“Can you hear my pain?” Donny Hathaway asks after singing a gospel-laced tune. Yes, we can, and the anguish is agonizing and exhilarating throughout “Twisted Melodies,” Kelvin Roston Jr.’s brave one-man jukebox musical about the soul and R&B artist from the 1960s and ’70s.
Roston wrings himself out in dramatizing Hathaway’s ordeal with mental health, skillfully banging an electronic keyboard and singing like a man on fire in this 90-minute show at Mosaic Theater. Across town at Studio Theatre, Alexander Strain is likewise holding the stage alone for about the same time in “Every Brilliant Thing,” playing a man grappling with depression but in a brighter yet still shadowed mood. Where Roston’s Hathaway flinches and cowers alone in a hotel room as he copes with paranoid schizophrenia, Strain’s character sprints through a cabaret-style space, often kneeling in front of patrons as he coaxes them to take part.
These solo performances form a sort of yin and yang of shows with suicide as a binder. The character so buoyantly played by Strain is haunted by his mother’s suicide attempts, while Hathaway is depicted on the day he fell to his death off a hotel balcony in 1979. The themes may be dark, but the actors are doing striking work.
In both cases, the fourth wall is shattered and the audience is directly engaged. “Solo” is an inadequate word for Strain’s performance, because he does nearly everything in collaboration with the patrons, making them feel utterly safe and warm. The 80-minute piece, by British writer Duncan Macmillan and original performer Jonny Donahoe, is about a man coping with his mother’s pain and fighting depression himself. Starting at age 7, with her first attempt, the boy begins to generate a list of life’s delights.
Co-opting the audience in inventive, disarming ways makes the show therapeutic and conscience-raising; bits of data and tips are stitched into the act. (Not overpublicizing suicide is recommended; apparently, it’s contagious.) But it’s also an ingenious bit of storytelling. The list itself is alive, and Strain’s energy is life-affirming as he races around the room high-fiving people, or as he sits on the stage like a little boy, looking up at an audience member playing a former teacher who would use a sock puppet to talk to kids.
Euphoria and loss are as delicately balanced as they were under Jason Loewith’s direction last year at the Olney Theatre Center, in a production that Studio is re-creating as part of its new Showroom series. The connection Strain forges is what makes this performance so unique: The character he creates asks for help. The audience gives it to him. It’s an unusually unifying bit of theater.
The artifice is not so subtle in “Twisted Melodies”: Roston’s Hathaway hears us react, looks startled, then figures we are his muses, or “angels.” That gives him an excuse to explain his life directly — how he came to music and, as the paranoia drives him to yank the phone out of the wall and hide in corners, how the voices in his head are making him crazy.
Technically, this is a jukebox musical, though it’s more honest than most of the genre’s money-grabbing, feel-good machines. A market-oriented version would include someone playing Hathaway’s wife, Eulaulah, and someone as his great duet partner and not-quite love, Roberta Flack. A snippet of “The Closer I Get to You” gets the audience singing along, unprompted.
Roston goes a more grueling route, embodying a tormented Hathaway who tells the history himself and sometimes snaps off the endings of songs because his mind is turning so sharply inward. Eventually he lashes out at his diagnosis and gives us an angry tour of the drugs that further mess him up.
“It’s like rigor mortis for the living,” Hathaway says as Roston’s demanding physical performance hits writhing levels.
You hear the troubled edge in the music, mostly played by Roston on keyboard. The vulnerability is never out of earshot, no matter how powerfully the voice is lifted, and especially not when a word like “try” gets drawn out like a long, dry wind. Roston sings with the soul-quaking conviction of gospel, only without the promise of redemption.
The show, directed by Derrick Sanders (the production is in association with the Apollo Theater, Baltimore Center Stage and Congo Square Theatre Co.), is peppered with boogeyman shadows on the walls. The projections are by Mike Tutaj, but those shadows seem to be cast by the aching doubt embedded in Roston’s voice.
Roston singing Hathaway’s slow burn “Giving Up” leads to one of the most emotionally packed finishes on a Washington stage this year. The end of the recorded version sounds like a jazz funeral; onstage, with a substantial visual assist from Courtney O’Neill’s expressive set, it sounds like a rocket to the moon. The contradiction is remarkable — how exalting the moment is without compromising Roston’s unflinching gaze at Hathaway’s destructive demons.
Twisted Melodies, written and performed by Kelvin Roston Jr. Directed by Derrick Sanders. Costumes, Dede Ayite; lights, Alan C. Edwards; sound, Christopher M. LaPorte. Through July 21 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. $20-$68. 202-399-7993 or mosaictheater.org
Every Brilliant Thing, by Duncan Macmillan and Jonny Donahoe. Directed by Jason Loewith. Scenic design, Paige Hathaway; lights, Max Doolittle; sound design, Ryan Gravett and Jane Behre; costumes, Debra Kim Sivigny; props, Kate Brittingham. Through July 7 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St. NW. $20-$55. 202-332-3300 or studiotheatre.org.