The hero’s journey often follows three simple steps: protagonist leaves home, protagonist faces challenges in the world, protagonist returns home, changed. But with In a Sea of Faces, composer and librettist Jahn Sood turns this adventure on its head, all the while achieving depths as great as the ocean from which his hero originates.
Sood’s new folk opera at Cloud City (85 N 1st Street) is as playful as waves, as theatrical as changing tides. In the wildly inventive world directed by Katie Melby, the ocean talks back, handheld flashlights articulate battle and shipwreck, and swaying sails cradle a wayward father’s song of homecoming.
That father would be Jacob, sung with gorgeous docility by the likable though often inexpressive Andrew Lynch. Jacob, years before the play begins, left the Unbroken Island in search of adventure, purpose, and truth in the New City, leaving behind a wife and son.
And it is his son James who takes the wonderfully refreshing and not-so-contrived reversed hero’s journey—first returning home after a rocky voyage leaves him unconscious, then learning he had set out to find his father, and ultimately choosing, once his father returns home, to leave the Unbroken Island again when a coming flood threatens to submerge the land (a global warming metaphor?).
As James, Max Demers embodies the twenty-one year old with spry energy and adolescent hunger and sings the role (and Sood’s spectacular score) with a clear and sunny tenor. Meghan McGeary is also a standout as his mother, Rebekah, who might use more of a brogue than the rest of the cast but who sings with fiery, brassy bellow that is equally wistful for her youth and livid when the husband she yearned for comes home too late.
This return is one of the few loopholes in Sood’s light opera. Halfway through Act II, husband and wife sing across seas pledging their love, but when Jacob returns home a few scenes later Rebekah treats him like a cheating louse. McGeary handles this jarring shift as convincingly as she can, but the marital duet might have served better in Act I to allow more time for Rebekah to become stony and impatient in her saint-like waiting.
Still, Sood succeeds in creating a tender and original story through In a Sea of Faces. Most impressive is Sood’s exquisite score, complete with stirring anthems and characterized solos, all written with the bouncy, seafaring lilt of a Gaelic hymn and sung by a masterful cast. (Another vocal highlight comes in the form of Jacob’s sea companion Tiresias, played with charisma and musical bravado by Ashkon Davaran.) The ensemble, comprised of the Unbroken Island and the New City’s local color, is most effective in harmony and in action—executing Melby’s varied staging—but sometimes falters in organically voicing Sood’s iambic, rhymed, and highly lyrical libretto.
But it is not these forgettable faults that dwell after experiencing In a Sea of Faces. Despite a hurried ending, or a half-baked romance between James and his childhood friend, or the difficult task of mixing an orchestra of six and cast of nine in Cloud City’s delightfully scrappy venue, In a Sea of Faces is hands down an intoxicating piece of theater.
In his pre-show speech, Sood shared that he developed and first premiered this play in coastal Maine, desiring to encapsulate the smell of the mudflats, the salt in the air. The current iteration at Cloud City, playing now through September 25, is only In a Sea of Faces’ second go-around, and already the ocean’s spirit and soundscapes have been captured—this show deserves many lives more. For a play about longing to escape, it’s not hard to be charmed by the alluring if not isolated world of Sood’s island, to want to stay there and play a little while longer.