Review: ‘Jib: or, The Child Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was’ at Christ Church Neighborhood House in Philadelphia, PA

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A multimedia synthesis of music, film, and drama, Jib: or, The Child Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was traces the rise and fall of a fictional rock star through arcane fragmented scenes of her past, in her mind, and with the otherworldly forces that invisibly steer our lives. Co-produced by Old Sound Room and The Windmill Factory, the Philadelphia premiere is the latest incarnation of the work-in-development that began as a thesis project at the Yale School of Drama.

Jon Morris and Laura Gragtmans. Photo by Matthew Soltesz.
Jon Morris and Laura Gragtmans. Photo by Matthew Soltesz.

Written and directed by Michael McQuilken, the highly conceptualized narrative evokes a perplexing hallucinatory state of altered consciousness and alternate realities, with episodes of mental illness and drug use, parallel lives, Puppet Masters, and after-death experiences, as it moves back and forth across space, time, and enigmatically inter-related characters. The audience also moves with the immersive performance, as we are led from our seats towards the concert stage on which Jib and her band are playing at the end of Act I, then downstairs into another more baffling space for Act II and the show’s unsettling conclusion.

Leah Siegel stars as the eponymous and sadly archetypal rocker, haunted by the loss of her loved ones as her fame, popularity, and wealth grow and then decline. She skillfully conveys Jib’s transformation from a talented young girl to a cocaine-snorting diva, unable to cope with life, aging, death, or the “huge responsibility” of “making up songs.” Her stirring vocals of original music by Amanda Palmer, Jason Webley, The Few Moments, and Firehorse–which range from the profoundly poignant style of “If You Don’t Want To Be Alone (I Will Never Leave You)” and the titular “The Child Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was” to the searing punk-rock power of “The Fisherman’s Wife”—drive and anchor the show, and offer heartrending insights into her tormented character (the highly recommended CD of Jib’s music is available for purchase at the venue).

Leah Siegel and Joe Trombino. Photo by Matthew Soltesz.
Leah Siegel and Joe Trombino. Photo by Matthew Soltesz.

A talented ensemble of of six–Brenden Titley, Daniel Reece, Jillian Taylor, Joe Trombino, Jon Morris, and Laura Gragtmans–portrays multiple characters in cryptic subplots—including a comatose daughter in a hospital bed, a news reporter at the scene of an accident, and a psychiatrist in an asylum–that mirror Jib’s life, inspiration, and music, and ultimately come together in a chilling fatalist vision. Most notable among the supporting performances are Trombino’s impressive harmonies as Jib’s fellow bandmate and Taylor’s unearthly “Angie: Solo” that echoes through the theater, in a masterful sound design by Zack McKenna and Nicholas Pope.

Leah Siegel. Photo by Matthew Soltesz.
Leah Siegel. Photo by Matthew Soltesz.

The haunting tone of the music and story, inspired in part by Jib’s taste for the disquieting fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, are enhanced by an evocative design by Michael McQuilken, Jon Morris, and Maruti Evans, with haze, colored lights and strobes, live Foley sound effects, pre-recorded video projections, and a live feed shot during each performance by cinematographer Anne Cecelia Haney. Costumes by Laura Clarke help to define the different personalities and the evolution of the protagonist.

With its multitude of media, mysterious characters and imagery, and a running time of over two hours, the “non-traditional” production at times suffers from confusion and a feeling of sensory overload. But Jib: or, The Child Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was succeeds in creating a provocative vision and an affecting soundscape that will surely appeal to fans of innovative theater.

Running Time: Approximately two hours and 20 minutes, including a 10-minute intermission.

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Jib: or, The Child Who Went Forth to Learn What Fear Was plays through Saturday, December 17, 2017, at Old Sound Room, performing at Christ Church Neighborhood House – 20 North American Street, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (610) 644-3500 or purchase them online.

**Listen to some of the songs here.

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