Only about 20 people turned out this Monday night for Nautilus Music-Theater’s Rough Cuts show in Lowertown, and a number of them are slated to perform at some point. Everyone seems to know everyone else – many in the audience are theater folk – but the mood in the room is companionable and welcoming, rather than clubby. The company (a Knight Arts grantee) holds these works-in-progress showcases, two showings back-to-back – one in St Paul, one in Minneapolis – on the second Monday and Tuesday of every month (“except when we don’t,” Nautilus Artistic Director Ben Krywosz quips). And Nautilus has been doing these informal monthly performances for an awfully long time: Rough Cuts is now in its 19th anniversary season.
The set-up is spare: just a handful of folding chairs and a piano off to the side in front, next to which sits a music stand for the performers. Krywosz observes that December’s turnout is always light because of the holidays; they’ll hold another session the following night, at Augsburg College this time around. He shrugs, saying the audience size for the monthly series is always modest – no more than 50 or so most nights – but that more people often turn out for the Minneapolis iteration of the show.
Rough Cuts offers an ever-changing sampler of new works by composers and writers from around the country – it’s a chance for composers to hear their work performed live and well, but in a low-stakes environment. When you come to Rough Cuts, you never know what you’re going to see, but it hardly matters; it’s Nautilus, so the work is sure to be engaging – thoughtfully selected if “experimental,” and, without a doubt, mindfully and beautifully performed. Krywosz says wryly, “We set expectations low and then over-deliver.”
This month the line-up is “even more experimental than usual,” according to Krywosz, centering on a number of original “performance events” made by participants in the company’s performer mentorship program – the fruits of an exercise in blurring the lines between “interpretive” and “generative” work called the “Song Project.” Performers – both mentors and mentees in the program – have been tasked with presenting works of their own creation, brief mashups and musical reworkings, hybrid pieces of whatever type and subject they choose. The pieces we see and hear are snippets, experiments rather than something intended for full staging. But completely realized or not, the performances are so generous, so fearless that I’m caught off guard by the intensity of my response. I don’t know why I’m surprised; these short works are rendered with an emotional candor and artistry I’ve always seen in the performances by Nautilus’ artists.
Bass Jim Ramlet’s piece, in particular, lingers in my mind: a mélange of Shakespeare and Sondheim and poetry by the wonderful Bill Holm, Ramlet offered a raw, soulful elegy for friends and musical co-conspirators lost to the early ravages of AIDS, informed by his experiences as a young opera singer in the early ’80s.
Also on the docket: a brief excerpt from “Lamb in Love,” a charming romance-in-a-small-English-town, newly adapted for the stage by writer Annie Kessler and composer Louise Beach from a novel by Carrie Brown. Rounding the night out is a classically-inflected song cycle by Corey Dargel about thwarted eroticism and other small sexual misadventures. Introducing this work, Krywosz notes that we may remember the “quirky” New York composer from another Rough Cuts a few years back, when he premiered an excerpt from his then-new play, Removable Parts, exploring the voluntary-amputee scene. The songs are indeed quirky, witty and strange and surprisingly insightful, with a delightfully raunchy sensibility.
After the show, Krywosz tells me for January’s edition of Rough Cuts he’ll present an excerpt from a new collaboration he’s working on with dancer/choreographer Penelope Freeh, a music-theater-movement reworking of Jethro Tull’s hard rock cantata, Thick as a Brick, which is slated for full production at the University of Minnesota’s Rarig Center in February.
Honestly? I can’t wait.
Nautilus Music-Theater will also soon present its Ivey-winning production, “I am Anne Frank,” which has toured around the state in recent years and will return to the Twin Cities next month for a run at the Southern Theater in Minneapolis January 10 through 13. Tickets are available here. Check in with the company’s website and Facebook page for more details, news and information on current and future shows.