3/30/2020

BLO "Norma": Bellini with Peaches & Champagne

Elena Stikhina as "Norma"
(Photo: Boston Lyric Opera)

An illustration in the Arts section of a recent newspaper said it all: a picture of a ticket to a live event with its ominous printing: Admit None. With what seemed to be warp speed, suddenly there were no symphony concerts, no live theater, and no opera. And just when it seemed a creative catastrophe had stricken, some artistic people suddenly are appearing (and performing) at a computer near you. For example, check out playbill.com's offerings on their twice-daily emails, which can become a part of one's day via a (free) subscription. And there was more good news on the home front: Boston Lyric Opera was going to broadcast its eagerly-awaited production of Bellini's Norma in conjunction with WCRB, by streaming at blo.org/norma with the Russian soprano Elena Stikhina (a hit in the company's performances of Tosca a few seasons ago) in the title role. Break out the peaches and champagne!

Though there are photos of the costumes and the sets on the company's website (this performance is an audio stream of the dress rehearsal for the production), and they appeared to be just fine, it would obviously be the musical elements that would stand out in this case. Expectations were actually exceeded. Something about the real presence of the cast and orchestra imbued the event with an immediacy one rarely experiences. Stikhina excelled with virtually perfect precision, from her first (vocal) appearance to her final demanding mad scene; forced to focus on the audible, one was quite blown away by her pitch, tone and expression (especially in her Casta Diva). The same could be said for the Pollione of American tenorJonathan Burton and the Adalgisa of BLO regular, mezzo-soprano Sandra Piques Eddy, not to mention the orchestra (led by Conductor David Angus) and chorus (under Chorus Master Brett Hodgdon) in what would ultimately prove to be a triumph of artistry over angst.

For an all-too-short spell, this Norma showed us what opera at its most moving and memorable can be. And the ability to support the company with a donation (via the same web site) in this time of trial cannot be underestimated. We are all grieving for our current loss of normalcy; one of the most effective ways in which to reestablish our norms is to ensure that, after this has all passed, there will be beauty, there will be music, there will be joy.

3/02/2020

SpeakEasy's "The Children": Come Hell or High Water


Karen MacDonald, Tyrees Allen & Paula Plum in "The Children"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

As the lights go up on SpeakEasy Stage Company's production of The Children, a chilling new play by Lucy Kirkwood, the sound of the surf (not a calming sound but a raging one) can be heard as two characters enter a somewhat ramshackled and isolated cottage. The building is inhabited by Robin (Tyrees Allen) and Hazel (Paula Plum), long-married retired physicists living on the British coast. They are visited by a former colleague, Rose (Karen MacDonald) who shows up rather unexpectedly (after a 38 year absence) on a summer evening with a shocking request. And that's about all one may share without disturbing the flow of this play with its underlying existential dread. First performed in London in 2016, it transferred to Broadway in 2017 where it was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play.


Karen MacDonald & Tyrees Allen in "The Children"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

In this version, Directed by Bryn Boice, that dread is palpably real as it drops successive clues about the dystopia and dyspepsia that are afoot, and nary a word of dialog is extraneous. For that matter, even the deviously clever set (with such simple objects as a water glass, a Coleman camping refrigerator and an apple that resists staying put and insists on rolling off a table) exists almost as a fourth character in portraying what is askew. There are many red herrings along the way, not the least of which is the title. Rose's line, the first in the play, is to ask “how are the children?”; to comment further would be to spoil one of many such hints.
 
How to describe this ninety-minute intermission-less work is thus challenging if one wishes not to share its fundamental “reveal”. It's also next to impossible to discuss the import of the play without referencing the obvious parallels to the ignorance and arrogance of this country's current administration with its antipathy toward science and lack of time sensitive response to the current virus outbreak. But there are also more mundane issues here, primarily the reason for Rose's return. It's clear that all has been disrupted due to a nuclear disaster at the nearby power plant, where they all previously worked, which led to an epic tsunami. The play's subtext refers to Hazel's views about who would consciously want to move towards their own death and her statement, “I don't know how to want less”, perhaps the work's most crucial line, as is her remark “I don't want to give up anything”. Underlying the idea that you can do nothing because a disaster is already too large is, as Kirkwood has been quoted, an "infantilizing" one (and one of the many reasons for the title).
 

