Inventing Armageddon


How many ways can a guitar player look dead? Do they lie slouched with eyes crossed and an unresponsive tongue? Do they stand stiff, the guitar dangling, or do they fall draped and melting over the instrument?

These were the important questions asked and tossed about during rehearsals for the post-apocalyptic stage play 28 Seeds, featuring steamcrunk collectiveWalter Sickert & The Army of Broken Toys. The production – a collaboration with Boston theatre troupe Liars & Believers – was described by Sickert as War of the Worlds meets Rocky Horror Picture Show. So, aliens and cross dressers? We’ll have to see.

“I’ve always been obsessed with the apocalypse and the way people would handle it, or not handle it really well,” Sickert explained. The show takes the audience through the aftermath of some horrific destructive event that cuts short the world’s timeline. The play opened April 19 at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theatre and runs until May 12. The performance of 28 Seeds, though, is only one piece of a sprawling creative liturgy two years in the making. There’s also a comic book, a soundtrack to the play, and the album that started it all. “It’s a multi-media monster,” Sickert said.

The first seed was planted in 2010 when The Toys took part in the annual RPM Challenge, calling artists to record a full album in February, for their second record. Sickert followed his love of early 20th century radio dramas for inspiration. By this point the band had grown to eight members and Sickert thought the different voices were perfect for what would eventually become 28 Seeds: The Last Radio Transmission.

From there the seed began to sprout. Later that year the band was an opening act for the Liars & Believers’ production of Le Cabaret Grimm. Jason Slavick, director of 28 Seeds, found hearts growing in his eyes. “I fell in love with them,” he said. “They’re so theatrical and exciting and incredibly creative—from the get-go I knew I wanted to do a project with them.” Over drinks that summer, Slavick, Sickert and Edrie Edrie, another band member, got the idea of turning the album into a stage play.

In the beginning The Toys consisted only of Sickert and Edrie. Their first show was at the long-gone Sky Bar just before it closed in the summer of 2007. They traveled the states and crossed the mean Atlantic into Europe, touring with acts including The Tiger Lillies and Amanda Palmer. Along the way they collected other members like a conga line. First came Jojo the Burlesque Poetess. “[She] would come on stage and interrupt us, taking poetry out of her undergarments and reading it to the crowd,” Edrie remembered fondly. Then came Meff, described by Jojo as “the genderful magical creature” and performs as a mustached man live. The rest came three years ago. “We thought it would be fun to have an entire band,” Edrie reflected.

“We asked friends and friends of friends to join us on stage with instruments and costumes.” Since then, The Toys have had a rotating cast ballooning up to fifteen people and shriveling to as low as two. The cast currently stands at seven: Sickert on vocals, guitar and piano, Edrie on accordion and various other toys, Meff on guitar and mandolin, Jojo plays ukulele and recites poetry, Rachel Jayson works the viola, TJ Horn crashes the drums and Mike Leggio thumps the upright and electric bass.

Roughly half the band and their dancers live in Somerville, with Edrie and Sickert owning studio space. “Every time we play in Somerville— whether it’s ArtBeat, in front of thousands, or the main stage at the Armory in front of hundreds—it’s an open and supportive community of friends and colleagues who come out and have a good time,” Edrie said.

Their sound is grimy and burlesque, like dragging an Eastern European silent film soundtrack through the sludge of time and forcing it into a punk rock mold. Or, as they’ve christened it, streamcrunk. It’s haunting and pulls you into the dark decrepit corners it came from. The viola and ukulele add a strange antique echo making it sound from any bygone era of music. Sickert’s voice is, at first, tough like gravel, but has the capacity to climb and quiver in emotional wails.

For Sickert, it helps to be surrounded by other artistic minds. When he approached Meff, who has a degree in playwriting, about writing the script for 28 Seeds, she quickly began writing scenes and lines of dialogue, adding and cutting characters, “while still retaining everything that is and will ever be steamcrunk,” she said.

The seed has now budded and blossomed into a fully-realized piece of doomsday expression. “When you walk through the theatre you move into a new world,” Slavick explained. “It should really envelop you, visually and aurally.” Sickert filmed short video clips of infomercials that play throughout the performance.

Weeks before opening night, the band worked with six actors to nail down the panicked mood that confronts 28 Seeds. The actors crawled, climbed, fought and screamed as The Toys exchanged mischievous grins. They are the ghostly Greek chorus, both acting as caricatures of themselves and as the live soundtrack. “The show is happening all around them,” Slavick said.

Rehearsals were like “an apocalyptic kindergarten,” said Sickert. Jojo hopped around the room like a whippoorwill, chiming into other conversations and offering chocolates. Horn rose from his drum set and cocked a toy rifle shooting Meff, who stiffened like a cartoon while Jayson assembled packs of glow-in-the-dark buttons.

Sickert, dressed in layers of black, looked out from behind dark sunglasses, a jungle of beard and long, falling dreadlocks. They swung down past his knees as he lumbered around, never straying too far from his microphone post. But past all that hair is a serious maestro. He echoed sincerity and support back to the other performers.

While 28 Seeds, the play, focuses on the end, the comic book fills in the beginning. “To tell the story through illustrations gives a visual perspective that allows the reader to spend time with the characters,” Sickert said. Sickert’s talents outside of music have been recognized by Boston Phoenix readers, who have for two consecutive years voted him Boston’s best artist. Meff covered the writing.

Physical copies of the comic’s first issue will be available at each theatre show and to those who donated to their Kickstarter fundraising for the project. “When we discussed the comic book we said each one would be five pages,” Edrie shared with a snarl. Stretching to 44 pages, the book will travel to Comic Con as part of an annual showcase.

The Toys themselves will eventually star in Sickert’s comics. “It’s a surreal adventure where The Broken Toys travel through time, write songs and play music with fictional and non-fiction characters,” Sickert said. Each issue will have its own companion song with a 2013 release being eyed. That The Toys might be re-imagined as comic characters is alarmingly accurate.

It’s important to know that the experience of a Toys love show is worth more than regurgitated phrases. To really grasp it, you’ve got to be blindsided by it late one night in some club. “We ask people to have fun and free themselves up for whatever expression they wish,” Edrie explained. “It turns into a sideshow automatically.” Being on the stage, then, won’t be much different from their usual outings, though, maybe, with less spontaneous nudity.

The Toys are a close-knit group that have gone far quickly, but they’ve been preparing for this latest role most of their lives. “I did a whole lot of theatre in college,” Jojo remarked. “Not me,” Edrie countered almost under her breath. “I made fun of the theatre kids.”

“I wrote the theatre,” Meff added, as joyous laughter circled the table. Sickert thinks back. “I did a lot of spotlight work in high school,” he remembered.

“I had one rusty spotlight.” “Walter’s always been a rockstar,” Jojo finished. The Toys intend to keep on their innovative stride even as the world disintegrates, which could be any day now, or, more likely, could have already begun

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