One of the mysterious things about art is the role played in its creation by the unconscious. From the paintings and poetry of William Blake to the psychedelic experiments of the Beatles, artists of all persuasions have explored the powerful yet inscrutable connection between their output and their subliminal selves. As the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy put it, "man lives consciously for himself, but is an unconscious instrument in the attainment of historic, universal aims of humanity."
The relationship between the conscious and subconscious looms like an oversized reproduction of Marcel Duchamp's urinal over the quirky San Francisco-based playwright-performer Gary Aylesworth's The Ballad of Edgar Cayce (A Bluegrass Operetta). This Surrealist, music-infused "documentary fantasy" based on the life of early-20th-century psychic and healer Edgar Cayce (pronounced "Kay-cee") takes theatergoers on an inscrutable journey into the psyche of one of America's most charismatic harnessers of the unconscious. Ironically, however, the show reveals more about the creators' inner lives than that of its subject.
Cayce sank into obscurity in the latter half of the 20th century. But from the 1920s to his death in 1945 at the age of 67, the devoutly Christian Kentucky native was one of the country's most famous spiritual mediums. His readings, delivered while in a hypnotic trance, on everything from the state of a subject's physical health to the location of the lost city of Atlantis, earned him fame and notoriety. Thomas Edison, Gloria Swanson, Nikola Tesla, and Woodrow Wilson sought out his services. In 1928, a wealthy recipient of Cayce's readings, Morton Blumenthal, went as far as establishing a hospital in Virginia Beach in the seer's name. (It currently serves as the headquarters of Cayce's Association for Research and Enlightenment.)
Cayce's fascinating story is supremely theatrical, and Aylesworth and his longtime collaborator Peter Newton appear to be having a great deal of fun exploring the cobwebby nooks of their subject's unconventional life. Neither subscribing to Cayce's fan club nor condemning him as a crank, they instead assume an attitude of spontaneous wonder with regards to their subject.
The actors behave like a couple of kids let loose in grandpa's attic. In the first moments of the play, they enter performing Stephen Foster's song "Beautiful Dreamer" on recorders. This sweetly naive introduction sets the production's prevailing atmosphere of childlike playfulness. Every now and again, the two pick up random instruments scattered across the stage like objects in a Dali painting and strike up a tune. Some of these homespun-hummable ditties are by other artists, such as the bluegrass band the Monroe Brothers, while some are by Aylesworth himself. Elsewhere, the tripping, nursery-rhyme–like quality of the text — for example, "Then out came the dope/Then in came the hope/Feet no longer burned/Pulse and heartbeat returned" — also imparts a kindergarten quality.
In between the musical numbers, the funhouse aesthetic continues as Aylesworth and Newton careen among many different roles. The most compelling is Aylesworth's embodiment of Cayce. Swinging between the seer's Southern farmboy drawl and the bellowing baritone of a Victorian-era classical stage actor during his trance scenes, Aylesworth sharply physicalizes the contrast between Cayce's outer and inner lives. Other impersonations are less successful. With his singsong voice, trailing headscarf, and perpetually gyrating wrists, Aylesworth's take on silent-era diva Swanson becomes repetitive and grating after a while.
As with his previous body-mind-soul-and-soul-spinning 2006 production, See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, Aylesworth delves into the lives of unlikely historical figures in an attempt to discover connections between their worlds and our own. Grave took a similarly offbeat approach in comparing the careers of public relations guru Edward Bernays and ethnomusicologist Harry Smith. But as madcap as that production was, the creators gave just enough careful attention to structure, pacing, and prose to temper its more subliminal eccentricities. A perfect balance of conscious and subconscious elements, that production approached genius.
The same cannot be said of Ballad. Unless you read up on Cayce's life in advance, it's likely you'll get lost. With the exception of Cayce and Swanson, most of the other characters lack definition, causing them to blend unhelpfully together. Similarly, the scenes slide past in such a dreamlike haze that it's hard to keep up. In half of them, Aylesworth appears to be talking to himself. Freud would have a field day with the production's reliance on seemingly random whimsy, such as the heavy-handed use of Expressionist Sprechgesang (speak-singing) techniques spouted in a monotonous voice over the ticking of an old-fashioned metronome. But if you're not party to the inner workings of Aylesworth and Newton's brains, the effect is discombobulating and ultimately tedious.
As a result, Cayce remains a shadowy figure by the end of this fanciful-impenetrable 90-minute "happening." Contrastingly, the inner lives of Aylesworth and Newton are very much on display. Reminiscent of the gibberish-spewing automatic-writing forays of André Breton and the musical esoterica of the 1960s British pop-music outfit the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band (albeit with a country twist), Ballad suggests, if nothing else, that the two have been spending way too much time channeling their collective subconscious of late.
As little as we truly know about the impact of the subconscious on the creative process, more often than not, great art seems to be the product of a perfect equilibrium between an artist's hidden and visible powers. When one side of the equation — be it the deliberate analysis and careful planning of the conscious mind or the insensible dreaming and "involuntary" mechanics of its unconscious counterpart — dominates the creative process too forcefully, the result leaves much to be desired.