nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 11, 2012
The Peripherals, The Talking Band's new musical/rock concert/performance art work, written and composed by company co-founder Ellen Maddow, is a celebration of the impulse to make art on your own terms, an exploration of an eclectic mix of forms and ideas, and a dizzyingly satisfying showcase of the astoundingly varied talents of its seven onstage performers. It is a delightful good time, more rewarding and nourishing than pretty much any mainstream music theatre event I've seen in quite some time—proof, if it's needed, that the work being done on the periphery of NYC's theatre world is almost always the most interesting and stimulating.
The 90-minute show takes the shape of an impromptu music performance in what the production's blurb describes as a "subterranean" venue (the basement space of Dixon Place); it feels, as it starts, almost like a makeshift jam session as several improbable characters—the band, backup singers, and, what, roadies?—start to set up mic stands, bring out instruments, and wire the place for sound, their evident competence tinged with an air of conspiracy, as if there's a chance that the management of this establishment doesn't actually know they're doing this.
They occasionally acknowledge us in the audience, watching them, and somehow it doesn't feel self-conscious.
A young woman named Phyllis arrives, a replacement, she explains, for Ursula, who got into a bad fight. The band's front man, Sluice, turns up on stage without his pants on (he's sent backstage by Luscious, whose take-charge manner and common-sensical groundedness suggests that she's more or less the one who manages things for this group). Finally, Suzy Q, the band's songwriter and presumed founder and raison d'etre, arrives, apparently reluctant to actually perform. But she does, anyway...
And what follows is a remarkable, rollicking journey through a variety of songs and styles and occasional stories that introduce us to this band, The Peripherals, and their obvious passion to pursue whatever jazzes them at any particular moment. The songs are funny and touching and cover lots of ground: ecology, birds, police harassment, bureaucrats, spinach, lost keys. The persistent theme throughout is engaging with the universe on one's own terms— following your star—not in some idealized abstract way, but rather in the raw, heartfelt, scrappy way that makes art for its own sake interesting and valid.
Maddow stars as Suzy Q, singing, dancing, haranguing, and playing a passel of often unusual musical instruments. Talking Band co-founder Paul Zimet takes the other leading role of Sluice, similarly performing with ease and energy, partaking of various snacks in between. With these longtime collaborators at its center, The Peripherals honors the bounty of partnership, mutual respect, and love.
But this is no star vehicle: everyone on stage has moments to shine, and demonstrate their prodigious talent. Kim Gambino (Luscious) and Kamala Sankaram (Phyllis) have powerhouse voices and stage presence to spare; Sankaram (whose band Bombay Rickey performed the pre-show the night I was in attendance) also wields an impressive accordion. Viva DeConcini plays a mean electric guitar, and teams with Sankaram for a fun, rousing duet. Michael Evans is the one-man percussion section, and the extravagantly coiffed Sam Kulik performs on trombone, saxophone, and keyboards with equal facility. (Kulik's part of the upcoming show AtlantASS, at Incubator Arts in June.) Andrew Guay and Jesse Morberger complete the onstage cast as the "Bitter Midwives," who serve as stagehands/assistants, clad in striking, mostly black costumes (by Olivera Gajic).
Videos by Sue Rees, David Dawkins, and Ruthie Marantz provide a visceral, fluid backdrop to the proceedings; Rees also designed the utilitarian set, with lighting by Alan C. Edwards and sound by Tim Schellenbaum. The musical arrangements, uncredited, are mightily impressive. The whole show is realized by director Ken Rus Schmoll with a canny mix of casualness and precision that suits the guerrilla temperament of the event without ever feeling precious or meta.
The Peripherals is so good that I wish it would stay on at Dixon Place much longer than its scheduled three weeks. But the ethos of the show actually pushes against that wish: this, like all of the Talking Band's great work (and by extension the great work of all indie theater artists) is meant to be ephemeral and, literally, for now: wherever these artists' fancies and obsessions take them will manifest in something new and different on stage soon, and we need only follow them to that next remarkable place.