Ethan Lipton’s ‘The Outer Space’

Outer space, inner life

The Outer Space, an evening of songs and stories that recently completed a three-show run at the Kimmel Center’s SEI Innovation Studio, is an interstellar cabaret with a distressed marriage at its core.

Ethan Lipton on Earth. (Photo courtesy of the Kimmel Center)

Its musical stylings draw from folk, jazz, and klezmer strains, with strong lyrics delivered in a mesmerizing deadpan by playwright and lead singer Ethan Lipton. While there’s not much action in Leigh Silverman’s staging — it’s a concert after all — these tunes are charming, and Lipton and his orchestra sell them with aplomb.

The final frontier

There is little plot to link the tunes: a husband and wife decide to escape the pressures of modern life by leaving Earth and joining a Martian colony. She discovers she loves the relative calm and colony neighbors. He misses the hustle and bustle of the city and may be struggling his feelings for his spouse and a midlife crisis. It really is a story of suburban life with added space travel.  

Without a song list for this developing piece, I’ll share fragments of favorite bits of lyrics and dialogue I scribbled as the evening proceeded. One tune, a kind of cowboy cabaret, contains the smashing lyrics “he wants to get to all, not get away from it all,” capturing the husband’s challenge of living among the stars. “The big black beautiful all-ness of outer space” and “there is a rock and a hard place and in between I fly” and “space sadness, it turns out, is as common as dry skin” provide poetry and humor in equal measure.

The Outer Space blends two types of theatrical creations Lipton has developed over the past decade. He was part of the 2008 inaugural class of the Public Theater’s Emerging Writers Group playwriting community, with a playwriting voice that incorporates both prosaic situations and quirky characters, such as his 2012 work The Red-Handed Otter, a workplace drama involving overnight shift misfits. While developing his playwriting style, Lipton also crafted solo performances with a capella riffs that grew into jazzy lyric-focused tunes.

A long journey home

Lipton’s orchestra is now composed of three musicians whose music folds into the stories he writes. Vito Dieterle plays tenor sax, Ian Riggs plays stand-up bass, and Eban Levy plays guitar. This quartet combined song and playwriting in a 2011-2012 Joe’s Pub commission piece, No Place to Go, in which they told the story of a playwright with a day job as an information cruncher who moved to Mars.  

So, Lipton has visited outer space in his song cycles before. The Public and Joe’s Pub have been among his artistic homes for almost a decade, and multiple organizations have supported the incubation of this sweet new work in particular. Lipton began work on The Outer Space as a member of the Kimmel-Joe’s Pub Theater Residency Program in 2015, which pairs the two organizations to foster development and performance, and will support the show in an extended 2017 Joe’s Pub run.

Lipton, his orchestra, the marvelous Leigh Silverman (who has directed these staged concerts and his first full musical, Tumacho, staged by Clubbed Thumb this past summer), continue to make charming theater and music in Philadelphia and New York.

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