Paula Plum in "The Children"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)

There's a lot of passive aggression on stage, exquisitely performed by this fine cast, right down to the accents (Hazel's Yorkshire vs. Rose's having lived for years in America). Plum is spot on as the rigid type A who no doubt crosses her “t's” with a ruler, and MacDonald is a mesmerizing mix of multi-leveled contradictions, while Tyrees effortlessly exudes both his character's complexity and simplicity. In the end, this play, as the playwright has insisted, has nothing to do with nuclear power whatsoever, but is a larger metaphor for human intervention into the environment (inspired by the 2011 Japanese nuclear disaster and tsunami). For her, climate change is a global issue, driven here by emotion rather than intellect, heading toward resistance that is built on consensus and sharing power; in short, don't despair; protest. Kirkwood sees a piece of theater as a political act in itself, running on the promotion of energy in which one tells an audience a story that nourishes them in some way. As she simply puts it, it's communion.

It falls to this wondrous cast, with expert timing and toxic delivery, under Boice's intricate direction, to fulfill the author's ends. Kirkwood's writing has been described as Caryl Churchillian or Harold Pinteresque but is more in keeping with the work of Edward Albee, as in his A Delicate Balance with its own atmosphere of existential dread. That ingenious Scenic Design is by Cristina Todesco, with apt Costume Design by Rachel Padula-Shufelt, effective Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg and creepy Sound Design by David Remedios.


Paula Plum, Karen Mac Donald & Tyrees Allen in "The Children"
(photo: Maggie Hall Photography)
 
As Hazel puts it more than once, “we've got to grow to live”; the playwright says: “we have a finite planet...so the play was always about the battle between wanting more and looking at what you can actually have”. Even in the midst of some of Rose's wry lines (some of which you may find will threaten to split your atoms), this play is a stunner. Described by some, somewhat inaccurately, as a mystery or an eco-thriller, it's perhaps better seen as a puzzle surrounding a riddle and daring you to solve it.

What thinkest thou of the apocalypse now?

 Note: remaining performances have been cancelled due to the virus pandemic.



2/19/2020

BMOP's "Felder: Four Cardinal Times"



The latest release by Gil Rose's Boston Modern Orchestra Project is a work they had performed a few seasons back in Boston, David Felder's Les Quatres Temps Cardinaux, which featured soprano Laura Aikin and bass Ethan Hershchenfeld with forty musicians from BMOP and a dozen channels of surround-sound electronics. It was the featured work on a triple bill in 2014, here recreated in its own unique form under Rose as the company's Artistic Director and Conductor. As Rose describes it, it's an unusual work in that it balances soloists, ensemble and electronics that is rare in orchestral pieces these days.

With an interweaving of texts by several poets, Felder has come up with an undeniably original context that would seem to profit from additional hearings. Felder has stated that he first came across the life and poetic works of poet Rene Daumal thanks to the biographical tome by Kathleen Ferrick Rosenblatt, and was especially drawn to the last of his poems, notably Les Quatres Temps Cardinaux, which he considered the poet's simplest and clearest expression of his own experiences. Felder spoke of his understanding of Daumal's concentration on a relationship and immersion in these poems and the poet himself, and how the sonic meaning and context of the poetic composition was presented in the mythic space of Daumal's ultimate works as well as those of other poets he references, namely Pablo Neruda, Robert Creeley, and Dana Gioia.

The title of this complex piece says it all, a celebration of the four “cardinal times of dawn, noon, sunset and midnight”. The work exemplifies the composer's well-known reputation for technological enhancement alongside musically lyrical expressions. In a brief (approximately forty-nine minutes in length) but broadly memorable compilation of a dozen stanzas and fragments, some recited but most sung or played, this should prove illuminating for anyone who appreciates the state of new music today.


2/06/2020

Huntington's "Sweat": Inspired Perspiration

The Cast of "Sweat"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The Deindustrialization Revolution was quietly, slowly, inexorably on its way when playwright Lynn Nottage began her research for her drama Sweat, the current production mounted by Huntington Theatre Company in its Boston premiere. The play was first presented by Oregon Shakespeare Festival in 2015, then produced at Arena Stage in D.C. the same year, then Off-Broadway at New York's Public Theater, before moving to Broadway in 2017 where it was nominated for the Tony Award for Best Play and won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Intentionally, it's the backstory of a decade prior to the Trump election, with blue-collar types who had been largely forgotten. The playwright spent more than two years interviewing real people for her play in Reading, Pennsylvania in the nation's Rust Belt, where the poverty level was forty percent, making it one of the poorest areas of the country. This makes it of necessity the story of the economy, race relations, immigration, and inevitably, politics. But these form the foundation for society's ills; the play centers on the concrete fate of a group of workers and their way of life, those most affected by an impending crisis. It will devolve into the stark reality of community versus capitalism. As one character puts it, “that's the way things are set up”.


