Pete Townsend once said in an interview that what made rock and roll so interesting to him was the challenge of making something elaborate and interesting happen within the strict and simple structure of the format’s four walls. As maligned as it might be as a genre, heavy metal is one of the more fun examples of this challenge being taken on. The metalheads that populate La Mélancolie des dragons — a delightful play from director Philippe Quesne and Vivarium Studio which recently had a run at the Kitchen — all display the inventiveness of which Townsend speaks within the four walls of the stage and the simple construct of the play.
Before the play starts, the gathering audience can make out four figures gesticulating and drinking in a Volkswagen Rabbit with a little trailer attached behind it. The play properly begins as soon as the first power chords of AC/DC’s “Back in Black” send this motley crew driving into the night in a flurry of head banging and fist pumping to a handful of heavy metal classics — from AC/DC to Iron Maiden to Scorpions, with some French metal thrown in for good measure. The good times stop their rolling when engine trouble lands the gang at the edge of a snowy forest. It’s not so bad, though. In fact, it’s an idyllic spot for the four metalheads to drift into a slumber to Scorpions’ power ballad, “Still Loving You.” And then, along came Isabelle.
A curious local woman, Isabelle, happens upon the sleeping foursome. After waking them up, we find out they have three more friends sleeping in the trailer they’re hauling. After Isabelle’s failed attempt to fix their engine and her ineffectual call to the local mechanic, it turns out these characters are going to have some time to kill. It also turns out that the men have something to share with Isabelle, a project they’ve been working on — a dream really. It is, of course, a heavy metal amusement park. Would it be OK if they tell Isabelle about their ideas? “Yes,” Isabelle assures them. “Yes, it would.”
And this is where the wonder begins. This is also the part where I tell you that it’s as far as plot and character go. A car breaks down. A local appears. A dream is displayed. This doesn’t sound like much, but the couple times I cried and the two-handed devil horns I thrust toward the sky at the end of the show would beg to differ.
But back to the wonder. The crew pulls down three of the side walls of the trailer, transforming it into a little stage with a handful of long-haired-rocker wigs hanging from the ceiling, and they invite Isabelle to be in the center of all the action. They bring out a fog machine, stage lights and a fan for blowing the hair on the wigs around for that 80s video feel. A tarp that had previously been lain on the ground is repurposed as a balloon by filling it with air from the same fan that had been used to blow fog moments before. The billowing surface suddenly has an unexpected beauty to it. Just as I am thinking this Isabelle echoes my feelings by saying, “So touching.” Yes, it was.
And there were more visual and musical treats in store. The balloon is carried about the stage in a way that is inexplicably moving. There are many things that are inexplicably moving. Sometimes it’s the metalheads’ insistence on asking Isabelle’s permission to show her their next idea. (“Isabelle? Isabelle.” was like a refrain I couldn’t get out of my head the next day.) A shift to classical music is used for epic effect a few times, the best moment being when Isabelle climbs a ladder and all the elements were brought together — the fog machine, the fan, and bubble machine — soaring up to envelop Isabelle as though she is being shot in a dramatic film set in the Himalayas.
There is also a dark side that the crew wants to show Isabelle. The oldest metalhead assures her that it will be a little scary, but not too much. Four large black balloons, as tall as the set, are filled with air and walked to the back of the stage, completely blocking most of the light that had been shining through the trees. Naturally, the fog machine is put into use. Shadows, light and fog, and standing before it is Isabelle in all her awe. She says, “It’s possible to disappear.” And we do. Elaborate and interesting things had happened in the most basic of boxes. Thanks, guys. Thanks, Isabelle.
The audience knew they had witnessed something so magical that they didn’t want the actors to leave the stage. They didn’t want to leave this imaginary amusement park. I overheard a woman behind me say, “I want to see it again. Right now.”
I didn’t want it to end either. And then, much to my delight, it didn’t. The play followed me out into the rainy night. As I made my way across the intersection at Tenth Avenue and 19th Street I heard music coming from inside a car parked near the corner. When I got closer I realized that somebody was blasting Poison’s “Nothin’ But A Good Time.” I paused in absolute wonder. Then I walked to the subway thinking about the person in the car and about what their dreams might have been. As Bret Michaels sings, “And it don’t get better than this.” Exuent.
The idea of freedom being simply able to roll down the highway in two tons of steel with your friends is an important one in metal. The image of metalheads driving and head banging mindlessly might be what it looks like to the outsider, but inside the car it’s a place of safety, fellowship, and sometimes heated debate (which Iron Maiden was better: the Bruce Dickinson or Paul Di’Anno version?). This is the visual image with which La Mélancolie des dragons begins, and the soundtrack to the camaraderie was probably mainstream enough that even the least metalheaded in the audience were familiar with some of the tunes. However, to the boys in the broken down Volkswagen, I’d like to recommend a handful of bands who might be a little more off the road.
A NWOBHM (New Wave of British Heavy Metal) tribute band has to be the dodgiest musical idea ever. And yet, Roxxcalibur is a complete success. NWOBHM was a musical movement in Great Britain in late 1970s and early 1980s that featured fast guitars and a heightened melodic sensibility. Most metalheads cherish this era, so one false move and Roxxcalibur could easily have gone down the tubes. There are no false moves though. Not one. Just a glorious guitar gallop down NWOBHM’s cherished past.
More NWOBHM! But this time, the real stuff. This NWOBHM crew from Bristol practically gave birth to speed metal. Great riffs and Garry Peppard’s insanely fast guitar leads kept Jaguar prices high on Ebay and their influence deep and wide in all genres of metal over the years. In 2011, Buried By Time and Dust Records released a live outing from 1982, Axe Crazy In Holland. I can barely sit still when I have the thing on my turntable. Playing almost impossibly out of control, the band somehow keeps the whole thing from toppling over again and again. It’s a thrilling ride.
Guitarist David Chastain is a dazzling technician, and his solo instrumental albums are a blast. However, the records that he made with his eponymous band, Chastain, are where the fun really begins — especially the ones when Leather Leone is his singer and chief collaborator. The guitarist gets to keep his pyrotechnics but Leather brings the party and she brings the party hard. It’s a match made in the happiest of helldoms.
Manilla Road is for that secret place in your heart where you know you’ve wasted your time here on earth, because you didn’t spend it dropping acid with biker gangs and contracting syphilis. Manila Road’s heaviness is more a sum of its parts than a singular thing that can be pointed to. They’ve worked the underground and the back roads for a long time, never quite achieving anything close to mainstream success and very much not caring. Rock and roll, man.
Yes, the boys in the Volkswagen and the trailer were headbanging to the later, more hit-heavy version of Scorpions, but I’ve always found the band at its most endearing when guitar madman, Uli Roth, was with them from 1973 through 1977. In fact, I ignored Scorpions for decades until I discovered the Uli years. That’s when I worked my way forward in their catalogue and fell in love with everything. Uli was my gateway drug. If you’ve ever wondered what a dark rainbow would sound like when it’s applied to a power chord, this is where to start.
La Mélancolie des dragons played at the Kitchen (512 W 19th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) on January 10–14 as part of the Public Theater’s Under the Radar Festival. It will play at the Wexner Center for the Arts (1871 N High Street, Columbus, OH) on January 19–22 and then at the Walker Art Center (725 Vineland Place, Minneapolis, MN) on January 26–28.