CPT’s haunting ‘Red Ash Mosaic’ takes a deep dive into poetic theater
By Bob Abelman
“Indelible and idiosyncratic.”
“A wide array of styles from vast corners of the globe, often intermingled together in ingenious ways.”
“A seamless fusion of the familiar and the exotic.”
“An expression of beauty, strength and endurance, despite the grim subject matter.”
These are quotes from reviews of Paul Simon’s quintuple-platinum album “Graceland” which, on the surface, have nothing whatsoever to do with Cleveland Public Theatre’s production of “Red Ash Mosaic” – a haunting, esoteric and original experiment in theatrical form that is targeted, according to a press release, for “the bold, the curious, the brave.”
But upon entering CPT’s Gordon Square Theatre, I overheard that Simon would soon be performing at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica. And so my head was filled with the geographically disparate musical strains and vibrant tunes from my favorite album, “Graceland,” as the lights faded and the performance began.
Soon those words and melodies were replaced by the intriguing sights and sounds devised and performed by Raymond Bobgan and members of his Cleveland Core Ensemble – Darius Stubbs, Faye Hargate, Adam Seeholzer and Dionne Atchison – along with performers Holly Holsinger, Colleen McCaughey and Sarah Moore. Bobgan also directs the work.
At the center of “Red Ash Mosaic” is a scene that takes place in a video store as patrons go about their business as a storm builds and rages outside. One patron – a Muslim woman dressed in black, traditional garb – leaves a backpack in a corner of the store, which generates fear and hatred that mysteriously accesses alternative timelines, otherworldly dimensions and deeper states of being.
Inspired by ancient texts, such as “The Egyptian Book of the Dead,” as well as Henry Corbin’s “Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi” and the works of the mystical Persian poet Hafiz, Bobgan and crew explore what it means to live and what it means to die.
But rather than providing a running narrative, they do so by taking us on a sensory and sensuous journey filled with interweaving and contradictory narrative threads, riveting spasmodic movement, a cappella singing and chanting that is rhythmically, harmonically and melodically captivating, acrobatic flying and excerpts from poetic texts. All of which is accompanied by an evocative soundtrack composed by Matthew Ryals and dramatic lighting designed by Benjamin Gantose.
And so Paul Simon’s “Graceland” – though more mainstream and accessible – comes to mind, for it pushes the boundaries of storytelling by merging ’50s R&B with mbaqanga, township jive, shangaan music, zydeco and chicano rock, offering recognizable rhythms through unfamiliar vocalizations that are accompanied by unusual instruments. So does “Red Ash Mosaic,” which delivers “… a seamless fusion of the familiar and the exotic.”
Each song in “Graceland” creates a distinctive image that somehow connects to the work as a whole. So does each “… indelible and idiosyncratic” movement in “Red Ash Mosaic.”
While the album addresses apartheid, “Red Ash Mosaic” is “… an expression of beauty, strength and endurance, despite the grim subject matter” of death.
“Graceland” proved harder to love than any other Simon album, yet it managed to sell more than 10 million copies because of the artist involved and the quality of the work being offered.
In the world of collaboratively devised and exploratory theater, Raymond Bobgan is the artist of note. He is surrounded by exceptionally talented and fully committed performers. And the quality of “Red Ash Mosaic” is superb.
WHERE: Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Ave., Cleveland
WHEN: Through June 17
TICKETS & INFO: $12 – $30. Call 216-631-2727 or visit cptonline.org
Bob Abelman covers theater and cultural arts for the Cleveland Jewish News. Follow Bob at Facebook.com/BobAbelman3. Ohio Media Editors best columnist.
Originally published in the Cleveland Jewish News on June 4, 2017.
Lead image: From left, Darius Stubbs, Adam Seeholzer, Faye Hargate, Holly Holsinger, Raymond Bobgan, and Colleen McCaughey. Photo | Steve Wagner