It’s never the way we imagined it, never the way we heard it in our heads. That thought is one artists are all too familiar with. Vision doesn’t always lend itself to reality, and while it’s easy enough to copy down an idea or draft out a outline, there’s always something essential missing– a mood, a tone, a language all its own.
It’s what Raymond Scott struggles to achieve in composing in Powerhouse, what he obsessively refers to as an “idealized conception of a song.” The play tracks Scott’s rise to fame, his quest for perfection, and the pitfalls of his three marriages. Scott’s perfectionism alienates him from his musicians. His collaborations are fraught with anxiety and frustrating abstract direction for his musicians (“you’re playing my music but you have to play it like its yours!”).
Set designer and actor Edward Gordon Craig turned to the uber-marionette, a human-sized puppet, to transcend the subjectivity of human acting, and Raymond Scott turns to digital recording technology to make up for the human flaws hindering the ideal playing of his music. Scott invents the electronium, represented on stage by a set of blinking black amplifier-like machines, to render his music more perfectly. In the meantime, Scott’s composings become famous as accompaniment for classic Warner Brothers cartoons, including Looney Tunes. Scott’s fame is a perplexing thing, since providing musical accompaniment for cartoons is most likely not what Scott would have liked to be remembered for, nor did he actively pursue it. Much like his frustration with composing, his career takes unexpected, undesirable turns, filled with human flaw.
Likewise, Scott’s marriages stray from the ideal forms. He leaves his estranged first wife Pearl (Jessica Frey) for his young budding protege (Hanley Smith). Scott seems to expect little from these unions. He immerses himself with his work, and his relationships seems to be results of happenstance more so than passion or will.
Powerhouse also presents the evolution of a popular Warner Brothers cartoon using Scott’s music. The cartoon creation process is notably different from Scott’s composing process. The Warner Brothers animators, using genuinely enjoyable puppets from Puppet Kitchen, engage in playful experimentation, random word association, and clearly irrational thinking to achieve their results. They lounge about aimlessly, make jokes about boobies, and somehow, an idea is formed. Is Scott’s structured, logical creation any more effective?
Josh Luxenberg and the Sinking Ship ensemble create a subtle and provocative production, headed by Erik Lochtefeld as Scott. Like Scott’s iconic music, the production is fast-paced and forward-thinking, providing a fascinating look at the complexities of the artistic process.