When I first heard about The Accountant, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival production that will have its world premiere at the Christ Church Neighborhood House in Old City on Thursday, my head nearly exploded with the sound of three magic words: Samuel Beckett and Beyonce.
Wait … what?
The Accountant, I read, was inspired by its creator Trey Lyford's "recent personal experiences with death, America's isolating obsession with Twitter word-limit reality, and Samuel Beckett's iconic rumination on impermanence and regret, the play Krapp's Last Tape."
OK, I thought, I'm sold. If you didn't have me at death and Twitter word-limit reality, the deal was closed with Krapp, the drolly funny and profoundly moving work by the Nobel Prize-winning Irish author of Waiting for Godot.
Krapp is a one-act play about an old man who eats lots of bananas and listens to diary-entry recordings made when he was much younger and more self-confident. It was performed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2011 with John Hurt in the lead role. I don't mean to brag, but I can one-up that: I saw the great British vaudeville clown (and Beckett favorite) Max Wall perform it in London in the mid-1980s.
So what's all that impermanence and regret got to do with Beyonce?
Well, this is a music column, and The Accountant came to my attention because of trumpeter Cole Kamen-Green, Lyford's chief collaborator. His impressive resume includes one eye-popping credit. On the Beyonce albums 4 and Beyonce, he played trumpet and was responsible for horn arrangements on a number of songs, including hits like "Love on Top" and "Party."
Lyford, who stars in The Accountant, is well known to Philly Fringe audiences. His works, frequently collaborating with Geoff Sobelle, have been shaped by his background in magic and (not red-nose) clowning, and he has toured extensively in the U.S. and around the world.
His works include the also-Beckettian all wear bowlers, which was also marked by the influence of old-time film comics such as Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy. The 45-year-old Mount Airy resident is in fact so Fringey that he met his furture wife, Pig Iron Theatre cofounder Suli Holum, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. Their 11-year-old daughter, Coralie, has a role in The Accountant.
Lyford describes The Accountant as referential, not reverential, toward Beckett, this way: "It's the story of a lonely accountant who has lost some people in his life and, in the isolation and tedium of his job, his imagination starts to come alive in the space. It's an expressionistic piece that's really him dealing with his memories and his life."
Kamen-Green, who will be playing his trumpet, and manipulating it electronically, and who lives in the shadows of the stage at Christ Church, is absolutely essential to The Accountant's storytelling, says Lyford.
The horn player is new to the Fringe but is a seasoned pop music-maker with a presence in the indie, experimental, and mainstream music worlds. The 33-year-old multitasker plays in the Brooklyn "dance music listening" band Cuddle Magic and the electronic duo MMEADOWS with his wife, Kristin Slipp (who also sings in Dirty Projectors).
And Kamen-Green has played in the funk band the Superpowers, whose brass section brought him to Beyonce in 2011. At that time, the band was holding down a residency at the Brooklyn club Zebulon and the guitarist was dating Beyonce's drummer Nikki Glaspie. When the pop star decided to funkify her sound after seeing the Afrobeat play Fela! (which her husband, Jay-Z, coproduced) on Broadway, the Superpowers were called in to a Times Square studio that used to belong to Cab Calloway.
"The door opens and Beyonce walks in," Kamen-Green says, still sounding surprised. "It's like, whoa! Right, OK. She's actually here. Like the biggest female pop star ever, basically." The horn players were invited to jam on demos, and the singer "winds up sitting right next to me," Kamen-Green says. "I mean immediately right next to me."
After a short time and some properly executed horn lines, "I look down and she gives me this awesome, totally digging it head-bobbing look." That led to a summer session in which the Superpowers were on call whenever their services were needed.
So how do you go from those superdiva heights to playing a long weekend's worth of avant theater shows at the Philly Fringe Festival?
Quite skillfully and serendipitously. Besides Beyonce, Kamen-Green has done other top-line studio work: He played on the Lorde album Melodrama, as well as on sessions for indie acts like Okkervil River and Lady Lamb the Beekeeper.
He and Lyford had never formally worked together, but they've known each other for years through a family connection. In January, Cuddle Magic played the World Cafe Live and Lyford went to see his friend play.
Halfway through the set, the band left the stage to play acoustically in the middle of the dance floor on a song called "Expectations." "I get to play trumpet in nuanced way on that song, and that sparked Trey's interest. He was referencing [the late, lyrical jazzman] Chet Baker, and how he wanted a non-idiomatically played solo trumpet to hear what was going on in his head."
The Accountant is an intentionally slow-moving play in which every movement and every silence feels meaningful. "It's like scoring a dance," says Kamen-Green, who plays his horn both unadorned and manipulated with electronic effects.
"The thing that Beckett does most beautifully is he is isolating things down to its purest form," says Lyford, who refers to himself as a "theater hooligan" and the humor he employs in The Accountant as "soft slapstick."
"He's distilling the chemical of theater down to the most intense drop you can get. He's very spare and he does things in a very particular way."
Lyford's inspiration for The Accountant came when he was working in New York as a temp during the financial crisis and came upon an elderly man working alone in an office illuminated by one light and surrounded by mountains of paper.
He immediately thought of Beckett's Krapp. And the sense of loss resonated more deeply for him in recent years, when his mother, sister, and his wife's mother and grandparents died within a short period. "I'm just at that age where that [stuff] happens," he says.
Musically, Lyford felt that the loneliness in the recordings of Baker, whose life is recounted in the black-and-white 1988 Bruce Weber movie Let's Get Lost, matched what he was going for in The Accountant.
"That lone, clear solo horn is kind of the equivalent to what Krapp is doing sitting alone in a dark room. He's drunk, and Chet Baker is on heroin. But that clear, pure sound is really what Becket does with language."
The quiet solitude of The Accountant — which uses Kamen-Green's subtle live score and also an array of "living set" techniques, some of which involve puppeteers — is also meant to be a corrective to hyperspeed social media scrolling life.
"There's a sitting in the moment that doesn't exist anymore," Lyford says. "Or if it does, we have to fight for it. It's the sitting in the moment and hearing a horn play through all the colors of that one note.
"That's something that I think Beckett is doing in Krapp's and it's something that I do in this play. There are long pauses. And we just don't pause anymore. It's like the news: It's the top-five things you have to care about, boom boom. Or all the places you need to go next, swipe swipe swipe."
Unlike Krapp's Last Tape, The Accountant — which was created with the support of a grant from the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage — doesn't employ audio recordings to evoke the memories that visit its title character.
Instead, it uses piles of paper "that are like metaphors for existence," Lyford says. "The paper stands in for what it is to collect and account for the moments of your life. We compile all these memories and they stack up in our office and we spend our time searching for things and just get lost in them. And at the end of the day, they're just paper. And you throw them in the bin."