Friday, December 5, 2014

A singular listening experience: Gethsemane, An Epic Poem About Us brings back the compelling genre of radio theatre

Cover of Gethsemane, used by permission of the author
When I think of epic poems, I recall pieces of work written long ago, such as Homer's Odyssey and John Milton's Paradise Lost. So when California author Raymond Jacobs reached out to me about reviewing his most recent work, Gethsemane, An Epic Poem About Us, I was intrigued. And, to celebrate my 100th post on this blog, I thought it was only fitting to review something as thoughtful and fascinating as this title.

 Jacobs takes on the challenge of rhyming an entire intense storyline into three acts, describing the fall of Lucifer and mankind, and then his own ultimate undoing, through the eyes of the Devil himself. Taking it one step further, Jacobs made his poem into what he calls a "Radio Theatre Experience"; inspired by the works of Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre he founded in 1937 that brought famous radio dramas such as War of the Worlds to listeners across the country. Though Jacobs is the main narrator, he utilizes a host of vocal talents to act out various scenarios that the poem describes, such as Lucifer's initial fall from God's grace in the first act. He also uses vocal manipulation software at times - for instance, the deep and booming "voice of the Lord" (played by Sigmund Kramer) is accentuated with an effect making it sound echoing and cavernous.

The result is a program just under two hours that is surprising and wholly unique. While the title lends itself to be thought of as a religious work, Jacobs refutes that, saying that the story is "philosophical, and one with conviction," that speaks to people from all walks of life and all belief systems.

That being said, Gethsemane takes patience. Being such a complicated work, it demands close listening, particularly because of its format as a poem and the accompanying rhyme scheme. Jacobs has an understated, even tone and crisp enunciation, but there are moments when the accompanying sound effects hinder rather than enhance. One such instance is a snake hissing in the background that to my ears overshadowed the main narration, making it hard to catch the main narrator's words, particularly when I was listening in the car. However, the baroque music, composed specifically for this work by Mark Moya, is balanced perfectly to the text and adds an extra layer of emotion to an already powerful work.

Jacobs, who describes the poem as being an "asylum for him to exercise his demons," says that the major challenge of converting Gethsemane into the audio realm is finding volunteers willing to donate their time and talents to the project.

"Their invaluable contribution had more to do with the material they were performing than anything else.  This means casting voice-over actors who were willing to travel (long distances, in some cases) to act a part or recruiting musicians who were willing to squeeze what little time they had between a busy class schedule to rehearse and then record," says Jacobs, via email. "All the musicians involved in the recording of the original, baroque score are students at the University of Southern California and the esteemed Thornton School of Music. They all saw the potential behind the audiobook and made it the unique and exhilarating production that it is."

Gethsemane will not be for everyone - it is edgy with its stark portrayal of passion and death, and how narrow the chasm is between the two. Due to some graphic sensual content, it is definitely geared towards mature audiences. The message is about us as humans - deeply flawed and yet with resilient spirits capable of redemption, even from ourselves.

Toby sez: Moving and complex, this work successfully engages audiences in "active listening" and though some of the sound mixing could've been better balanced, the journey will give them food for thought long after the last stanzas of the story are told.