Written & Composed by Sam Quinn
Directed by Amelia Turner
Produced by BioPhiliac Productions
At the Viaduct Theatre, Chicago
Oh, I’ll be a good boy / Please make me well / I’ll promise you anything / Get me out of this hell
Eye Inside is a blatantly great concept. It’s – okay, it kind of sounds chintzy at first glance – it’s about an evil agent who takes uniformly good-spirited and magnanimous actors and turns them into fame-whores and coke-fiends. He is a corrupter of the pure. But, honestly, making a rock opera out of the subject – and I’m selling it short, it’s far trippier than that sound-bite summation – well, it just makes sense. Really, the agent may or may not have sold his soul to the devil, and delivers the souls of the pure to him; he seems to have some power over others’ dreams (both literal dreams and, naturally, their aspirations) and the frame of the story takes place in the mental asylum he’s now locked in. The cast of characters include a struggling actress, an actor who wants to change the world through the silver screen, a sort-of-adopted daughter, a clown who’s always on the brown horse, and three nightmarish figures roaming the scenery. And that’s just for starters.
The lead character is the agent, Vance Barrett, played by writer and co-creator Sam Quinn, who nabs his name from Syd of Pink Floyd but more closely resembles the Sid of Sid ‘n’ Nancy. The story of the play is really his fall from grace: he goes from being the top agent in Hollywood to bound in a straightjacket, tortured by his own inner demons and his past. He takes Jeremiah Humble (Ethan Link), a talented actor and son of Barrett’s former partner James as a client. James, we find out, died a few years back, under quite sad circumstances. Brandy Barrett, Vance’s adopted daughter, reels Jeremiah in, but also genuinely likes him.
But let’s not get too bogged down in the story. Not that it’s not important, it’s just that there’s so much more to this piece. The design, for one, done by Amelia Turner and Joe Sanchez, which is properly dark and distorted; Joey Brennan’s lights are also decidedly effective; and the costumes by Nevena Todorovic are fantastic – particularly Vance’s, but the costumes all around are well thought-out and sometimes exceedingly clever. This is also a multi-media presentation, with a few scenes using cinema, and quite effectively. Whether it’s a scene in a dark office between Vance and partner James or simply atmospheric, the screen in the corner of the set is used very effectively.
The musicians (i.e. The Pawns) are fantastic, too, with, firstly, a very, very solid rhythm section comprising of Cole Burns on the drums and Adam Gross playing bass. That’s rounded out by Jeffrey Levin on the keys, Kara Poe playing violin, Noah Appelbaum on the guitar, and Andrew Taylor on guitar and blues harp. The music is good, too. It sometimes wears its influences on its sleeve, but mostly it’s solid American alt.rock / pop. The lyrics are sometimes a little lost in the mix, though – and sometimes they’re not that great. Sort of a little too obvious, occasionally. This may be a personal problem: I like my rock lyricists of the Dylan / Morrissey / Doherty variety, so maybe a musical just needs more literal lyrics to lead it along. But I still think they could do better.
In fact, I think that’s basically the case for the whole show. Don’t get me wrong, it’s clearly a labor of love, and it’s wonderfully conceived; but I think it could use more work. Honestly, if they hammer the hell out of this thing, if they work really hard, I could see this being a very big musical someday. But it’s not there yet. And I’m not saying that to disparage or tear down; I’m saying that because I believe in the work they’re doing. It’s good. But if they want to really succeed, they’re going to have to buckle down a little more.
Which is far from saying that this show isn’t worth seeing. Honestly, Andrew Taylor’s almost makes the show worth a trip in and of itself. He’s incredibly expressive and perfectly minimalist – not unlike, and part of me can’t believe I’m going to draw this comparison, Bill Murray in his Lost in Translation / Broken Flowers / etc. phase. Plenty of other people are compelling: Brian Barber gives a great performance in his role as one of the Voices (the ones inside Vance’s head), and both Ethan Link and Aileen May provide solid performances, with the latter also owning a hell of a voice.
This is a highly conceptualized show. The ideas are very, very big. And this production does a good job reaching for them. But it does need a lot of nuts-and-bolts work. That said, if you want to see an innovative and interesting work in its infancy first production – of what will surely be many more, after a sharp rewriting – this is a great opportunity. Going to this would be like seeing the original Grease: there are some kinks to work out, but the basis and ideas are there. And someday, it’s liable to hit.
Reviewed on 10.23.11
For full show information, visit TheatreInChicago.
At the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Avenue Chicago; $12-$20; performances Thursday-Saturday at 8:30, Sunday at 7pm; through Nov. 6.