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 www.partyontheinternet.com

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