Delve deep into the darkness with The Stillpointe Theatre Initiative’s production of Shovel in the Dirt: A Grave Digger’s Musical (Replotted). Hosted at the EMP Collective of Baltimore, this macabre tale takes the audience on a dark journey through a perfect little town where everyone has become depressed – everyone except the Grave Digger and his bride-to-be. It’s a haunting love story set against a dark and ghoulish backdrop that keeps the audience in rapt attention with the morbid downward spiral of death, tragedy and loss.
The orchestrations, composed by the members of the orchestra and members of STI, are eerily inviting. They bring a foreboding sense of doom while still sounding lively, creating the perfect soundtrack to this dark story. Seven bodies play as one, creating swells of emotion to accompany the soulful singers. All of the creative elements in the show – the lighting design, the miraculous costumes, and the set are a collective effort from the collaborative team.
The backdrop itself is almost gruesome – looking like blue decaying scraps of flesh stitched together like Frankenstein with a faded black outline of cemetery sketches painted upon it. The costumes are whimsical, almost like a rudimentary approach to the styling of Tim Burton. Black and heavy accentuated with book pages, torn and reshaped to make huge bustles for the women and strapped collars for the men. The prominent wigs are made from paper coin rollers – even the tombstones are shaped in a papier-mâché style from the torn book pages. It creates a sense of garbage come to life – like a monster from a childhood tale growing up through the floorboards and across the back wall. The entire layout of the show transports the audience to another world; a world consumed by gloom.
Perhaps the most unique factor of this show is not the incredible costumes composed of book pages, or the phenomenal orchestra, but the fact that the show shifts scenes in an almost unimaginable way. The first act, taking place mostly in the cemetery – is staged on the main floor of the space. But for act II, the audience is asked to descend a flight of stairs to the basement where a Cabaret of the Underworld is showcased for viewing pleasure. There are tables and chairs and a performance stage just like one would expect in a dodgy nightclub. The atmosphere is well crafted, so much so that you lose yourself in the notion almost forgetting that you’re in act II of the play. It is a fantastic experience, getting caught up in the moment, even wanting to sing along at times.
The musical is enchanting in an ominous sort of way. The singing is divine. From the opening number when the full ensemble floods the stage, they are wailing in unearthly voices, almost like the cries of ghosts or mourners to welcome Henry Spade (Will Carson) to the stage. Carson is a powerful voice; a force to be reckoned with when he sings. His solo, “Speck of Dirt” is soulful and speaks of his troubles and desires to the audience. Carson shares several duets with his young bride Cecile (Kristen Zwobot). The pair right from the beginning display deep true love between them; a tall order to deliver in such a short amount of time but this pair does not disappoint. Immediately they create a convincing love between them, so deep and connected that when loss occurs it is devastating. Carson does an impressive job of expressing loss his face conveying horrendously anguished looks of pain as it washes over him that he has lost his true love. The disbelief is so palpable that you almost start crying with him as he mourns her.
The ensemble is extremely strong as they sing, telling the story as it unfolds. But the most stunning moment in act I comes during “Bury Her” as they are cold and unfeeling, telling Henry he must overcome his wife’s death and simply bury her because that is his job. The Mayor (Nicolas Staigerwald) really enforces these harsh commands with his severe frown and booming voice. Staigerwald leads the group in this angry indifference, truly putting the pressure on Carson. They creep over him both physically and vocally, almost like death – inescapable – closing in upon him. The finale to act I is so haunting you’ll have chills shooting up your spine. Henry is left alone in stark darkness, and he begins to chant a song, stomping on the floorboards. He cries out with a wounded soul, so profoundly that it is moving, and then the orchestra joins him – moving in the darkness to the stage with their instruments, playing along and stomping as if to thrash a hole in the floor to literally take you down into Henry’s hole.
The beautiful singing voices and true creativity of these players really gets a chance to shine in act II. Many of the players take turns at the microphone singing their death songs. These cleverly crafted lyrics explain in jazzy tunes, and mournful ones, how they’ve come to die. Boss Lady (Danielle Robinette) acts like an MC, with her sensual approach to keeping her patrons there and letting them feel more than welcome. She belts a soulful tune during “Come on Down” the true invitation to all present to come into her seedy establishment there in hell. Robinette has the perfect attitude for this role and commands it with a fiery touch of finesse.
The audience is treated to a range of vocal acts, each more stunning and unbelievable than that before it. We hear the harrowing tale of a young lover’s tragic death from Katie O. Solomon during “Not Yours (Could Be The One).” Her voice is smooth and simple, like a pleasant young woman, but as you hear the words she’s singing you grow horrified and disgusted. The same happens with the diva duo shared between Grace Anastasiadas and Shelly Work. There’s a true humor to be found between Anastasiadas and Work as they duel for the spotlight over who could plot the death of the other better and succeed. They start belting soprano notes and trying to outdo the other with their malicious modes of murder; a true darkly hysterical moment.
But the moment you truly feel caught up in the underworld is when The Crow-quettes (Sarah Heiderman, Jessica Harris, and violinist Tracey Shindledecker) take to the microphone with their hell’s angels rendition of “Amazing Grace.” It has a fiery soulful feel to it, as they twist the melody with the help of guitarist Brian Loeper and infuse a little sin to the otherwise holy song. It’s a toe-tapping, soul-thumping number that will have you in a blazing trance as you listen.
Cecile makes her return late in act II to serenade the audience with her woeful song, even if it is a bit more love-inspired now that she is singing to the ether her devotion to her husband. Zwobot has the glistening voice of an angel, even if she is trapped in hell, and brings deep emotions to her songs. Of course her arrival causes quite the cacophony amongst the players, who are mingling with the crowd as regular bar patrons, bringing the audience beer wine and shots. Caution: The Fireball Shot might just keep you hellbound if you have one too many. And then the flames of hell truly blaze bright when Henry tries to leave – Bossy Lady coming to insist he stay. It is almost maddening watching him struggle because you just wish he’d sit down and enjoy the atmosphere of the cabaret like everyone else. It is such an intense unique experience that it is a double-edged sword that the three remaining performances are completely sold out.