are more than just portals in and out of Clive's drunken fiefdom; they also serve as unlikely instruments, sound sculptures designed by art world duo GAINES.

The most prominent of those sculptures looks like a deconstructed piano. The strings are pulled taut in front of the audience, and piano hammers lie against them waiting to be thwacked by an actor. Other doors serve as echo chambers, boasting bowls into which performers can murmur, croon, and shout. All of them serve to underscore this adaptation of Bertolt Brecht's first play Baal, written by Jonathan Marc Sherman and transplanted from 1920s Germany to 1990s Manhattan. Baal becomes Clive, a dissolute rock star who uses and destroys people with the casualness of a sociopath. As he begins to flail, the doors contribute an increasingly melancholy and haunting soundtrack to his self-destruction.

Brothers Latham and Shelby Gaines first collaborated with Hawke when the latter was directing The New Group's revival of Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind. For that production, the two musicians were on stage, but only their work shares the spotlight with Hawke this time around. "We had fun in our little cubbyhole of Lie of the Mind, Shelby Gaines says. "But when you're in the show you never see the show, so this was much different and very satisfying."

For the brothers, part of Clive's appeal was the chance to experience their work played by other people. The cast turns to the seven onstage doors and coaxes Americana songs from them---including "Aura Lee," "I Shall Not Be Moved," and, in a nod to the Brechtian origins and possibly a wink at The Doors, "Alabama Song"---a stark contrast to the skinny-pants-clad punk that Clive embodies.

"That was a massive part of the job, trying to get the actors to understand how the instruments work and getting them to play," says Latham Gaines. "But Ethan cast very musical people, and they were very keen, very interested to learn."

The idea of turning doors into instruments first struck the brothers over a year ago while they were in a group art show, and the idea also appealed to set designer Derek McLane. But the actual instruments and sounds were dictated not by GAINES but by the doors themselves.

"Our experience has been that we could never build the same thing twice," says Latham Gaines. "Whatever the wood is, the thickness, the history of the door, all these factors make it so we don't know what we're going to get. We love that aspect of it. They kinda do what they do, and that's just how they came out."

As for crafting the sound sculptures, the brothers start with junk. Really. "It changes depending on the project, but it's usually a process of finding a big pile of junk and then going through and finding something that speaks to us," Shelby Gaines says. "It's a visual thing to start with. And in the back of your mind you're looking at a structure [and thinking,] 'Would it be suitable to be strung? Does it have an acoustic quality as well?'"

The onstage results supply the soundtrack to a resolutely dark look at selfishness and sexual despair, filled with death and rape. Hearing and seeing music emanating from battered and weathered doors in real time adds a layer of authentic grime to the proceedings as they play out amidst a sea of booze and waves of regret. As Latham Gaines says, "Was it Edison who said you just need a pile of junk and some imagination to be an inventor?"


Mark Peikert is N.Y. Bureau Chief at Backstage Magazine

Photo by Monique Carboni