Marianna Bassham, Tyla Abercrumbie & Jennifer Regan in "Sweat"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson) 

The story begins as parole officer Evan (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) speaks with two men (separately) set free in 2008. It goes back in time to 2000 to a bar (or more appropriately, joint) in Reading run by former steel plant worker Stan (Guy Van Swearingen) who lost his job when injured at the plant. Tracey (Jennifer Regan), whose family has worked at the Oldstead Steel Mill for generations, feels deserving of a promotion to a newly available management job offering more than just air conditioning and the metaphorical avoidance of sweat. Her son Jason (Shane Kenyon) has just been paroled, as has Chris (Brandon G. Green), son of her coworker and best friend Cynthia (Tyla Abercrumbie), who are black. The bar's regulars include the inebriated Jessie (Marianna Bassham) and Cynthia's deadbeat ex, Brucie (Alvin Keith). It also features bus boy Oscar (Tommy Rivera-Vega), a Colombian-American working for $8 an hour at the bar scraping up chewing gum, but offered a job at the mill at $11 per hour. One theme that's central to the story is how each of the three women in the work get to celebrate their birthdays, and how they all view people like Oscar to be entitled immigrants (though all of the characters, including Oscar, were born in Berks County, Pennsylvania); one of them even questions why there isn't a White History Month.


The Cast of  "Sweat"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

I know from experience it's shame that eats away at us”, one of them warns, and that “you could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico”; as another denizen of the bar puts it, there are buttons that could replace them. Most meet the dire predictions with skepticism and inertia. Even when lay-offs and down-sizing are announced, denial reigns; most can't see it coming. When the company announces plans to move the plan to Mexico, there swiftly follow trade union strikes and a lock-out. Divisions between management and labor begin to divide friends and lead to the exposing of racial tensions. Just the sort of explosion you're likely to see coming, but with a few clever twists.


Jennifer Regan & Tyla Abercumbie in "Sweat"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

It would be hard to imagine a better cast. Regan (who shares in the guilt to come by egging on her son) and Abercrumbie are superb foils, as are their offspring Kenyon and Green. Bassham and Keith make very natural bar flies, overseen by Van Swearingen in a fine turn. Even the more supporting work by Parent and Rivera-Vega is superior acting. Meticulously Directed by Kimberly Senior, at two and a half hours with an intermission, and a large cast, this is in many ways an old-fashioned play, in the good sense. The creative team includes detailed Scenic Design by Cameron Anderson, apt Costume Design by Junghyun Georgia Lee, excellent Lighting Design by D. M. Wood, and Sound Design and foreboding Original Music by Pornchanok Kanchanabanca, as well as the extraordinarily complex Fight Direction (really Choreography) by Ted Hewlett.


Tyla Abercrumbie & Jennifer Regan in "Sweat"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

While the time covered by the plot covers just up to a month before Obama's election, it could easily be set in our own time with jobs sent over the border or overseas. Reminiscent of the play Skeleton Crew by Dominique Morisseau (set in a Detroit auto plant) produced two seasons ago by Huntington, it may easily be read as an indictment of our own current travails in the workplaces of America.

As is portrayed by the epilogue of the play, only people take care of people, and this playwright, as she did in Ruined and Intimate Apparel (the latter now being made into an opera) shows once again her uncanny knack for creating realistic dialog and believable crises. She has done her homework and it shows in this powerful piece of writing; though hard to sit through its relentlessly challenging chronology between scenes, it solidifies Nottage's reputation as a playwright at the top of her game.

Unlike the steel mill, this production has been extended through March 1st.


2/02/2020

New Rep's "Hair": Splitting

The Cast of "Hair"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

It hardly seems possible that it was half a century ago, in 1968, that a musical by the name of Hair burst onto the Broadway stage, while banned in Boston. One had to travel to New York to be able to see its brief and darkly lit nude scene, as well as what was criticized as desecration of the flag. It also consisted of a cast that included such future famous folk as Diane Keaton (before she was Diane Keaton), as well as Melba Moore and Shelley Plimpton. But its claim to fame is that it was recognized even then as a watershed creation that ultimately led to a proliferation of rock musicals, the precursor of works from Jesus Christ Superstar to Rent and even to Hamilton, remembered for its anti-establishment themes (especially its opposition to the Vietnam War), the draft and its hippie subculture. It certainly wasn't (then or now) revered for its thin Book and Lyrics by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, (both of whom were also in the original cast) and its uneven Score by Galt Mac Dermot. The original production lasted four years; the war it protested lasted ten. Thus it was a surprise to see this once-famous (or infamous) show on the calendar of the current season of productions from New Rep Theatre in Watertown. One could only guess what this revival would be, either an exercise in theatrical nostalgia or an updated take that would speak to the audiences of today. Would it still evince the power to move us, or would it be more of a trip (the other kind) down memory lane? The answer is, both.


