The American Crowbar Case
October 15, 2011
The Rogue in New Theatre Project, Reviews, musicals, new/original plays

The New Theatre Project partners with local band Match By Match for its first ever original musical, The American Crowbar Case. Created by band member Gray Bouchard, with a book by Jason Sebacher, the play concerns itself with one of the most famous and inexplicable brain injuries in history — the ostensibly self-lobotomized railroad worker Phineas Gage, whose baffling survival was made all the more intriguing by his before-and-after personality shift. Accordingly, Keith Paul Medelis directs a production that, like its subject, seems to be of two minds, but the parts are pleasing enough to make a satisfying whole.

The music doesn’t follow the traditional mold of the musical: Bouchard is a featured singer, but doesn’t himself play a character; lyrics are thematically relevant, but not directly applicable. For their part, Bouchard and Sebacher don’t try to force the story to meet the existing songs, but instead allow for a prevailing feeling of concept album turned concert. This is confirmed and amplified by magnificent design choices: from the up-lit circular stage (set by Medelis) to the unrealistic, high-contrast lighting scheme to the complementary projection work (both by Janine Woods Thoma), the result is a unified vision that rocks along with the music. Melissa Coppola’s music direction fills the space with expertly blended sounds — one is reminded that this is not a house band assembled just for this production, but an actual band, an acoustic trio of guitar (Bouchard), piano (Coppola), and bass (Linden McEachern), playing its own catchy indie/folk songs.

Viewers unfamiliar with the specifics of Phineas’s injury will be illuminated; although this is not a production of gory reenactments, the exposition is laid out in clinical terms. Yet the particulars are relatively ancillary, as the story is presented in hazy fits and starts and in no particular order. The audience seems to be plugged into Phineas’s point of view: his incomplete history, his unpredictable memories, his clamoring mess of a mind. Based on what the audience sees, what remains in his head above all else is love, be it the engagement with Constance (Julia Garlotte) in his unassuming former life in Vermont, or the joy he finds in Chile with prostitute Missy (Coppola), whose business champions anonymity and impersonal intimacy. In her stage debut, Coppola balances Missy’s open sexuality with an easy complacency that forms the basis of Phineas’s attraction. The open Garlotte, in contrast, is overwhelmed by pleading devastation as she fights tooth and nail against a world that would harden her. As Phineas, Peter Giessl struggles to find a unifying spark in a blank slate of a character, and his distinction between his pre- and post-accident selves seems deliberately faint, adding to the swirling feel of the mashed-up timeline.

If all this sounds aimlessly airy, know that Sebacher grounds the unknowable past in exceptional expository scenes set in the present. Historian Judith Collar (Jamie Weeder) and neuroscientist Dr. Ian Macmillan (Dan Johnson) meet at a conference, where Judith is about to present her amazing find: a partially destroyed letter, written by Phineas Gage to a woman he appeared to love. Ultimately, the history of the letter is traced out by the players, but this doesn’t appear to be the sole purpose of telling this story, certainly not when told this way. Indeed, the interspersed straight scenes with Judith and Ian present rich and layered context, pitting their craving to know the absolute truth with the past’s real-time inscrutability and subjective chaos. Sebacher’s text crackles with humor and lightning-fast relationship building in the mouths of Weeder and Johnson. What happens between them is utterly different from the main thrust of the story, but in parallel, both ask outstanding questions and are rewarding to watch in their own right.

In a single act spanning nearly ninety minutes, The American Crowbar Case is a fascinating marriage of conventional theatrical storytelling and abstract concert performance, whose disparate parts and meandering narratives are strung together with gossamer thread. The play bears little resemblance to a standard musical, but it acknowledges this and works in tandem with its surroundings to play with the form beyond its rich and engaging catalog of songs. In this bold production, the storytelling method jockeys for attention with the story itself, and every piece works on its own and as a part of the bigger picture.

The American Crowbar Case is no longer playing.
For the latest from The New Theatre Project, click here.

Article originally appeared on The Rogue Critic (
See website for complete article licensing information.