Published Aug 11, 2019Simone Schmidt has transformed their 2017 album, Audible Songs From Rockwood, (released under their Fiver moniker) into a stark, affecting song-cycle production that reflects a dark, seldom-discussed part of Canadian history. Consisting of musical performances, anecdotal exposition and tasteful staging, this Summerworks presentation highlights Schmidt's charisma as a performer, who presents substantive content in an accessible, engaging way.
As their album does, Schmidt's adaptation reflects research they conducted regarding the case files of women incarcerated at the Rockwood Asylum for the Criminally Insane in Kingston, ON, between 1856 and 1881. Over the course of this hour, Schmidt recalls ten women housed in the asylum, contextualizing them with a kind of formalized between-song banter about the incarceration system, settler-colonial relations and definitions of sanity and mental health, before singing songs they composed about the same and these prisoners' respective plights.
Whether alone or joined by Carlie Howell on double bass and Laura Bates on fiddle and vocals, Schmidt exhibited true strength, drafting off the power of their spoken word interludes to deliver blistering performances. Director Frank Cox-O'Connell heightened the mood with dynamic lighting choices; a few props like rope and bar-less cell frames; and a vocal condenser mic making the rounds so that Schmidt and their colleagues performed in various areas of the large stage. It all gave the show a certain movement.
In their own way, Schmidt was steady but also bemused by theatrical conventions at this debut performance. When a heavy song was finished and the audience offered stunned silence, Schmidt made an incredulous motion that loosened everyone up and led to chuckle-filled applause. When the star of the show engaged in crowd work. asking simple questions, and were again met with nervous silence, Schmidt would raise an eyebrow or roll their eyes and the crowd would snap out of its stupor.
Such moments were an interesting meeting place for Audible Songs From Rockwood, a collection of tunes Schmidt has brought to bars, homes and concert halls. And though they have engaged in storytelling at such shows, this Summerworks performance was more exacting and formal— a well-paced, riveting exhibition of the hard truths and power of this remarkable album and its diligent creator.