Ben Katchor’s ‘Slugs’ bear life at Mass MoCA
by Seth Rogovoy
(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., January 15, 2003) – Ben Katchor’s drawings just keep coming to life. In 1996 his serial comic strip, “Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer,” was made into a radio drama on National Public Radio. In 1999, his one-page panel, “Carbon Copy Building,” became an avant-garde opera with music by Bang on a Can, and played at Mass MoCA the next year. Last year, his text, “There Was a Building, or, The 58th Street Broiler” was set to music by Mortiz Eggert and performed at the Music at the Anthology Festival in New York by singer Theo Bleckmann.
The latest metamorphosis of a Ben Katchor comic strip into a staged performance takes place at Mass MoCA this weekend, when a two-week residency for Katchor and composer Mark Mulcahy culminates in a work-in-progress showing of “The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, or the Friends of Dr. Rushower,” on Friday and Saturday at 7:30.
Katchor called the piece “a tragicomedy for music-theater” in a conversation with Mulcahy and a visitor in the café at MoCA during a short break from rehearsal earlier this week. “It’s an adventure story with a love interest.”
The story concerns a missionary expedition to Kayrol Island to provide “consumer fiction” -- the “found poetry” of instructional manuals and pamphlets -- to the exploited islanders who labor in poor conditions carrying lead weights – the “slugs” of the title – destined to add heft to otherwise lightweight, modern electrical goods like telephones and toasters.
The slugbearers fail to respond to consumer fiction, but Gingin, Dr. Rushower’s daughter, falls in love with one of the slugbearers and decides to remain behind on the island. Although the mission is a failure, Rushower is somewhat pleased that his maiden daughter has finally found happiness on the distant island.
The production features projected drawings and animation and plays like a sung-through rock musical. In casting about for the right sensibility to give musical voice to his characters, Katchor landed on Mulcahy, the former leader of the rock band Miracle Legion, with whose work he was familiar.
“I always thought that someone who sings in a more natural voice, closer to human speech, is what appeals to me,” said Katchor, the winner of a MacArthur Fellowship – the “genius award,” as it’s known – and the creator of the weekly comic strip “Hotel & Farm,” which appears in a dozen newspapers. “He sets human speech to music, and there’s no artificiality to it.”
For Mulcahy, setting Katchor’s words to music was at first more of a challenge than he bargained for. “It’s dialogue written as song,” he said, and at one point he nearly gave up trying. “Then it all of a sudden it made sense, as things tend to do.”
Katchor had confidence that Mulcahy, who lives in Springfield, could pull it off. “There’s already music to human speech,” he said. “Mark hears it and it goes through his amplifier.”
Mulcahy, who sings several roles in the production, admits, “I do more singing during the day than I probably should.”
Over the last year or so, Katchor and Mulcahy worked separately on the libretto, drawings and score. Before they arrived at Mass MoCA last week, they had “a concert, a show and pictures,” said Katchor. To bring it all together was the trick.
Bringing it all together is what they have been working on for the past two weeks at MoCA, and on Wednesday they were far from ready for the curtain to go up on the show. Scenes still needed to be blocked out, lighting cues needed to be adjusted, and the technical challenges of making live singers merge with and emerge from projected animations were far from being met.
To make things even more interesting, it had been only a few days since MoCA’s box office manager Eric Kerns had been drafted to sing the title role of Dr. Rushower after the singer who was originally hired to play the role departed. In rehearsal, Kerns proved himself a more-than-worthy substitute, his deep, commanding voice wrapping around Mulcahy’s Ray Davies-like melodies as if he had been singing them for years.
The other singers are Heidi Schwab, David Librizzi and Ryan Tommire. Lighting is by Kristy Baltezore, and Katchor is listed as director. The band includes bassist Dave Dreiwitz, guitarist Chris Harford, keyboardist Ken Maiuri, and drummer Brian Marchese.
“There’s definitely a homespun quality to all this,” said Mulcahy, who in addition to touring the world with Miracle Legion has written music for TV and film. “At least now it’s all written down in a notebook. Before there wasn’t even a notebook. It’s been an ongoing editing process.”
Part of that process included the band learning the score from demo tapes that Mulcahy recorded. Mulcahy doesn’t write music, so in order to teach the musicians and the singers their parts, he first plays and sings all the parts into a tape recorder.
“In my head I still hear Mark singing the whole thing,” said Katchor.
Animating his drawings is a new step for Katchor. He likens his animation style to flip-books -- “something in between still pictures and moving pictures, like early animation where you can see through the illusion,” he said.
Katchor, who has been profiled in The New Yorker and who has had an exhibition of his work presented at the Jewish Museum in New York and the Magnes Museum in San Francisco, is growing used to seeing his work take shape in the hands of others.
“I like that you get to see things in a way you’d never approach on your own,” he said of the collaborative process.
He also recognizes an aspect of collaboration that is all too familiar for an artist working in isolation, as he is when he draws his strips.
“There are all your critical voices when you work alone, saying this stinks,” he said. “Here you have real people saying it to you.”
“And critics,” adds Mulcahy.
Tickets for “The Slug Bearers of Kayrol Island, or the Friends of Dr. Rushower” are available through the Mass MoCA box office. Tickets can also be purchased by calling 662-2111 or on line at www.massmoca.org.
[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on January 17, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]
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