Built around the remembrances of homeless park dwellers – five vocal roles, a silent role, and an unseen companion – Dust is among Ashley’s strongest and most sublime achievements: a gorgeous, humane, and unfailingly decent sequence of five long monologues more spoken than sung, a brief and chaotic entanglement, and five pop-song redolent epilogues.
The student performers tasked with inhabiting the vocal roles had their work cut out for them. Try to imagine being Mario Diaz-Moresco, who took up Ashley’s own central role (“I Live in the Park”), or Julia Meadows, tasked with portraying “Lucille” under the watch of the original Lucille, Joan La Barbara, who served as the musical director for this revival. And each of the performers featured in Thursday’s premiere (two of whom cede their spots to other performers in repeat performances) handled their duties artfully and affectingly.
A performer’s age inevitably has some bearing on how a character in an opera can come across to an audience, here no less than with Mozart’s Almaviva or Verdi’s Falstaff. But La Barbara and William Gustafson, the producer and stage director, clearly coached their players well; if Diaz-Moresco couldn’t quite convey wizened gravitas, he compensated with incantatory focus.
Likewise, I missed the gravity of aged regret Thomas Buckner brought to his portrayal of “The Rug” in Ashley’s company, yet Alexander Greenzeig’s performance here conveyed the requisite longing elegantly enough. Marisa Karchin was winsome and perky as “Shirley Temple,” a role created by the ineffably bubbly Jacqueline Humbert. Allison Gish actually found fresh shades of self-flagellating nuance in the role of “Green Pants,” a part originally performed by Ashley’s son, Sam Ashley. (The gender switch subtly swayed the narrative, but not destructively.) And Meadows was breathtaking, her raucous nihilism and cheeky profanity extending to a physical presence rare in an Ashley staging.
That physicality was enhanced by an economical yet ingenious staging that called upon the performers to stand up, microphones in hand, and move around their small patches of stage. White umbrellas hung overhead; surrounding the performers were placards emblazoned with pleas for assistance all too familiar from similar signs on New York City’s sidewalks and subways. Those suspended surfaces doubled as screens for projected photographs and live video manipulated by scenographer Troy Hourie, embedded upstage in the silent role of “Leonard.”
Offstage, keyboardist Jack Gruber offered lounge-jazz filigree worthy of Ashley’s close collaborator “Blue” Gene Tyranny. David Van Tieghem, a featured performer in Ashley’s landmark 1983 video opera Perfect Lives, managed sound design with Emily Auciello, in consultation with one more longtime Ashley cohort, Tom Hamilton.
Fully 18 months in the making, this new Dust was a striking success for all involved. But more, it proved anew that Ashley’s works, however bespoke and idiosyncratic they might once have seemed, not only can be preserved, produced, tweaked, and reimagined, but should be, and must be.
Dust repeats on Feb. 3 and 4 at The New School; all performances are sold out.