Broadsword, a new play showing at the Mad Cat Theatre Company, is the story of a fictional New Jersey metal band that never went anywhere. The guys broke up 19 years ago. Their former lead guitarist, a reclusive genius named Richie, has disappeared. He had spent his life in his mother's basement, working out arcane musical formulas on his guitar and cataloguing them on a series of cassettes. Broadsword, written by Hialeah's Marco Ramirez (who is finishing his studies at Juilliard), is set in that basement, the same basement where the band — also called Broadsword — once practiced, and where its remaining members meet now for the first time in two decades, on the occasion of Richie's funeral.
A similar production in most other theaters would proceed more or less as follows: The musicians would discover what they lost when they gave up their band. They would bare their souls, come to a realization about the fleeting nature of youth, and find "closure." Perhaps, in a scene of resolution and acceptance, they would dust off their instruments and play something somber and mature — or they would put away the childish things of rock 'n' roll and toss a last, meaningful glance at their untouched instruments as they trudge up the cellar stairs and flick off the lights. Broadsword is not that play. Ramirez is never satisfied with mere meaningfulness, nor is he content to leave Richie languishing as a "face on a milk carton." Ramirez wants to bring the fucker back.
How to do it? Well, you can bet it won't involve a private eye. Ramirez's aesthetic won't permit it. He loathes the mundane. In his plays, murders are committed not by psychopaths, but by werewolves (as in last year's Mr. Beast, which also premiered at Mad Cat). Disappeared guitarists don't hitch rides out of town; they run afoul of the Devil at the crossroads and are spirited away, leaving nothing but a set of charred footprints on the cellar carpet.
Written by Marco Ramirez. Directed by Paul Tei. With Paul Tei, Scott Genn, Erik Fabregat, Sofia Citarella, George Schiavone, and Gregg Weiner. Through May 3. Mad Cat Theatre, 3000 Biscayne Blvd., Miami; 305-576-6377; myspace.com/madcatcompany
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Indeed, charred footprints are all that's left of poor Richie, and the folks assembled in the basement — remaining Broadsword members Tony (Erik Fabregat), bassist Vic (Scott Genn), and drummer Nicky (Paul Tei), plus old-time fan and friend Becca (Sofia Citarella) — wouldn't know what to make of them if it weren't for the arrival of Johann Arcain (George Schiavone): a dusty, musty old musicologist and former Vatican scholar who for years has been carrying on a secret correspondence with Richie. The subject of their communication was black magic — a special kind of black magic, which the playwright invented for the occasion, that draws inspiration from old ecclesiastical fears of certain musical structures such as the Devil's Interval, Charlie Daniels songs, and old myths about virtuoso musicians who trafficked with demons. As Arcain explains: "Your friend believed, as I do, that conventional methods of looking at musical notation are limiting. And that within certain intervals — between the tones — there are new keys! Undiscovered sounds! Tones between tones!" And these tones, when combined, can do shocking things. When Arcain plays one of the cassettes from Richie's catalogue, lights flicker, glass shatters, and Broadsword's remaining members cower in fear.
In a theatrical milieu such as South Florida's, where realism proliferates and artistic weirdness — especially of the myth-making, wall-shaking, horror-movie supernatural variety — is usually repressed, it is gratifying to see a theater go balls to the wall for a premise as flaky and crazy as this one. Yet on opening night, it seemed the actors were a little uneasy with it. The notable exception was Gregg Weiner, who plays an unnamed rock 'n' roll impresario with above-it-all coolness, iced with contempt so sincere he doesn't even bother masking it. (In fact, he's downright menacing, for reasons that become clear only later.) And while the rest aren't bad, they are strangely muted. Tei, Genn, and especially Fabregat are three of SoFla's most vibrant actors, and in a show about rock 'n' roll, they should be cranked to 11, not tuned to a polite six. Their mostly soft voices and uncharacteristically leaden facial expressions made me think, Damn, bringing a comic book to life must be hard.
They get it done, though, which is enough. As Broadsword gathers momentum, its individual characters almost disappear. You don't care about them; you simply want to find out what's on those fucking tapes. As Richie's friends unravel the mystery of his disappearance and learn the terrible risks they must take to get him back, the house fills with the tingly anticipation of discovery and the nervous suspicion that lying just behind the walls of this basement is something... other.
Corny? Yes. But also exciting in a way that burrows right to the guts of what most of us sense when we listen to a certain kind of music. There really is something diabolical to be heard in Robert Johnson's "Stones in My Passway" or Jeff Buckley's "Dream Brother" (to name two artists mentioned explicitly in the script), or even in sitting down at a piano and plunking out the Devil's Interval for yourself (C and F-sharp will do it). In some indefinable way, this music is dangerous — just like the song Broadsword's remaining members play in the final scene, for which Genn and Tei took a crash course in music performance. (Fabregat, who wrote the song, is an accomplished guitarist.) By then, Arcain's mystic jabberings, however ridiculous, have you half-convinced that life or death could hang in the balance of a song if it's good enough. Broadsword is an homage to that potent music, to art so powerful it can devour a man like Richie or Robert Johnson, or bring him back to life.