By Gabriel Kahane; Directed by Daniel Fish
Part of BAM's 2017 Next Wave Festival
Off Broadway, Solo Performance
Ran through 12.2.17
BAM Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street
by Ran Xia on 12.5.17
Gabriel Kahane in Book of Travelers.
BOTTOM LINE: Gabriel Kahane's mesmerizing musical odyssey across the country documents a post-Trump America, one dining car at a time.
In a pair of red Converse and a grey v-neck, Gabriel Kahane is a modern day bard, preserving a legacy that’s been passed down from ancient times: storytelling is such a lonely occupation, yet one that makes the rest of us feel less alone. If you enjoyed February House at the Public and The Ambassador several years ago at BAM, the prolific singer/songwriter’s new work does not disappoint. Kahane’s ways of activating memories through landscapes and architecture, churning poetry and music out of everything and anything, are all here. What’s special about 8980: Book of Travelers is that the process of creating the work is itself a romantic achievement.
The day after the 2016 election, Kahane boarded a westward train, the Lake Shore Limited, to be exact. America expands before him, all 8980 miles of it, as well as its people and all their stories to be discovered. So through the country’s aorta he went, breaking bread with dozens of strangers over the course of two weeks. He then turned stories of the ordinary people he encountered along the journey (via the most inefficient means of transportation) into songs. As he sits behind a grand piano onstage at BAM, the scenery outside massive windows rushes by, courtesy of director Daniel Fish’s projection design.
Each song conjures a different, vibrant tale. For example, he begins with the story of a twilight romance between Esther the widow and Earl the cowboy. After her marriage of 47 years, Esther finds it difficult to crack the code of online dating. Her loneliness finally becomes a thing of the past when a friend introduces her to Earl, who has spent his whole life on a farm. After their first date, they took a selfie. By the time Kahane came around to hear music in the story, the two had been happily married. There’s a genuine sweetness in these mundane tales of the ordinary people Kahane encounters, often in a dining car, and his gorgeously simple lyrics trickle out with tender melodies.
The songs continue, one after another, each a sketch of a different aspect of America. The performance, barely over an hour, is indeed a song cycle. If you enter expecting a narrative crafted in true musical theatre form, you are at the wrong show. Book of Travelers asks you to be patient. It’s a process like picking up seashells on the beach: you might end up with some dazzling gems, but there is no showstopping number, nor a resolution.
It takes a romantic to process a solitary journey and make songs from endless stories during such an extremely agitated time in our country. There’s a unique kind of intimacy that comes from looking at a nation, deep into it, through its people. This might just be the point of the show. In one sense, it's merely the personal experience of a single artist, and yet, like Willy Ronis’ photography and Cezanne’s portraits, Kahane’s songs are memory capsules of the most important part of the United States. In Book of Travelers, the grotesque of politics wanes before the love of a people.
(8980: Book of Travelers played at BAM's Harvey Theater, 651 Fulton Street, through December 2, 2017. The running time was 70 minutes with no intermission. Tickets were $30 - $50. For more information visit bam.org.)
8980: Book of Travelers is written and performed by Gabriel Kahane. Directed by Daniel Fish. Set and Video Design is by Jim Findlay. Lighting Design is by Mark Barton. Videography is by Tamara Ober, Jim Findlay, Daniel Fish, and Julia Frey.