In our round-up for steampunk events in January, the description for the theater production Miranda was certain intriguing to me. Murder mysteries are always fun, but a steampunk murder mystery? That’s an opera? Where all of the actors play their own instruments? Some criticize steampunk style as being too cluttered for its own good; Miranda sounded very much like an overwrought outfit, tooled too elaborately to satisfy. And yet, all of these elements drew me to the HERE theater space in NYC to watch last Friday’s show. Frankly, Miranda managed to take all of the aspects of what steampunk is – thematically, aesthetically, and even, dare I say it, musically – and combine it to create a compelling smash powerhouse of a show.
Miranda’s strength lies in its effective world-building that draws its audience immediately into its corrupt, decadent, and tumultuous world. Details about what life in the New Federation is like are quickly encompassed in a series of commercials and news briefs that reveal class strife mixed with lifestyles of the rich and image-conscious; these also serve as a hilarious opener to the show. The Baliff (Jerry Miller), a character that acts a hair under ham to an expert degree, then enters to welcome the audience and explain our duty to the New Federation. In a premise that echoes the Hunger Games, we have been “voluntarily” enlisted to act as a jury for the trial about the murder of heiress Miranda Wright, in accordance with the New Federation Department of Justice and Liposhamed Entertainment Productions. After witnessing the evidence in the form of several reenactments, it is up to the audience to “affirm or deny” admittance of these to the court, and, in the end, mete out justice for poor Miranda.
While the concept of the actor-musician has been used in NYC theater before (most notably in John Doyle’s past revivals of Sondheim’s Company and Sweeney Todd), the show gives a Brechtian nod by openly stating that these actor-musicians are serving as legal proxies for everyone involved in the trial, including Miranda herself. The show plays off the concept of the actor-playing-an-actor rather well and makes the idea of a literal legal circus believable.
All of the performances are strong. Drew Fleming (Cor Prator/electric guitar) plays Miranda’s endearing company man fiancé, Pat Muchmore (Izzy Wright/cello) is her distant but doting father who is wracked with guilt by her death, and the physically unseen but electronically-rendered Eric Brenner presides as the computer judge D.A.V.E. – the Differential Autonomous Verification Engine – who’s like an autotuned H.A.L. on steroids. Ed Rosenberg (Amelia Lang/tenor sax & clarinet) and Jeff Hudgins (Francoise Argent/ baritone sax & bass clarinet) serve as minor, but effective, side witnesses.
The show, however, is really commanded by Kamala Sankaram, who plays Miranda and is also the production’s composer and co-librettist with director Rob Reese. Sankaram’s lovely opera vocals contrast and compliment the score, a blend of classical, funk, Bollywood, and trip-hop. What also brought my attention to the music was its bi-lingual aspect, anchored by Miranda’s Indian immigrant mother Anjana Challapattee Wright (who is played compellingly by violinist Rima Fand). Both Anjana and Miranda switch in-and-out between English and Hindi in argumentative duets that have no need for translation.
The set and costumes, additionally, deserve a nod. In a wise decision, the set did not contain a single gear or cog, but was an elegantly-simple wallpapered background with Neo-Victorian flourishes. The outfits (designed by Jacci Jaye) were also gorgeous in a way that defied historical accuracy, while also being completely in-line with steampunk’s sense of anachronism.
In the end, the audience makes its final jury decision about who is guilty, but what happens after may lead you wondering whether justice in this dystopian world was really served. My friends and I certainly argued long after we left the theater over this, which is another sign of how complex the show was – and, of course, gave us the desire to immediately return to watch it again.
Miranda has a limited-run through this Saturday the 21st, so if you have a chance to see it this week, I cannot recommend it enough.