Review: Press Play on "The Jackson C. Frank Listening Party w/ Special Guests"

The Jackson C. Frank Listening Party w/ Special Guests

Written by Michael Aguirre

Directed by Sarah Norris

Presented virtually by New Light Theater Project as part of 59E59 Theaters' Plays In Place

March 29-April 11, 2021

Michael Aguirre. Courtesy New Light Theater Project.
As restrictions for in-person events begin to loosen in New York, the virtual theater scene that has developed over the past year continues to assume intriguing variations. The Jackson C. Frank Listening Party w/ Special Guests anchors its storytelling in, as the title suggests, the communal experience of music. By the end of the play, audiences will have listened to the entirety of Jackson C. Frank's self-titled 1965 folk album, interwoven with narrative threads focused on Frank himself and on the relationship of listening party host Allen (playwright Michael Aguirre) with his brother, Rob. Audience members access the album themselves through their preferred platform (we used a copy on YouTube, which, if you like Frank, includes five further bonus tracks that you can listen to after the show, perhaps with the accompaniment of more of the show's signature Hippie Juice cocktail, the recipe for which is demonstrated, also on YouTube, by cast member Bethany Geraghty). Allen prompts spectators when to play and pause the album, and he (along with, at points, the special guests) listens along, remaining onscreen in a smaller window while the lyrics are displayed in the remaining space. If at any point your DJ skills turn out to be suboptimal, you can pause the show and get things synched up again.
Michael Aguirre. Courtesy New Light Theater Project.
After a brief introduction by Allen, the show dives right into the first track of Frank's album, recorded during the Buffalo, NY-born artist's time living in London in his early twenties. Musically, the recording is spare, with Frank's voice buoyed by his confident acoustic guitar work. Images of broken relationships and loneliness recur throughout the lyrics, although the imagery can also become more surreal, as in the songs "Just Like Anything" and "My Name Is Carnival" (our personal favorite and a song that calls out for a cover by The Decemberists).

Jackson's life had—mild spoiler—more than its share of tragedy, and Aguirre's play sets up thematic echoes (as well as one literal connection) between them and Rob's own struggles. Rob is introduced to us as a music lover, and he and Allen hold weekly listening parties together, sessions during which full attention to that week's single newly purchased album is required. Music fans in a certain age range will recognize themselves in the description of the brothers' systematic foraging through a store's stock to select the one CD that they would (and could afford to) bring home that week. Rob's expansive music collection, Allen tells us, was vital to his identity, and Rob's identity was vital to Allen's. Just as music is always evolving, however, these relationships cannot remain static: Rob's junior year abroad in college sets off a process that will upend all of them, and the nostalgia of Allen's reminiscence turns into something different and deeper.
Dana Martin and Michael Aguirre. Courtesy New Light Theater Project.
Allen's interwoven narratives of his, Rob's, and Jackson C. Frank's journeys gain additional perspectives from the titular special guests, who include Paul Simon (William Phelps), who was involved with recording Frank's album, Grandma Woodstock (Dana Martin), and Allen's mom (Bethany Geraghty) as Allen and the play consider how we define ourselves and our lives, and how we judge how others choose to define and live their lives. These processes of definition, the play suggests, function in relation to whatever we mean by "success" or its lack, our relation to sub- and countercultures, our desire to feel that we are part of something important, and what we are willing to sacrifice in chasing our self-definition (to use Frank's words, to "sing [the] heart's / true song"). Aguirre's script feels very real and very lived-in—one would be excused for thinking that the show was straight autobiography—and peppered with humorous asides and nerdy references. His performance as Allen is funny and quietly, matter-of-factly heartfelt, with a self-possession that slips only in rare moments.

The Jackson C. Frank Listening Party w/ Special Guests combines a perceptive, intimate look at self, family, and art with a chance to experience (or re-experience) the music of a songwriter whose posthumous legacy continues to expand. And you only need to clean up after yourself when this party's over.

 -John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards

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