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Michael McQuilken's Jib: Or, the Child Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was

3 minute read
L to r: Leah Siegel as Jib, Joe Trombino as Gary, and Laura Gragtmans on keyboard. (Photo by Matthew Soltesz)
L to r: Leah Siegel as Jib, Joe Trombino as Gary, and Laura Gragtmans on keyboard. (Photo by Matthew Soltesz)

The new musical Jib: Or, The Child Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was, created by Michael McQuilken, co-produced by Brooklyn collectives Old Sound Room and the Windmill Factory. It’s billed as a "LIVING FILM+ROCK SHOW+GHOST PLAY" and opens with a concept that may have been lifted from Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, in which Mozart describes opera. He says, "A dramatic poet would have to put all those thoughts down one after another just to represent this second of time. The composer can put them all down at once and still make us hear each one of them. Astonishing device: a Vocal Quartet!"

All that glitters

In Jib, backdrop projection is split-screened into four parts behind four different scenes that coalesce into shared musical harmonies. It's a jumping-off point for several narratives told in vignettes that slowly reveal their points of intersection, as in a Neal Stephenson or William Gibson novel.

The show follows Jib (Leah Siegel), a young musician still dealing with the childhood loss of her father, as her rock-star career takes off and brings the expected trappings and pitfalls of fame. Meanwhile, self-proclaimed genius composer Ben (Daniel Reece) is feverishly working on his masterpiece before an unfortunate accident with a street sweeper, and journalist Marris (Laura Gragtmans) balances a hectic career with tending to her comatose daughter Angie (Jillian Taylor). The plot leaps forward and backward in time using immersive storytelling techniques, tracing Jib's decade in the music industry, and exploring metaphysical mysteries, as Angie and Ben find themselves able to exist in non-physical planes.

The best moments in the show are its songs. Unlike a traditional musical, nearly all the music is diegetic, with lyrics only indirectly related to the plot, but the show felt most at home when this music took center stage. Siegel, an accomplished indie rock musician in her own right, is mesmerizing and electrifying in the title role, and Jib's songs are even more emotionally captivating when her musical partner Gary (Joe Trombino) adds his gorgeous harmonies.

Flash and fog

The melodic and lyrical style of Amanda Palmer, who famously created the sketches that would become many of Jib's songs, is more than evident, so fans of her work (I am one) will be gratified. Brendan Titley gives a standout performance with convincing percussion chops as hapless mentally ill sanitation worker Kenneth, whose story dominates the second act. Jon Morris's turn as Kenneth's sleazy psychiatrist Barber provides some much-needed comic relief.

The production, designed by McQuilken along with Maruti Evans and Jon Morris, is packed with flashy theatrical features. Several mundane props are mimed while visible Foley artists provide skillful live amplified sound effects; mime, movement, and sound effects also play a large role in establishing the metaphysical elements of the show. Cameras occasionally project multiple angles of the action live onto the backdrop. The audience is pulled from its seats onto the set to experience Jib's exhilarating stadium rock concert (from experience, this segment feels highly accurate, and I was pleased that sound designers Nicholas Pope and Zach McKenna do not shy away from appropriate volume levels). Fog, beautiful lighting, and a set abstractly strewn with ripped paper define the second-act ambience.

Despite moments when script and action are protracted, perhaps as a result of the work’s devised nature, by show’s end the main plot and character interconnectivity is mostly made clear although I still have some unanswered questions.

Why were some props mimed or Foleyed and not others? Why were cameras and projections used in some scenes and not others? Who were the various unnamed clown-like characters that presented themselves to Ben on the metaphysical plane? Why is Ben's composition so special and helpful to Jib? And one other question, as a committed Philadelphian: why was this show, which was almost exclusively created, designed, and performed by Brooklynites, premiered here? Local talent was represented only by two singer-songwriters, Gracie Martin and Reverend TJ McGlinchey, who provided excellent pre-show solo performances as part of an "open mic" conceit. Whatever the answers to these questions, Jib is an engrossing piece of theater and an excellent excuse to hear some good indie rock music embedded in a narrative puzzle.

What, When, Where

Jib: Or, The Child Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was. Written and directed by Michael McQuilken. Music and Lyrics by Amanda Palmer, Jason Webley, The Few Moments, and Firehorse. Produced by the Windmill Factory and Old Sound Room. Through December 17, 2016, at Christ Church Neighborhood House, 20 N. American Street, Philadelphia. (215) 922-1695 or neighborhood-house.ticketleap.com/jib/.

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