The band plays on in A Red Orchid’s vibrant ’33 to Nothing’

SHARE The band plays on in A Red Orchid’s vibrant ’33 to Nothing’
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Aaron Holland (left) and Steve Haggard in a scene from “33 to Nothing.” | Michael Brosilow

Heaven knows there are worse ways to spend 90 minutes than watching Steve Haggard and Aaron Holland lock eyes over smoldering guitar solos and vocals packed with more sexual tension than the last dance of the senior prom.

As the real-time band rehearsal plays out in Grant James Varjas’ drama-with-music, the sound is mighty indeed as it rips through eight original songs penned by the playwright. Imagine “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” mashed with Nirvana, “Passing Strange” and Bowie in his gender-fluid years and you’ll get an idea of the sensibility informing the score and the dialogue.

’33 to Nothing’ ★★★ When: Through May 27 Where: A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells Tickets: $30-$35 Info: www.aredorchidtheatre.org Run time: 90 minutes with no intermission

Director Tyrone Phillips and music director John Cicora shepherd the drama through Vargas’ music, each song tearing another layer from the emotional defenses the band members have nurtured for years. There are least two moments in “33 to Nothing” that’ll make you want to whip out a lighter, click on the flame and wave it skyward.

The harmonies are exquisite, the lyrics raw and real, the cast members play their own instruments. When “33 to Nothing” closes, the ensemble could probably make a decent living gigging round the city.

But here’s the fundamental problem: For the audience to care about the demise of the band, it first has to care about the band in general. For all the cast’s musical prowess and impeachable acting, Varjas’ dialogue doesn’t give enough to make the audience truly invest in the ensemble’s fate. The plot is a meander rather than a propulsive arrow. It’s also fairly predictable. (When the topic of Yoko Ono comes up, you can pretty much see where things are headed.)

The plot could actually be a parable for any number of idealistic Off-Loop theater startups: Artists and longtime friends/lovers pour their heart and soul into making it big, but eventually break apart as they move into parenthood, non-showbiz careers and the dawning realization that they’ are not the next Rolling Stones. Or even the next REO Speedwagon. Once that hard truth sets in, an IT career in Wisconsin doesn’t seem so bad.

The band members are recognizable types: Lead vocalist/keyboardist Gray (Aaron Holland) and guitarist Bri (Steve Haggard) are former lovers who aren’t over each other. Their rapport is alternately flirtatious and angry and potently sexual, the frayed nerves of their dissolution flaring up like an open wound. Glam drummer Barry (Jeff Kurysz) is under the thumb of a demanding girlfriend. Guitarist Tyler (Amanda Raguel Martinez) and bassist Alex (Annie Prichard) are lovers and partners with big plans for their future.

Jeff Kurysz (from left), Amanda Raquel Martinez, Annie Prichard and Steve Haggard in “33 to Nothing” at A Red Orchid Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

Jeff Kurysz (from left), Amanda Raquel Martinez, Annie Prichard and Steve Haggard in “33 to Nothing” at A Red Orchid Theatre. | Michael Brosilow

As Gray, Holland does much of the heavy lifting with a performance that lets him fully unleash his formidable vocal prowess. Gray might not have a job or a home or the ability to stay sober before cocktail hour, but even drunk, his music is unstoppable. Outsized talent and undeniable passion go a long way toward excusing Gray’s recalcitrance to grow up.

The joy in “33 to Nothing” comes in watching (and hearing) these musician/actors ply their duel-purpose craft. Haggard knows his way around a bar chord or two, and brings a sweetness to even the hardest-hitting licks. Martinez has a whiskey-over-gravel alto that fuels the harmonies. Prichard wields the bass as if it were an appendage. And Holland, well, he’s got musical bonafides of a real rock star.

That A Red Orchid provides everyone in the audience with earplugs speaks to Joe Court’s uncompromising sound design. The show is thunderously loud, in all the right ways. Set designer Eleanor Kahn has more than two dozen speakers on the stage, and sound-proofing foam on the walls. You’re going to hear every note here, each one instilled with furious intent.

When the ensemble plugs in and lets loose — whether on a power ballad about true love or a head-banging he-done-me-wrong song – the results are (wait for it) electric. The plot fizzles, but you’ll not want to miss hanging with the band.

Catey Sullivan is a local freelance writer.

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