by Steven Pisano
Americans are suckers for a good conspiracy theory. Were those gunshots on the grassy knoll? Is Paul dead? Is Elvis alive? C’mon, we all know they filmed the lunar landing in Arizona. And, be careful what you say: The government is listening to your phone calls.
Who believes this stuff? Well, a lot of people. And by the way, at least one of these far out theories is actually true. But which one? And how do we know for sure?
Real Enemies, playing through Sunday at BAM’s Harvey Theater, is a galvanizing musical exploration of American conspiracy theory and paranoia, stretching back into the 1950s. Composer Darcy James Argue and his dazzling 18-piece big band Secret Society have worked with filmmaker Peter Nigrini, writer/director Isaac Butler, and scenic and lighting designer Maruti Evans to create a highly engaging and intelligent production.
Segmented into 12 sections with titles like “The Enemy Within,” “Dark Alliance,” and ”Trust No One,” Real Enemies is a knockout punch of atonal jazz and tour-de-force blowing by various solo trumpeters, saxophonists, and clarinetists. When the full band plays together, it revs up like a 12-cylinder Lamborghini, all smooth and muscular power. Darcy's music is at turns churning and dissonant, soaring to seamless crescendos before skittering anxiously away.
But Real Enemies not only succeeds as an explosive powerhouse of jazz. It is also brilliantly conceived as an outstanding work of theater: a worthy follow-up to Darcy's 2011 multimedia extravaganza Brooklyn Babylon. An array of 15 square overhead panels displays a dizzying stream of words, photos, and videos. Such screens are often overused to no added effect, but here they are used to engage the eyes and brain even as the music grabs hold of the ears like a pitbull and will not let go.
The stage on which Argue stands to conduct is a big clock face, with The Secret Society sitting in a semicircle around the top half of the clock. There are no singers, though at the end, a voiceover that sounds like a Cold War film reel comments on why people believe in conspiracies.
Simply put, we are likely to believe almost anything we are told. But, if I tell you that you should buy a ticket for Real Enemies this weekend, it's not a conspiracy: Real Enemies is the real deal. (You can find available seats here.)
(More photos can be found here.)