Grunge on the rocks
Nirvana-informed musical a challenging, if disjointed, post-modern mashup
Even without the author telling us in the program notes, it’s pretty obvious that David Lee’s Nirvanov is the work of a brainy, Generation X college student bent on assembling a clever post-modern academic theatrical exercise rather than creating a sympathetic exploration of what compelled the grunge music icon to blow his brains out with a shotgun in the solitude of his garage attic. Upping the already high ironic ante of his “grunge rock musical” is the fact that Lee frames the story (written in 1994 in response to the suicide of Kurt Cobain) as a pastiche of Anton Chekhov’s obscure first play, Ivanov, which shares, if little else with the Nirvana frontman’s biography, the themes of dysfunctional marriage and suicidal depression.
Oh, and if that’s not meta-literary enough, Lee also inserts a one-woman Greek chorus in the form of serially dysfunctional, occasionally institutionalized Seattle-born actress Frances Farmer, whose name Cobain used in a song titled “Frances Farmer Will Have Her Revenge on Seattle,” and possibly as the namesake of his daughter, Frances Bean Cobain.
Sound challenging and a bit weird? So it is. But the Blue Room has never shied away from delivering challenging and/or weird works, and some of the company’s greatest hits over the years, such as Hedwig and the Angry Inch, or Hank Williams: Lost Highway, have been musical productions focusing on dysfunctional artists, so in that regard the current production of Nirvanov (directed by Chad Lewis) is part of an ongoing continuum.
Set on a simple stage decorated with scrawled quotes culled from Nirvanov/Ivanov’s dialogue (“No one will ever understand my intentions”), the play is introduced by the immaculately dressed, bearded, and accented Chekhov (Matt Hammons), delivering a preamble to the main action of the play. His prelude serves as a rather vapid disclaimer: “I hope you enjoy yourself this evening, ladies and gentlemen, but if you don’t, just stomp and boo and hiss. That’s what they did the first time in 1887. And remember, my precious little audience, I never intended to write about angels or villains, but I never could resist writing about a few clowns. And so, our little play begins …”
Which it does, after a fashion, as the ghostly Frances Farmer (Ashley Garlick) appears to sketch out her own biography, including, “They tied me to the bed, fucked with my head and left me for dead. I am not now nor have I ever been Red. God is dead and so am I! Ta-Da!” At which point the titular character finally enters the scene in the embodiment of his younger self (played by Jackson Indar), singing the show’s first tune, “I’m gonna grow up to be a super-hero rock star/a rockabilly rock star times three/I’m gonna fly through the air in my silver underwear/ while the whole world stops to stare at me.”
The ghostly Farmer and young Nirvanov are eventually interrupted by the entrance of the grown-up Nirvanov (Michael Bone), who concludes young Nirvanov’s song with “The whole world stops to laugh at me/ watched me slide into the sea.”
With the entrance of the Courtney Love character Lvov (Nikki Sierra), the main cast of characters is complete and the play ambles along in its depiction of failed communication, existential angst, personal depression and metaphysical despair. Eventually the Goldman family—Mrs. (Natalie Valencia), Mr. (Don Eggert), and daughter Sasha (Kaila Davidson)—are enigmatically inserted, exacerbating the disjointed air of the play’s post-modern narrative. Sasha serves as a representative of the naïve young fans who worshiped Cobain’s sensitivity and despair without grasping that his depression was terminally immune to adulation.
The original production of the play incorporated Nirvana’s songs, but was hit with a cease-and-desist order from the Cobain estate in subsequent presentations, which led to the creation of original songs to complement the story. This gives the fine cast—Sierra is a particular standout—a showcase for their fine voices, but also, by dint of their show-tunish style (the live band was good, but the music wasn’t very grungy), distances the story from material that may have clarified its connection to Kurt Cobain.
As it is, the play builds up to a theatrical climax of emotion and song, highlighted by Indar’s touching recitation of a Frances Farmer poem, “The Journey.” And this play can take you on one that might leave you wondering just where you’ve been.