Review: Crystal Jukebox Hymn at Glasshouse

"Crystal Jukebox Hymn" at Glasshouse ArtLifeLab ©Anthony Farina

“I consider myself a poet first and a musician second,” said Bob Dylan, “I’ll live like a poet and I’ll die like a poet.” Through a captivating performance of Crystal Jukebox Hymn, which was devised from Dylan’s book of experimental prose and poetry Tarantula (1966), his words found new life this past weekend at Glasshouse in Williamsburg.

"Tarantula" by Bob Dylan book cover

Dylan wrote Tarantula between 1965 and 1966, although he later said that “things were running wild at that point. It never was my intention to write a book.” Critics at the time did not know what to make of it, and the book was universally panned. Today, some critics will point to the “high-art symphony of allegoric metaphor” found in passages “fertile with commentary on Civil Rights and twentieth-century politics,” and paying homage to “the ghosts of Kerouac and Shakespeare via Greek mythology.” (This critic thinks that major accolades are in order for creator/director G.J. Dowding for setting his hand to such challenging material and turning it into an accessible, highly enjoyable performance.)

On Saturday, the space was packed as much as a seat-less room can be—around twenty people sat on the floor against two of the walls while others spilled outside of the building, some standing with their faces pressed to the window to catch the performance. The third wall was taken up by a projection of the live stream of the performance as it was actually taking place (meta-cam?).

Hunter MacNair as The Crazy Mailman ©Anthony Farina

The nine actors (ten, if you include Dowding, who briefly abandons the sound control laptop to slide nondescriptly into a scene) had been rehearsing since April and stayed perfectly in character, with stand-out performances by J.R. Yussuf as the Narrator/Chief of Police and Virginia Rupert as The Senator.

Rupert & Yussuf in "Crystal Jukebox Hymn" ©Ona Abelis

“It was very engaging,” said Brooklyn resident Miles Oliver, “I thought it was intense and creative at the same time.” The actors cried, laughed, and fell within inches of the audience, taking us through a crime scene, a bar, a forest, and an asylum as their characters navigated through 1960s-era social issues like prejudice, propaganda, war, and privacy (which remain eerily relevant today). Although I’m not familiar with Dylan’s original work, this version seemed to capture what I know as Dylan’s musical spirit while being almost maniacally entertaining.

Of course, for anyone who has seen Crystal Jukebox Hymn, I won’t pretend that I knew what was happening in every scene or that I understood all of the references. The book itself is infamous for nonsensical lines like, “Now’s not the time to get silly, so wear your big boots and jump on the garbage clowns.” But, what’s extraordinary is that so much was brought to life in a simple, square space with hardly any props and the meta-projection as a backdrop. Even if I wasn’t always sure what I was looking at, I can assure you that I liked what I saw.

Glasshouse is an art-life-lab founded by artists Lital Dotan & Eyal Perry, and is located on 246 Union Avenue in Brooklyn (Twitter: @glasshouse247).

About Ona A

Ona Abelis is a Brooklyn poet & journalist. Follow her on Twitter & IG @obelis as she follows her dreams.

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