The Cast of "Hair"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

As this production was Directed and Choreographed by Rachel Bertone, one of the most admired of local magicians, hopes were higher than they might have been if this mounting had been assigned to less capable hands. The name and reputation of Bertone for casting her shows is also promising, with a dozen triple threat actors needed to sing and dance as well as they portray their characters. Happily this Tribe includes Sheila (Marge Dunn), Claude (Edward L. Simon), Berger (Eddie Shields), Crissy (Kris Ivy Hayes, whose character in the program is misidentified as “Ivy”), Dionne (Yewande Odetoyinbo), Jeanie (Katrina Z. Pavao), Woof (Brian-Barry Pereira), Hud (Anthony Pires, Jr.) and other unnamed members of the Tribe (Lovely Hoffman, Zoe Maloney and the charismatic Aaron Patterson); oh, and Margaret Meade (Peter Mill). Each is a gem, some more polished than others, such as the terrific Odetoyinbo, whose numerous roles in local shows have been a pleasure to encounter. The able creative team includes Scenic Design by Janie E Howland, Costume Design by Marian Bertone, Lighting Design by Franklin Meissner, Jr. and especially Sound Design by Kevin L. Alexander, all help to keep the sometimes languid pace of the plot moving.


The Cast of "Hair"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures )

What they don't do is re-envision the piece, which may be asking too much after all this time. It comes across as a version that, even in its most moving scenes of draft card burning, refuses to be relevant, which is surprising given our corrupt current political establishment. There are memorable moments among the forty or so songs, such as “Frank Mills” sung by Hayes (but lacking the poignancy as written) about not wanting her two dollars back from her lover, just him. And there are many fine numbers (“Aquarius”, “Air” “Good Morning Starshine” and “Easy to Be Hard”) as well as many superfluous ones. (Some have been altered, thus more politically correct, like the lyrics for “Three-Five-Zero-Zero”). Who could deny the power of the lyrics about those who care about the needing crowd, but not a needy friend?


The Cast of "Hair"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

On the whole this production is very well directed and performed, an altogether too safe and sanitized (were there ever such immaculate hippies, and visuals more appropriate for Godspell?) attempt at recovering that critical era in political and theatrical history that maybe can never be fully replicated. Perhaps it's best to remember the original fondly (even with its inherent flaws) as this critic does, (having seen and loved both the original Broadway and Paris versions) and enjoy the current version's performances, lest we be accused of splitting Hairs.


1/29/2020

BMOP/Odyssey Opera's Grammy Winning "Mr. Fox"

The Cast of "Fantastic Mr. Fox"
(photo: BMOP)

Tobias Picker: Fantastic Mr. Fox is the official title of the Grammy Award winning operatic compact disc release of the work by Picker, the current Artistic Director of Tulsa Opera, who pulls off the almost impossible feat of composing an opera that is aimed directly at families, not just children; that is, children of all ages. With his welcome use of melodic tonal lyricism, even though a modern piece, and the caustically witty Libretto by Donald Sturrock, this work is sure to charm listeners of any vintage. Performed by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project (BMOP) under the direction of Gil Rose, the recording features members of Odyssey Opera, the Boston Children's Chorus, and a host of well-known vocalists. Commissioned and premiered in 1998 by Los Angeles Opera, this recording was made during its performance period in Boston in 2014.

Based on the revered children's novel by Roald Dahl, the fable centers on the efforts of the eponymous fox (baritone John Brancy), the antihero who's on a food-finding mission on behalf of his family, contemporaneously thwarting the aim of three mean farmers, Boggis (bass- baritone Andrew Craig Brown), Bunce (tenor Edwin Vega) and Bean (baritone Gabriel Preisser) to kill the varmint that's been eating their chickens and geese and drinking their cider. Mr. Fox enlists his forest friends, including Mr. Porcupine (tenor Theo Lebow), Miss Hedgehog (soprano Elizabeth Futral), Rita the Rat (mezzo-soprano Tynan Davis) and others. The remaining characters include Mrs. Fox (mezzo-soprano Krista River), Agnes the Digger (countertenor Andrey Nemzer), Mavis the Tractor (soprano Gail Novak Mosites), Badger the Miner (baritone John Dooley) and Burrowing Mole (tenor Jonathan Blalock). There are also four fox cubs: Abigail Long, Abi Tenenbaum, Zoe Tekeian, and Madeleine Kline. The story is accessible as is the music (this despite the fact that Picker was trained by a trio of Modernist composers, Elliott Carter, Milton Babbitt, and Charles Wuorinen).

