A Checkroom Romance
By Ben Katchor and Mark Mulcahy
May 15, 2009
Stephen A, Schwarzman Building, New York Public Library
It wasn’t the regular New York comics crowd Friday night at the South Court auditorium. First Second’s Sarah Varon was there, seated toward the back, and of course there was Ben Katchor, hovering in the rear of the theatre, by the door. Just about everyone else, however, seemed to have arrived at the event from the live theatre side of things—many, perhaps, were devoted followers of the series put on by The Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers, a local fellowship tasked with presenting a diverse array of live stage productions.
The South Court auditorium is located underground—downstairs at the Stephen A. Schwarzman building, the recently renamed centralized headquarters for the New York Public Library famously guarded by two stoic stone lions. On Friday night the room was host to the second sold out night of A Checkroom Romance, a music-comedy—or, perhaps more appropriately a pop-music opera. It’s hard to figure out exactly what to call the performance, really, as it seemed to really exist in a class of its own—a stage show without precedent, really, save perhaps by the previous production of its creators, Julius Kniple artist Ben Katchor and former frontman of Miracle Legion (and later Pete & Pete houseband, Polaris) turned composer, Mark Mulcahy.
The majority of the center of the stage was devoted to a screen displaying Katchor’s art for the show, a combination of still illustrations and brief bursts of animation of either the After Effects or Flash variety. After the lights dimmed, a band of four took to the stage—Ken Maiuri and Dave Trenholm seated behind a variety of different instruments and the show’s primary vocalists Flora Reed and Mulcahy standing upfront behind twin mics.
Katchor had written the show’s dialogue, a hilariously sordid tale of obsession of the architectural, musical, and tamely sexual varities. The entirety of Katchor’s words were sung by the quartet in different character roles, each scene taking the form of a different, the musicians themselves performing under dimmed light, so that Katchor’s art might serve as the visual centerpiece. The subject matter’s ever increasing sense of absurdity was delivered with a sense of utmost earnestness. The musicians, happily, were intent on letting the audience’s laughter come to them, rather than the other way around.
At least aesthetically the show was something of a logical evolution of the standard visual live visual presentation of sequential art—an artist reading along to a slideshow. The complexity of Katchor’s plot and the fullness of Mulcahy’s pop-infused compositions, however, made for an entirely new experience. Divorced of one another, either would have succeeded creatively, be it as a Katchor-penned graphic novel or a Mulcahy/Katchor concept album performed rather fantastically by the four musicians. The swirling multimedia effects, however, suggested a fascinating new possibility for sequential art adaptations, one that fully embraces the input of the source material’s original creator in ways that the creativity-by-committee of television and films cannot.
Friday was just the second—and for now final—night of workshopping for the show. In spite of A Checkroom Romance’s relatively green nature, however, the show was delivered incredibly tightly, with the utmost confidence in the material. And the sold out audience—in spite, perhaps, of not quite knowing what to make of what was unfolding—was suitable impressed.