‘Echosis’ puts a funky spin on ancient story

Last weekend, Kansas City-based artist/composer J Ashley Miller debuted his new operetta, “Echosis,” in a warehouse space at 28th and Southwest Boulevard. Billed as a “live reading” rather than a finished performance, “Echosis” nonetheless felt like a polished stage event — fun, complex, and both musically and visually thrilling. Over 40 people worked for three months to put the 90-minute show together, and the result was much more than the sum of its considerable individual talents.

The story reimagines the myth of Narcissus (Benja Lyman), an ego-consumed gamer, and Echo (Andi Replogle), the nymph whose love for him is initially unrecognized and then unrequited. In this version, Narcissus is caught up not just in his own reflection, but in his identity in the online sphere — a savvy updating of the myth that rings true while providing an immediate relevance to everyone in the crowd who has ever cultivated an online profile (everyone, basically).

Narcissus remains encased in an LED-covered pod, while Echo is surrounded by a posse of goddesses, including Hera, Artemis and Gaia. The goddesses are first seen on the video screens in the background, riding in a car and singing, before the spotlights reveal their standing location on stage. Other colorfully costumed characters include a debauched satyr in Kyle Little’s Pan, a commanding Hera (Victoria Sofia Botero) and a gravelly-voiced Hades (Mark Smeltzer), to name just a few. I recognized many of the cast members as people I’d seen at art events and coffee shops around town, which gave the show an interesting personal dimension, as if the spell of “Echosis” had somehow unleashed a vocal magic previously latent in the local populace.

But, fittingly, it’s the two leads who steal the show. Lyman as Narcissus is a suave, crystal-clear-voiced pop singer whose detached expressions and subtle gestures suggest a suave, fame-weary adolescent who is as much over himself as he is into himself. Replogle as Echo expresses an impressive range of vocal moods and timbres throughout the show, her voice moving from composed and hopeful, to seductive and small, to positively haunting as she laments the eventual self-destruction of Narcissus and her own banishment to Hades.

In between these more consequential scenes are several lighthearted numbers, including an arena sports face-off between Narcissus and a street-dancing Adonis and an auto-tuned pop star turn by Narcissus (whose refrain addressed to “all you havin’ Christmas in the Crossroads” gave Saturday’s performance a funky, hyperlocal flair). Some of these sequences would have just be showing off if they didn’t so effectively evoke and satirize our national obsessions with sports, pop music and our online identities — all arenas of modern life in which it is possible to define oneself individually while losing oneself collectively.

Sonically bolstering the performances is electronic music composed and recorded by Miller, with live accompaniment by Atemporchestra, a small assembly of musicians that performed stage left rather than in a traditional orchestra pit. The combination of live and recorded sounds is an effective one, with standout performances by vibraphonist Tai-Jung Tsai and multi-instrumentalist Amado Espinoza, whose flutes, whistles and ocarina give the modern soundtrack a more deep-rooted, global feel. During the “Pan” number, he unleashed a surprising flurry of trills and bent notes on a pan flute from his native Bolivia, inspiring mid-song applause and salvaging an otherwise less essential number.

Espinoza’s performance underlined one of the operetta’s main strengths — the cohesion of a diverse assembly of performers, genres and talents (not to mention directors, producers, set and costume designers, etc.) While anyone who spends some time in Kansas City can identify its standout talents in the arts fairly quickly, not just anyone can put them together in a way that makes such effective use of their abilities. Credit Miller and the show’s producers for identifying the right individuals and giving them the freedom to do their thing, all while serving the show’s larger vision.

Now that Miller has received some of the city’s biggest arts prizes, I’d encourage him to seek national attention and funding for “Echosis.” While this cast was mostly local, with a few visitors from other Midwest cities, it’s easy to imagine it on a national stage. No one else I’m aware of is doing anything this unique and contemporary with a story this ancient, and I found it a high-caliber performance in spite of its warehouse setting and relatively short preparation time.

In interviews, Miller has stated a desire to spend the next year preparing to carry out his vision on a grander scale. But I also wonder if more elaborate costumes and set designs might be distracting. The drama comes through so successfully because we never forget these are real people, right in front of us, singing about serious emotional distress. My main suggestion would be to include a more complete written program, titling and describing each scene so that we are better able to absorb it and cement it in our memories.

Miller might not have formal training as an opera composer, as the show’s previews pointed out, but he’s also willing to take risks no one else would think of, much less attempt. His energy permeates the show, from the frenetic-yet-smooth delivery of the lyrics to the organic/science fiction aesthetic present in the lights and visuals. That he is bold enough to take on such a project is a credit to his vision. That such an unorthodox production went so smoothly is a testament to the talent pool, collective energy and iconoclasm of Kansas City’s art/musical community.

But the ultimate test of the show’s success is how it affects the viewer, and in that sense it passes with flying colors. Whether we’re focusing on the actors, the musicians or the animations on the video screens, it’s impossible not to think about which side of the screens we are on, questioning how we fit into the story and how our relationships with ourselves and others might also be out of balance. As Horace wrote in the first of his Satires, “Why do you laugh? Change the name and the myth is about you.”

As is the purpose with any classical performance, “Echosis” digs beyond the archetypes to uncover more complex relationships and truths. Narcissus is often viewed as simply an egotistical jerk who can’t get over himself, while Echo is seen as the helpless nymph who doesn’t get the love and attention she deserves. But this performance shows there’s more to it than that, that their relationship actually expresses a fairly natural (if highly complex and problematic) series of dynamics including observer/observed, producer/consumer, male/female, viewer/viewed. These dynamics have been in place for centuries, but in our modern life, this operetta suggests, things are much more fluid.

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