Sometimes it’s really hard to hold your applause until the end. Such is the case with HELD: A Musical Fantasy, now playing at Drom as part of the New York International Fringe Festival. Kelly Maxwell (book and lyrics) and Meghan Rose (composer) have worked their own kind of magic, crafting a lovely fairy tale filled with sophisticated, beautifully layered songs. HELD is about love of all sorts as much as it’s about selfishness, jealousy, sacrifice and forgiveness.
Three friends — Mera the soldier (Katie Bakalars), Bardo the baker (Alex Van Handel) and Korin the Dreamer (Hannah Ripp-Dieter) — have been trapped by an unknown “Blood Wizard,” who has kept them suspended, without hunger or thirst, for weeks. Their cell is a cold stone room without windows or a door, and the only escape is into memory, where they put together the pieces that eventually solve the mystery of their captor’s identity.
Mera and Korin have been best friends since they were girls, though their families discouraged the relationship. Mera knew she was destined to kill or be killed, and Korin, as a Dreamer — a kind of magician — is supposed to protect and sustain life. As a child, Bardo had followed them to the clearing in the woods where they often met and ever since the three have been inseparable. Now, however, war approaches their village and Mera and Korin are called to take up their family mantles. Their destinies are at odds, but the source of their greatest strain has remained secret until recently. As it happens, Korin loves Mera, who loves Bardo, who loves Korin.
The non-linear structure and parallel narrative may confuse at first, but as the plot builds toward its inevitable conclusion the symmetry becomes the means of ramping up tension and feeling. It’s easy to see what’s coming from the hints dropped like breadcrumbs along the way, but that doesn’t hinder the enjoyment of the story or change the fact that the music and performances are all excellent. The three leads’ voices complement one another with crispness and bell-like clarity.
The production I attended suffered from some sound inconsistency, mainly uneven microphones, which wasn’t as terrible as it could have been thanks to good projection on the singers’ parts and the somewhat intimate performance space. However there were moments when one voice was almost lost among the other two. Thankfully these moments were infrequent and the singers did well compensating vocally to make up for a lack of technology.
The music was played live on stage, with Rose at the piano and accompanists Jake Ripp-Dieter and Kristine Kruta on bass and cello, respectively. The combination of voices and music is both effective and affecting, with lots of emotion infused into every song.
Director S.C. Lucier uses all of Drom’s small stage as well as bringing the actors out into the audience at times. The back-and-forth nature of the story makes it a challenge to divide the scenes without the use of scenery and lots of props, but it was done well enough with small changes to lighting, costume changes, and by moving two small cube ottomans around the stage.
Maxwell’s choice to make the women the more dangerous and powerful characters, leaving the man to fill the role of gentle baker and consoler, was a nice means of shaking up the standard fairy tale tropes. It also makes a nice statement about pursuing your truth, no matter what others think of it.
Even if the plot was somewhat predictable, it was told with care and creativity. All told, HELD was one of the best Fringe shows I’ve seen. Get a seat while you can.
Photos: Shira Friedman Photography
Top: Katie Bakalars, Hannah Ripp-Dieter, Alex Handel
HELD: A Musical Fantasy
Fringe Venue #5 Drom
85 Avenue A, New York, NY 10009 (between 5th and 6th)
One last performance: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, August 25, 2016
For tickets: Fringe NYC