Death in Wisconsin

January 31, 2008

The “folk opera” Wisconsin Death Trip, now playing at the Gonda Theater, is based on a book/art piece consisting of archival photographs from Wisconsin in 1890, framed by newspaper reports, asylum records and other “primary sources.” Apparently, 1890s Wisconsin was a terrible place to be, and people suffered a rash of suicides, murders, insanity and general mayhem. The play sort of frames this story with the perspective of a Reagan-era drifter, a possible heir to the misery of the American Midwest.

Dead baby jokes: there are too many we could make here.
Lynn Kirshbaum

You now know as much about the plot of this show as I do, and I saw it. More about sustaining a tone than creating a story, the play doesn’t really “go” anywhere. What narrative exists is propelled by the use of projected archival photographs from the book, as well as bits and pieces of text and film clips. The actors with their white faces and eye makeup, look like a cross between zombies and animated mannequins, and sing and pose around the stage representing various townspeople, whose personal tragedies—child murderers, suicides, arson—are identified, if not developed. The songs borrow from several influences and styles to construct a shifting tonal landscape, with a few catchy tunes. The ingenious set—all trees and darkness—provides a perfect backdrop for the images, and the effect is eerie and evocative, but that’s about all you get.

As in most musicals, the songs don’t add much to the plot. Wisconsin Death Trip, which is almost all songs, has plenty of emotion, grimacing faces and soaring tones—but no people.

Several of the incidents that happened in the town of Black River Falls are mentioned, in passing, but only two characters are developed, and even these—a washed-up opera singer and a mother who smashes windows—are explored more in terms of mood than specific stories. It’s unclear what happens to most characters, or even who they are—most remain nameless and interchangeable, “townspeople” or “ensemble.” Matt MacNelly’s (COL ’10) charismatic snake-oil salesman, for instance, gets a few energetic scenes, and then is left on stage, part of the set instead of a character. The songs work best when they describe specific situations—“It was a small town, you got married or you left”—as opposed to the grandiose themes of the American frontier.

The singing is beautiful and the acting is quality, but astounding technical direction doesn’t give you much to sink your teeth into. And the cleverest set design still can’t come close to the power of the images themselves, haunted people in black and white, creepy landscapes and strange shadows.

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