“The last refuge of privacy,” is how the central object in The Secret Diary of Nora Plain was described by the song cycle’s lyricist, Lucky Fonz III at National Sawdust this past weekend. In their US debut, premiering this haunting, labyrinthine yet often shatteringly direct suite to a sold-out audience, Dutch ensemble the Ragazze Quartet were bolstered by the eclectic beats of percussionist Remco Menting.
In front of the ensemble, charismatic singer Nora Fischer channeled the increasing terror of being caught in the spycams’ deadly web, whether calm and stoic, shivering on the floor or twitching like a marionette, Ian Curtis-style. “Let bygones be bygones,” she encouraged coolly during one of the early songs, hope against hope. At that point it wasn’t clear just what this story’s everywoman had done – if anything – to catch Big Brother’s merciless eye, a conclusion that the suite left hanging. That only raised the suspense, underscoring how anyone with an identifiable cellphone or a Facebook page – or without one, conceivably – could be caught in the trap.
Fischer is force of nature. At her quietest, she brought a plaintive, sometimes prayerful quality to the narrative; at her loudest, she belted with a gale-force wail worthy of Aretha. Likewise, the quintet of musicians began with an atmospheric whisper and rose in a series of waves, through as many different styles as a string quartet augmented by a drummer with a full kit plus vibraphone could possibly play.
The stage direction was spare yet tightly focused on an ever-encroaching menace, pushing Nora further and further toward the edge. There were moments when the quartet drew ominously closer and closer to her; other times, they fell in line as good soldiers in a police state are required to. Menting took a couple of turns behind a small keyboard during quieter, more atmospheric interludes. Likewise, violinists Rosa Arnold and Jeanita Vriens shifted to Menting’s vibraphone and bowed icy, airy textures at a couple of the suite’s most whispery ebbs.
The songs, with music by Morris Kliphuis, rose and fell, akin to Elvis Costello’s Juliet Letters with music by Philip Glass and Caroline Shaw and played by Rasputina, perhaps. Cellist Rebecca Wise propelled those shifts with stark, raw washes along with elegantly incisive pizzicato; violist Annemijn Bergkotte was a spare, striking presence in both the low and higher registers as well. Stylistically, the segments ran the gamut from hypnotically circling, kinetic chamber rock – often spiced with allusively macabre, Glass-ine phrases – to an emphatic detour into funk, murky mood pieces, and a couple of rises to sheer terror, most grippingly in Rat in My Room. Whether that rat was the four-legged or two-legged kind was left to the audience to figure out.
Was Fischer’s final exit what it seemed on the surface, a coyly triumphant slip out the side door? Or was she going elsewhere? Readers of Lois Lowry‘s dystopic classic The Giver will get that reference. Anyone concerned with the perilous state of civil liberties should see this hauntingly enigmatic, rivetingly disturbing, potently relevant work.