Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Needle that Sings in her Heart

photo by beth hommel

When you think of high school theater, what comes to mind? give it a minute. ok, now completely forget everything you thought you knew about high school theater. Everyone in the audience at Lexington High School last weekend undoubtedly left with a very different idea of what teenage actors are capable of.
The lovely and radiant Amanda Palmer, formerly of the Dresden Dolls and fresh of a triumphant solo tour, returned to her hometown recently to help create what was surely the heaviest, most intimate and ambitious production ever to grace the xeroxed playbills of Lexington High School. Palmer, a Lexington theater alum, approached her former drama teacher, evil genius Steven Bogart and 20 students with an idea and a copy of one seminal album and said, "let's make some drama, motherfuckers."
And hence, drama was made. The cast wrapped up their weekend long showing of "With The Needle That Sings in her Heart," a play based loosely on the spellbinding album "In The Aeroplane Over The Sea" by the mythic Neutral Milk Hotel and the Diary of Anne Frank. A risky and adventurous undertaking, the production explored the artistic process as a means of survival in the face of unspeakable, and often inevitable suffering.
Legend has it that NMH lead singer Jeff Mangum read Anne Frank's testimonial while living in a friends closet, brainstorming the follow up to his band's debut release "On Avery Island." After pouring over the painful account of a young girl's struggle through the Holocause, Mangum became obsessed. He saw specters of the girl in his closet/bedroom, and was haunted by visions of innocence lost in the face of tragedy. The album, like Mangum's mind, is scattered with ghosts and haunting melodies, and lyrics full of fear and fantasy, the perfect springboard for a piece of truly stunning theater.
The exceptional cast dug deep for their inspiration, researching not only the music, but the history to forge the emotional intensity the let loose on the packed auditorium. Death, truth, pain, art, music, family, loss, tragedy and imagination came seeping from the actors. Pure passion personified.
And Palmer, never one to stay quietly in the background, was equally powerful in her largely silent role as ringleader and maestro, emerging from a beautifully designed orchestra shadowbox at center stage to deliver a mood setting musical interlude or an overall sense of dread and foreboding with little more than a steady stare and a well timed gait.
But it was the children, yes, children, who made this show shine. To play Anne Frank in a borderline avant-garde production based on an obscure, indie rock album, is in itself a task to be applauded. But these kids not only acted their hearts out, they also wrote and produced the plot and the script from top to bottom through director Steven Bogart's communal writing process and emphasis on improvisation to discover the emotional meat of complex concepts and ideas. The result, i assure you, was breathtaking and tear-jerking.
The moral of the story, in this writers mind, was that even in the face of inevidable pain and suffering, the one tool, the only weapon we, as human beings have, is our imagination; our ability to be creative. Art as salvation, friends. And while it may not always be enough to overcome the horrors of life, it can offer a fleeting relief, a glimpse of hope in the darkest of hours.
For your viewing pleasure, the final persentation of "With The Needle That Sings in her Heart" staring Amanda Palmer and the Lexington High School drama department is available online at

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Steal Yer Lunch Money

Once upon a time, there was a place called high school. In that now blurred span of four years, it is my guess that many of you Cadaver Girls out there were rowdy, obnoxious, sassy teenage rock and roll machines...I know I was. So one fine day browsing through the rows at my local record store, I found a record that summed up my high school experience in 18 minutes. It was by a band from Palo Alto, California called The Electrocutes, and they were gonna steal my lunch money.
The four faces on the cover looked like a meaner, ruder version of me and my friends, but as soon as I pressed play I knew that these girls were exactly like me and my friends. With poignant lyrics about sabotaging the popular girls and mercilessly stomping on the heads of random rats and bunnies, I felt right at home with these speed metal misfits.
Admit it. there is a time in your life when you can look back and say, "damn, i was obnoxious," and laugh about it. Now, if you somehow had a bitchin' chick band that could wail, how much more obnoxious, and awesome would you have been? It's been many moons since i left the high school wasteland, but a few weeks ago, a few choice cords from "Daquiri Jacquerie" popped into my head, and I gave the old record a spin. It promptly kicked my ass and left me feeling like the little kids on the back cover of the cd case, pushed around in a back alley, shielding myself from the impending doom of a pair of stiletto heels and a hurling trash-can.
Aside from the swift beatdown The Electrocutes gave me upon my return, I took another listen to the words, and instead of being merely giddy with teenage mischief, I heard a feminist undercurrent rumbling in the background that a less thoughtful 16 year old easily missed.
When the girls shout "I can't be your porno! Porno!" I laughed, giggling at the mere mention of it, but now, years later, I sing along proudly. Not to over analyze the screaming of a 16 year old chick band, but the premise of the track "Eggnog" is so refreshing because it blatantly says what very few high school girls say. "You wait! Hey! You wait! I don't wanna wait!" Maybe I'm digging too deep here, but with a few deftly placed and defiantly screamed phrases, The Electrocutes twisted the teenage sex-logic with a fierce and playful aggression that made them far more real and accessible to my young mind that the hyper-charged gender politics of Bikini Kill and Bratmobile, my definition of feminism in my high school days.
I knew, to a point, that The Electrocutes were the meanest girls I'd ever heard on record, but they were also the girls i wanted to party with. They also happened to "evolve" into their more commonly known form as The Donnas, the somewhat tamer, more All American rock band mold. I loved the Donnas, but i was the girl at the show who would scream "Daquri Jacquerie!" to the dismay and confusion of the crowd. But The "Donnas" knew what i meant, even though they never played along.
In that one fleeting album, graciously released by Sympathy for the Record Industry in 1997, I, and my equally obnoxious punk rock friends, learned to revel in our bad attitudes and penchant for lightning fast rock and roll, because high school is the one place where you can get away with it. It's a land where, for the few who realize that the ground they walk on is meant to take a beating, we could stomp our feet and create an unholy racket, because no matter how much high school sucked, we had our headphones and our rock n roll, and that's all we will ever need.


Drag Me To Hell - Official Trailer HD