May 2, 2012
Okay, so they’re transplants who’ve yet to experience their first Dot Day. They’re still new enough to the neighborhood that they marvel at the speed and efficiency of the Red Line from Ashmont into town.
Yeah, that new.
But, this week, we’re claiming Walter Sickert, band co-founder Edrie, and their assorted Army of Broken Toys band-mates as unequivocally ours. After you see their current production — a steamy, immersive, sci-fi theater ride called 28 Seeds that is now being staged at the Boston Center for the Arts through May 12— you’ll want to claim them, too.
The eight-piece band that centers around the feather-and-tat festooned Sickert is the driving force behind the production, a collaborative effort with the Boston theater troupe Liars & Believers, which supplies a stellar line-up of actors and off-stage talent for this first-run show. Sickert wrote the music as a sort of updated War of the Worlds concept album in 2010 — and recorded and mastered all of it in the Ashmont Hill lair that he and Edrie have shared since last June.
Sickert and Edrie had quietly scoured the city for a space large enough to house their weekly rehearsals and personal studio space. They’d first encountered Dorchester’s burgeoning arts scene during a visit to the annual Open Studios weekend two years ago. Both were charmed by the neighborhood, but “never thought we’d be able to afford a place over here.” They kept looking and in 2010 they stumbled across a fixer-upper on Ashmont Hill’s otherwise carefully manicured Alban Street.
“We were probably the only people who actually made it through the front door,” says Edrie with a laugh. But, despite the run-down conditions inside, the pair saw huge potential with plenty of room for their band-mates and friends to record and practice. After a year of back-and-forth, they bought the home in May 2011, even though they had a second-thoughts right up until the signing.
“It was definitely the right decision,” says Sickert. “It’s been nothing but extraordinary surprises. It’s a fantastic neighborhood with awesome restaurants.”
Sickert and Edrie have become regulars at the Ashmont Grill, where they are constantly meeting new neighbors and old friends and fellow artists who have begun gravitating to Dorchester from their old stomping grounds in Allston and Somerville.
“It seems like [Dorchester] is really ripe for an insurgence of artists. If you want to have a studio and space, you want a neighborhood that’s accepting and affordable. I can’t imagine it not getting even better over time.”
But back to the show at hand: 28 Seeds is staged, lit, and blocked out like a page from a graphic novel, another of Sickert’s impressive artistic pursuits. The sky-is-falling storyline is a chaotic amalgam of influences— The Matrix, Max Headrom, Dr. Strangeglove and Walle, with a healthy second-act dose of burlesque— a staple of Sickert and the Toys performances.
But, it’s the music that sets the tone and drives the action. The band never leaves the set, which, depending on the night and the audience, blends and bleeds into the seat next to you or the row behind you. Sickert — seated throughout the two-hour spectacle at center stage behind his keyboard and throwback radio microphone— is the lone immovable object. But he transports through his vocals, which soar through the blackbox BCA space and out the door. He’s expertly complemented by Edrie, who besides operating an old-school camcorder that splashes up-close images on an array of monitors that dot the room, turns an eclectic array of antique toys into instruments.
Meff, the Toys’ gender-bending mandolin and guitar player, has already done another kind of double-duty: She wrote the screenplay, which is based on Sickert’s original 14-song album and comic-book concept. Violist Rachel Jayson, a conservatory-trained high school music director by day, steals more than one scene with her searing, haunting string-work, not to mention the bourbon-red Wild West corset and thigh-high pumps.
The Liars & Believers cast weaves in, around, and— at times— on top of Sickert and the Toys. The evil Army general played wickedly by Steven Emanuelson — and the hapless, auto-bot president played by Lisa Dempsey— drive the story and laughs, with ample help from Karin Webb as a bubbly, box-of-rocks dumb news reader who shines in this production.
The BCA run ends a week from Saturday (May 12) , but Sickert thinks 28 Seeds will be resurrected for the stage someday. There’s ample material still to come from the project, including a video game and more comics based on the show.
But Sickert, Edrie and the Army of Broken Toys have other big game to bag this year. They have a fall tour planned, including two big shows in Boston and New York. And they’re scoping out venues for an actual “end of the world” performance on Dec. 12 of this year, the date that the Mayans say will be our last hurrah.
“Our five-year plan is long, but our five-month plan is even longer,” says Edrie, who says that a collaboration with a ballet company at the Strand Theatre is among the possible projects that they’ll weigh between now and Armageddon. Meantime, they’ll continue to entertain their Ashmont Hill neighbors with weekly rehearsals that are sure to get more, um, noticeable with the window-up weather. Enjoy, if you’re lucky enough to live within earshot.
Otherwise, the best way to get acquainted with Walter Sickert and the Army of Broken Toys is to see their show.
Tickets for 28 Seeds ($35) at the Boston Center for the Arts (Tremont St., South End) are available online at bostontheatrescene.com. Remaining shows are this weekend (Thurs-Saturday) and next weekend (same). See the website armyoftoys.com for more on the band and their various partners and projects.