I don't think I've ever seen a musical wherein you don't see either of the principal characters' eyes. But in "Hostage Song," the dark but very intriguing indie-rock musical now at Signal Ensemble Theatre, the two main characters have been blindfolded and bound by their captors — who took them and why is never revealed — and pursue their stressful relationship by sound and touch.
This highly usually little show, which features quite haunting music and lyrics by Kyle Jarrow ("A Very Merry Unauthorized Children's Scientology Pageant" )and a jarring book by Clay McLeod Chapman, was produced at New York's Kraine Theater in 2008. It's not the first musical to feature prisoners: "Kiss of the Spider Woman" got there first. But "Hostage Song," which charts the relationship of a journalist named Jennifer (Simone Roos) and a Pentagon contractor named Jim (Steve O'Connell) is clearly influenced by the many stories of Americans who get taken in foreign lands, especially during wars, by those whose agendas are both uncertain and terrifying.
The conceit that the two characters can never look at each other, even though it would seem possible for them to remove their blindfolds, is bolstered by Jim's insistence that the moment one of their captors knows that either of them have seen the men who took them captive, then they will surely be killed. Better, he says, to stay in the dark.
"Hostage Song" has an unusual structure, bordering on the arch — it's not entirely a legitimate musical, in the usual sense, given that these two actors mostly are accompanied by a rock band, singing from the rear and, from time to time, showing up brandishing hand-held microphones to allow the two captives to sing about this most terrible of situations, alleviated somewhat by the intensity of an unseen companion.
Then again, a certain dislocation of form is a match for the theme, which involves two people killing time, trying to stay lucid and hoping for the best.
We also hear flashbacks of the characters' lives before their capture (Jim is married). And it's in these sections that the show is most emotionally powerful; you witness two people whose entire set of choices is flashing before their eyes, as would surely happen to each of us in such a predicament.
Ronan Marra is a capable director who values simplicity. His unpretentious (and very affordable) but firmly rooted production is staged in a black void, with little more than a band, a trunk and two captive characters writhing around on the floor. That is all the piece needs.
It all takes a bit of grasping — emotionally and intellectually — and a musical about characters who constantly fear decapitation is not for all tastes. Nothing happens in the usual way of musicals. And you will not hear vocals of astounding quality in Marra's production
But you will hear some gripping singing from Joseph Stearns, who plays the macabre frontman of this dark, Brechtian rock band and a pair of unstintingly honest and thus quite moving performances from both Roos and O'Connell, whose mutual affection and darkly comic resolution you fully believe. And Jarrow's driving score has a musical insistence that keeps you held.
All in all, "Hostage Song" is a 90-minute show with a haunting presence and, at its conclusion on Saturday night, the unusually attentive and clearly shaken audience at Signal spent a good few seconds just sitting in silence, drinking in what they'd all just witnessed.
When: Through June 9
Where: Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice Ave.
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes
Tickets: $20 at 773-698-7389 or signalensemble.com