THEATER REVIEW: “The Holler Sessions” @ Ancram Opera House [Berkshire on Stage]
Review by Barbara Waldinger
Frank Boyd, the solo performer and writer of The Holler Sessions, now playing at the Ancram Opera House, so expertly weaves the improvisational aspects of his DJ’s obsession, jazz, with this live radio show that it’s hard to tell what is scripted and what is ad-libbed. Ultimately, this partly improvisational piece is a metaphor for the nature of jazz. The work was created in collaboration with the TEAM, a Brooklyn-based ensemble whose Artistic Director, Rachel Chavkin (serving as one of two Consulting Directors on this project), was nominated for a Tony award for her production of Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, now running on Broadway.
Boyd plays Ray, a Kansas City DJ, with such contagious exuberance and passion for the music he loves, that he forces even the uninitiated to listen to and appreciate the artistry of the celebrated jazz performers he worships, among whom are Charlie Parker, Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Nina Simone and Louis Armstrong. Ray apparently lives in the tiny studio where he works, sleeping underneath the table from which he broadcasts, drinking coffee (from what appears to be a working coffeemaker) and whiskey, and storing a few food items among the papers, boxes, books and file cabinets in this incredibly cluttered room.
His performance ranges from extreme physicality — stretching as he awakens, dancing, conducting imaginary performers, kicking, pelvic thrusting, miming drum solos – to stillness, as he stops the music and the movement to allow himself and the audience some dead air time. It’s hard to believe that Boyd, a theater actor, has not spent his life as a DJ.
At several points in the performance, Ray asks his listeners to call him so they can answer the questions he poses in his jazz trivia contest, whose winners will supposedly receive gift certificates to local barbecue restaurants. The listeners are played by… the audience. On each seat is a phone number and a request: “Please silence your phone, but LEAVE IT ON. You will have a chance to use it.” It takes a while and much exhortation from Ray – including allowing two guesses to a true-false question – for the audience to realize that they are being asked to use their cell phones to call in. But eventually they do, leading to general hilarity and ad-libbing.