Stephen Kass as the Doctor and Katie Sample as one of the incarnations of Bastian Bachman performed a song during Bachman’s surgery — one of the most expansive scenes in the show. (Alexandra Scoville/DD)
“The Seven Layers of Bastian Bachman” is a performance that draws its power from the little moments.
Its immersive nature elevates it from play to production, but the intimate connections formed between characters and audience members make it more than just an experience.
The first time I saw it, one of the characters pulled me into a scene, holding my hand and speaking to me as if I were one of her patients. The third time, I spent 10 minutes singing and humming lullabies with a character who had dementia.
I saw “Bastian Bachman” a total of four times and each experience was completely different. It cheapens the power of the show to liken it to a choose-your-own-adventure book, but that’s the best way to describe it to someone who hasn’t seen it.
Staged at the Icehouse by ASU Herberger Institute students, the production places audience members inside the mind of Bastian Bachman, a famous composer with a brain tumor in his last hours of life.
The audience members literally become memories inside Bachman’s head, wandering around the Icehouse’s three floors along with the other characters, which include family members, neighbors, creepy nurses and a spectacularly dramatic doctor as well as four separate incarnations of Bachman.
One of the most powerful things about the play is that no matter what their role in the storyline is, each character experiences at least one moment of humanity.
The production’s intensity runs the gamut from goth rock operas to mournful acoustic guitar-accompanied soliloquies. Sound and silence are critical to both its message and the general experience itself, and no scene is complete without music of some sort, whether its characters pounding piano keys or humming in synchronization.
The original songs were catchy and well-performed, anything but grating, something a lot of musical-esque performances struggle with.
Zachary Scot Johnson as one of the incarnations of Bastian Bachman and Rina Hajra as Bachman’s wife, Marie. (Alexandra Scoville/DD)
Beyond their musical talents, the cast had remarkable acting range as well. Working inside a conceptual framework director Megan Weaver and three other students came up with after a class prompt, the cast wrote the script themselves.
The process consisted of essentially placing random characters in a room with basic directions again and again until a scene that worked with the narrative came out of it.
The dialogue and plot was inspired by a variety of artists such as Andy Warhol, David Bowie and Philip Glass and the sets, relying on medical, musical and botanical motifs, were as compelling as the storyline.
Some of the best performances were the simplest, somehow finding within Bachman’s memories a home they’d be hard-pressed to find in any other production. Oscar, the character with dementia, did little more than hum and wander around asking people where his glass of water was, but his character still managed to be sweet, heartbreaking and kind.
One of the incarnations of Bachman spent the entire performance expressionless, walking in slow motion around a room lit with candles.
The character of the Doctor, played by Stephen Kass, was one of the most compelling simply due to how energetic and erratic he was. The Doctor was the closest human source of evil the play had, and his overly dramatic mannerisms seemed to be a product of how Bachman saw his role in his life and the decline of his memories.
Kass’ acting was at times physical as he jumped halfway out windows and onto and off of platforms, shouting or singing the entire time, and at times expressive — he, like most of the actors, would hold eye contact with audience members during scenes or as he walked by.
“The Seven Layers of Bastian Bachman” was easily the most unique performance I’ve ever seen. It was incredibly beautiful and moving, something I wish everyone could experience and something I wish I could continue experiencing.
It’s exciting to see such high-quality, intensive productions coming from the Herberger Institute. As “Bastian Bachman” marks their second immersive performance at the Icehouse, I hope to see more experimental pieces at that venue in the future.