The Hazards of Love: A Folk Opera

Alright, so I’m going to say this straight up: going into the show, I had biased expectations. The Hazards of Love is probably my favourite album from the Oregon-based band The Decemberists, if not straight up just one of my favourite albums, period. Going in with high expectations can hurt sometimes, but in this instance it only did well. I’ve always wondered how the album would fare as a stage production – here’s the answer. Wow. It only took 3 years for this to happen? Kudos to you, writers/directors James Hugh Keenan Campbell and Charles Harries.

As a concept album, Hazards has a richly developed story to begin with, courtesy of the bandleader, Colin Meloy. It was no easy task to adapt this for the stage and add text to an already solid story, but the writers brought out the connection between the songs beautifully, and the show flowed very nicely. A live band played the tracks from the album (almost in its entirety, no less!), which occupied much of the show. The spaces between songs didn’t overtake the album’s given story, and likewise didn’t leave us wanting for more theatre love – save, perhaps, for a slightly truncated introduction to the story.

The set is gorgeous and simple. Trees in wonky perspective are painted on wide strips hung from the ceiling, and the band is hidden behind this such that we see them but they don’t overtake the show. A minimal amount of other stuff – a fake rock, some sticks, and any props introduced by characters serve as the rest of the stuff on the small stage, and the floor was painted with autumn leaves. The Player’s Theatre is not an easy space to work with, but placing the scene on a diagonal to the crowd worked in favour of keeping everything forward. Suffice to say, everyone was definitely taken deep into the creepy, spirit-ridden, yet hopeful-beyond-all-odds forest.

The performers all held their own quite well, executing their roles nicely and making each part what it needed to be, and all deserve commendation for bringing a very rich story so well to life. I was particularly by Emily Skahan’s (who played the lead, Margaret) powerful voice. She lent a beautiful and strong hope to a character that was simultaneously quite fragile, and made a gorgeous interpretation of the album’s heroine. Sebastian Biase’s complete bastard character, The Rake, was infuriatingly dickish, and he made sure to keep that constant. The chorus was a fantastic element and snugly fit into the choral element of the album’s vocals. They were able to complement their haunting tree/forest spirit choral character, ever present for backup vocals and general creepiness, with the equally disturbing dead children.

I only had 3 major qualms. There was an instance of the chorus breaking the 4th wall that started well enough but that needed refinement – gazes were held WAY beyond comfort and the illusion was severely broken. However, this only happened in one instance and was soon forgotten. There were times when the overall movement needed some stronger direction, as the scene began to lag behind the rhythm – each character could indeed have explored more of what they could do to bring more out of the role and story physically. Some of the singing needed a little more force when the emotion called for it and the band overtook a little. Beyond these small points, though, the folk opera was such a solid adaptation that I’m still sitting in awe. And extremely jealous.

So yeah, I’m biased, but damn did they make this show work. A huge congrats to the whole Hazards team to taking this Decemberists beauty and mounting it so well onstage. It is a treat, and I highly recommend that you go, it’s so worth it (and they could totally charge more than they are, so it’s a deal too!)

The show will continue its run from the 15th to 18th of February, 8pm at The Player’s Theatre at McGill University.

-Matt