Sunday, April 27, 2014

You Will Believe: Helga Davis's Cassandra

For two years in a row in high school, I donned a gold lamé tux (WHY are there no pictures?) and acted as MC for what was blithely called A Musical Evening. In addition to introducing many performers (including myself and the rest of the Walden Jazz Band so we could murder Watermelon Man - sorry, Herbie), I also uttered the words: "And now, ladies and gentlemen, here's Helga Davis." I'm not sure even Cassandra herself would have prophesized that over 30 years later I would have found myself in a crowded theater confronted with Helga perched atop a billowing white dress, 20 feet above the audience. She stood motionless as films were projected on the dress. This was the stunning image that opened Cassandra, a musical theater piece being presented at BRIC House, a new "home for artists and audiences" in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bank Building in Brooklyn.

We were told before going in that the piece would begin immediately and that there would be no opportunity to leave or re-enter during the 75 minute show. This turned out not to be a problem because the rest of Cassandra was nearly as riveting as that opening display. We were given several minutes to contemplate it, as unsettling music grew in intensity and filled the space. One thought that ran through my mind as I watched the film loop play on Helga's dress was that Grace Jones would be so jealous. It was that cool.

Eventually, two musicians took their places in the back of the theater and began to play. In addition to the piano and trumpet (Adam Klipple and Aaron Roche), I also heard a cello but could not locate the source of the sound. Soon Helga started singing an introductory aria in her gorgeous, wide-ranging mezzo-soprano. It was beautiful, abstract, and haunting. At the end of the song, in an expertly coordinated series of movements, she descended from the platform bringing the dress with her and revealing cellist Jeffrey Ziegler, who continued to play as they wheeled the platform away.

In the semi-darkness, we see that the stagehands are all wearing the same mask based on a Greek sculpture, its rictus grin both funny and slightly scary. Perhaps it was a mask of Apollo, who, in the ancient myth of Cassandra, offered her the power of prophecy in exchange for her love. Having obtained the power, Cassandra then turned down the god's advances and he summarily cursed her to a life of never being believed. Davis's Cassandra, a performing artist in contemporary New York City, also has the power of prophecy.

Once the stage is reset, the "stagehands" turn out to be actors and musicians who quickly take their places in some kind of existential protest - one sign reads "I THINK THEREFORE I AM I THINK" - which is a none-too-subtle transition to Cassandra sitting on a stoop, waiting for a cab.The cab arrives and the masked figures gather around her, unseen by the driver. She yells at them to leave her alone and then tells the confused driver "I'm running lines for a show." This was genuinely funny, although I must say that there was a contingent in the audience who were all too eager to guffaw at what was, in the end, a portrait of a very disturbed, traumatized woman.

The scene shifts to a nightclub, where Cassandra is fronting a band called Unconscious Minds, which also included Ben Butler on guitar and Brian Wolfe on drums. "I see some empty seats out there," she says, "but we always lose a few people to the bar for the second half of the show." She then introduces two songs co-written with Shara Worden and they launch into the first, a stomping, stuttering slab of art rock. Hearing Helga's voice in this context was thrilling. The second song is also fantastic but there isa breakdown story to be told. The permeable fourth wall (were we the audience for Cassandra or "Cassandra"?), along with Davis's acting, made the moment of her collapse highly effective and powerful.

Cassandra comes to, strapped to a chair in a mental hospital. Her unhinged laughter creates a barrier between her and the Doctor, played with warmth by Maximilian Balduzzi. He slowly draws her out (perhaps a mite bit too slowly) and we learn her story. Her visions began at five, precipitating a massive beating from her mother in front of the entire Harlem neighborhood where she grew up. The trauma and the visions go on to form a vicious circle throughout her upbringing, leading to a desire to exit on her own terms.

She also describes one of her visions, an allegorical story with Jay-Z and Beyoncé making cameo appearances, the first representing a modern day king, and the second standing in for all that is unattainable: "You're never gonna get it," Cassandra sings. Indeed. The doctor eventually releases her from the chair, tells her he would like to keep her there for a few days and that he will prescribe something mild. "How about something strong," Cassandra replies. "I don't think it's necessary," he tells her. He believes her, you see, and is certain her visions are true for her - but that doesn't mean they effect those whose futures she sees. This is both compassionate and condescending. Cassandra proceeds to describe a vision that completely dismantles him and he flees to write that stronger Rx.

Alone in her hospital room, and with the assistance of her masked friends, Cassandra ascends, once again swathed in an enormous white gown. While she does not quite reach the height of that opening scene, it is high enough. More than high enough, in fact. Blackout. Standing ovation.

While Helga Davis describes Cassandra as a "work in progress," there are really only a few tweaks to be made. It is a tight, gripping work of theater with excellent music, well-integrated video and striking stagecraft. While I certainly couldn't predict her journey to this point from that stage in our high school auditorium, my current vision sees her recording the two songs with the Unconscious Minds and finding herself with a new sideline in the clubs of nearby Williamsburg. It is an incontrovertible fact, however, that there is only one more perfromance of Cassandra, and it is tonight. Go. Believe me, you're going to love it.



  1. Anonymous11:26 AM

    I saw it. Helga is beautiful and she looked stunning at the opening but I honestly thought the rest of the piece fell apart into abstract self indulgent pyschobabble. The masked Greek chorus as protesters with picket signs were annoying and the "my mother treated me badly" mental hospital interview went on forever (and "what does this have to do with "saving the city?"). I was also confused because I saw her in a piece at BAm by Carl Hancock Rux a few years ago with Greek masks, end of the world prophecy, and musical interludes. Was this supposed to be a sequel?

    1. Thanks for reading - and sharing your opinion. I don't recall the earlier piece so I can't answer that.