Picker has stated that there can be found in this work a “green message”, if one wishes to find one (with its portrayal of the barren land above ground and the warmer natural world below). There are instances of slapstick, European styles, and neoclassical Stravinsky-like sound. In several passages, including those utilizing the Children's Chorus, there is sublime music for adult and child listeners. In short, it's both relatively brief and compellingly approachable in its score with an ample supply of cleverness and wit in its libretto, with no evidence of being “dumbed down” for its target audience. What more could anyone want in an opera for the whole family?
 
And speaking of families, there's that other frequently-composed royal one, namely the Tudors, whom Odyssey Opera (and BMOP) will again revisit, this time for one performance on next Saturday February 1st at 7:30pm at Jordan Hall; it's the third of a sextet of operas they're producing this season, this one being Arnold Rosner's "The Chronicle of Nine" about Lady Jane Grey. So go on and lose your head again.
 
 
 

1/26/2020

Huntington's "We All Fall Down": Why is this Play Different....

The Cast of "We All Fall Down"
(photo: Nile Hawver)

We All Fall Down is Huntington Theatre Company's current production, the world premiere of a comedy by Somerville resident Lila Rose Kaplan, in her Huntington debut. It's the story of Linda (Eleanor Reissa), the matriarch of a non-observant Jewish family who suddenly decides to plan a Seder in her home in Westchester at “Passover in early April”. This comes as a surprise to the family, especially her husband Saul (Stephen Schnetzer), and the other characters, which include their two grown daughters Sammi (Liba Vaynberg) and Ariel (Dana Stern), Saul's sister Nan (Phyllis Kay), their former neighbor Beverly (Sarah Newhouse) and Linda's assistant Ester (Elle Borders). As Kaplan notes in the program, it started as a play about a daughter, evolving into a play about a whole family, in keeping with the playwright's body of theatrical works that emphasize women's stories and family intergenerational relationships. As she puts it, “we are so many ages inside. To put more than one age on stage and the page is really a more true portrait of what it is to be a human.” Director Melia Bensussen adds that the Haggadah, a text that tells you all the steps in a Seder, tells the story of Moses from birth to exodus, in the process becoming a theatrical experience that Kaplan describes as the original dinner theater. At a spare ninety minutes or so, it's fast if not furious, and soon answers the query as to why this play is different from other plays. Because it is.


The Cast of "We All Fall Down"
(photo: Nile Hawver)

It's a curious amalgam of Borscht belt comedy (for example, having Beverly, who is not Jewish, refer to Passover as the “Jewish Easter”) and underlying family tragedy. There is a longing for the beliefs that once brought people together. First-timers to a Seder are advised to bring with them a measure of patience, and no bread (or anything with leavening, no yeast or beer). It comes to pass that we realize that there's a place for everyone here, as we celebrate liberation: while we were once slaves, we are now free. Playwright Kaplan admits that the fact that her first name, Lila, means “night” in Hebrew, led her to explore why this night is different from all other nights, and to reflect on the reason people from Jewish culture are drawn to Seder, namely the same reason we are all drawn to theater: we come together for storytelling, which helps us to become better at being human. This concept comes vividly true toward the end of the play when it somewhat suddenly shifts to seriousness even as the family re-enacts the old familiar nursery rhyme from childhood:

     Ring around the rosy, a pocket full of posies, ash, ash, we all fall down.

The meaning of the song has long been lost to the ages, but the use of it in this pivotal scene exposes what one already has surmised if she or he has been paying attention to the clues the playwright has dropped along the way.


The Cast of "We All Fall Down"
(photo: Neil Hawver)

This play, already extended through February 15th, features the sadly funny Reissa in the matriarchal role, a difficult character to play given her obtuseness about some every day factoids, and the secretive Schnetzer, a Catholic Memorial High School graduate (as is this critic), holding his own surrounded by a half dozen actresses: Borders, Newhouse, Vaynberg, Stern and especially Kay (long associated with Trinity Rep in Providence). Under the direction of Bensussen, they manage to elevate the more sitcom moments in the work (which even has black-outs, and features a trio of urination scenes). The creative team boasts clever Scenic Design by Judy Gailen, Costume Design by Karen Perry (one really over the top), Lighting Design by Russell H. Champa and Sound Design by David Remedios.

Lurking beneath the sporadic hilarity of the play, as in most comedies, is a serious look at the ever-expanding reality that many folks of previous faith have lost the spiritual aspects of their daily existence, exhibited in the wry expression “I don't believe in God, but I miss Him”; or, as Pogo long ago put it in his comic strip philosophical musings, “God isn't dead, He's just unemployed”.