There’s an amazing thing going on in Berkeley and everyone who loves art, literature, music, or theater needs to go see it while they still have a chance.
The show is called Sam’s Enchanted Evening and it’s a new performance piece written and produced by The Residents and starring their lead singer who is supposedly named Randy Rose. It’s at the Marsh, 2120 Allston Way, and runs through Nov. 26.
The Residents have been one of the most consistently interesting avant-garde experimental rock bands of the past forty years. With albums such as The Third Reich and Roll and Duck Stab they have never failed to push the envelopes of both music and performance. Sam’s Enchanted Evening takes their creative journey in a whole new direction.
The show starts with Joshua Raoul Brody’s piano playing. Then Randy Rose playing the part of Sam wanders into the theatre through the crowd dressed as a homeless person.
Eventually he breaks into a warped deformed version of “Davy Crockett” that degenerates into a pathetic self-loathing rant. After threatening to shoot the piano player who easily disarms him the two proceed to "sing some of the old songs."
What follows is a series of radical reinterpretations of modern American top forty standards which really push the term “cover”. Most of them are delivered as stark laments, songs of depression, decay, and endless yearning.
The staging is spare – a table, chair, walker, and piano –nothing more. Songs blend seamlessly into monologs in a work that is neither a play or a concert but performance art in its purest form. It’s performance art unplugged from one of the inventors of the form.
Sam’s Enchanted Evening is a dark brooding work that contrasts moments of stark beauty with an atmosphere of crushing ugliness. It tells the story of "Sam," a self-destructive ne’er-do-well from the deep south who has led a shiftless drifting life and time and again met with terrible ends. He’s like one of the tramps from a Samuel Beckett play.
In fact, there are many similarities to Beckett in the performance’s tone, writing, and staging. It’s almost like a modern contemporary musical version of "Waiting For Godot."
There are moments of uproarious black comedy during the show like one story about creosote covered Christmas trees.
Sam narrates an elaborate absurdist southern gothic punctuated by endless incidents of personal collapse. Like so many Residents creations, his life only goes from bad to worse. And yet, there are moments of laugh-out loud comedy such as his cover of "La Vida Loca."
He ambles about the stage with a walker that has a sticker on it which reads: If This Walker Is Rocking Don’t Come A Knocking.
During the second act Sam strips off his homeless clothing and reveals an earlier version of himself. What follows is a series of macabre memories of his youth in the deep south in the sixties punctuated by fractured covers of popular songs from that time. Some of the highlights are Burning Ring of Fire, Born To Be Wild and So Lonesome I Could Cry.
Joshua Brody’s piano playing is divine. Sam’s vocals run the bombastic spectrum from hoarse whispers to basso screams. His voice is a weird harsh instrument capable of a wide range of dark expression. After a harrowing tour of Vietnam, Sam’s interpretations of the songs become even darker, even the most happy innocuous pop tunes become little more than torturous metaphors for his own inner agony, the sad laments of a broken man.
Like all Residents creations Sam’s Enchanted Evening is relentless, a violent mash-up of laughter, pain, and redemption, sometimes all in a single song. It is not to be missed.