Celebrity Series of Boston's "Alvin Ailey Dance Theater": Still Revealing

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's "Revelations"
(photo: Gert Krautbauer) 

What can one say about a dance company that has been enthralling audiences and critics for the past six decades? That would be the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which has held a significant position on the global dance stage since its inception way back in 1958. Few if any professional performing arts organizations can lay claim to that kind of history. A much beloved staple of the Celebrity Series of Boston since 1968, the company returns this spring to the Boch Center Wang Theater for five performances, each of them including a fascinating mix of Boston and company premieres as well as their signature piece, Revelations (which had its world premiere in 1960). In addition, there will be pieces such as Deep (2016, in its Boston premiere), Walking Mad (2016 both company and Boston premiere) Ella (also a company and Boston premiere), The Winter in Lisbon (new production), Untitled American (world premiere), After the Rain Pas de Deux and r-Evolution, Dream (world premiere).

At the performance on April 27, the program consisted of Deep, Walking Mad, Ella and of course Revelations. (The performance on Saturday April 29 at 8pm duplicates this program).  Deep, choreographed by Mauro Bigonzetti, was enhanced by the music of Ibeyi (twin sisters who sing in both English and Yoruba). Walking Mad was the work of choreographer Johan Inger and featured music from Ravel (Bolero) and Arvo Part, as well as a whimsical moving wall (if the concept of a wall can be an object of whimsy in our politically skewed era). Ella was choreographed by Robert Battle (the company's current Artistic Director) to the scat singing of the great Ella Fitzgerald's Airmail Special, an amazingly challenging workout for Michael Francis McBride and Renaldo Maurice.  Revelations was of course first choreographed by the company's namesake. Alvin Ailey took the balletic world by storm back in 1960 when this work had its premiere, and it has continued to thrill audiences ever since, this time with Belen Pereyra, in her sixth year with the piece. It never failed in the past to bring an audience to its feet, and this was no exception. In the end, this was a well-chosen quartet of works that demonstrated the breadth and depth of this company, from its percussive music and dance in Deep to the humor of the Magritte-like Walking Mad to the scattershot Ella (with its nods to tunes such as The Ballad of Davy Crockett) to the wondrous Revelations.

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater's "Revelations"
(photo: Gert Krautbauer)

The remaining performances are variations from the nine works on offer. Both the Saturday April 29 matinee at 2pm and the Sunday April 30 matinee at 3pm include The Winter in Lisbon and r-Evolution Dream as well as After the Rain Pas de Deux and Revelations. Lisbon, by choreographer Billy Wilson, features music from Dizzy Gillespie's four decades of composing. Choreographer Hope Boykin's r-Evolution Dream is based on sermons and speeches by Dr. Martin Luther King, utilizing music by jazz drummer Ali Jackson and narrated by Tony Award winner (for Hamilton) Leslie Odom, Jr. After the Rain Pas de Deux is a former favorite since 2005, with music by Arvo Part, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. The program on Friday evening April 28 at 8pm consists of Winter in Lisbon, After the Rain Pas de Deux, and Revelations. It also includes the only performance during this visit of Untitled America, a company and Boston premiere of a piece choreographed by Kyle Abraham, which presents the issues encountered by African American families dealing with the prison system and includes spoken word interviews. It features music by Laura Mvula, Raime, Carsten Nicolai and Kris Bowers, along with traditional spirituals such as No More My Lord.
Thus it's obvious that any one of the programs to be presented this season has its unique yet complementary place in the work of this company, still a revelation even for the most avid balletomanes. What can you say about this company? Everything good, and that art matters. 


ArtsEmerson's "17 Border Crossings": Build That Wall?

Thaddeus Phillips in "17 Border Crossings"
(photo: ArtsEmerson)

The tagline for the ambitious ArtsEmerson calendar of events, “The World on Stage”, has never been truer than in the case of its current production, 17 Border Crossings. It's a one-person show created, designed and performed by Thaddeus Phillips, amounting to ninety minutes of uninhibited creativity, as he takes us on a round-the-world trip. Phillips' tour-de-farce, now appearing at Emerson's Paramount Center black box theater, sometimes necessitates relating the relatively mundane story behind the smuggling of fried chicken, other times with the more unexpected peculiarities of airline security. This theater artist gave birth to this work before the emergence of the concept of banning immigrants based on their religion or ethnicity, so its title implies relevance that it fails to deliver. For the most part, this is a well-performed comedic show when one might have expected one that was more topical.

This series of vignettes begins with a quotation from Shakespeare's Henry V as Henry speaks on the occasion of St. Crispin's Day about providing passports for anyone wishing to go home from the battlefields in France. Then it's on to trips from Hungary to Serbia by train, Italy to Croatia by ferry, and walking from the U.S. To Mexico, with Phillips playing himself as well as several different customs agents, with only a few set pieces (a small desk, a chair, a set of lights) to help differentiate the magical and very invisible abstract and absurd lines we call international borders. Many are funny, only one is sad. They range from London, Paris, Prague, Belgrade, Colombia, and Holland to crossings as remote as the Amazon rain forest. In each case he is not as impacted as many travelers he meets, as he is traveling as a white American male. His migrations even include one mental one, caused by an encounter with the hallucinogenic Amazonian brew ayahuasca. Even this journey of the mind is played for comic effect. And Phillips by and large nails the accents, the inflections and posturing of the characters he encounters, making for a very enjoyable if slight theatrical experience.

This piece, co-produced by Lucidity Suitcase International (memorable for their production seasons back of Red-eye to Havre de Grace), and previously seen in theaters from Michigan to Hong Kong, is directed by the author's wife and collaborator Tatiana Mallarino, with Lighting by David Todaro, Sound by Robert Kaplowitz and technical work by Spencer Sheridan.

Future musings on the perils of international travel may, unfortunately, prove more serious and provocative, based on political knee-jerk reactions in this country and others, such as France. In the spirit of 17 Border Crossings, maybe each country shouldn't have to maintain and pay for the boundaries they erect. Maybe Mexico should pay for them.


Fathom Events' Met Opera's "Onegin": On Again, Off Again

Anna Netrebko in "Eugene Onegin"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

Timing is everything, as illustrated by the lyric opera Eugene Onegin by Tchaikovsky, with libretto by Konstantin Shilovsky, after the poem by Alexsandr Pushkin. It's the story of love and indifference that pass as two ships in the night, not unlike the two protagonists in the Sondheim musical A Little Night Music , where two other ill-timed would-be lovers lament the ironic timing of their relationship in the song Send in the Clowns. In the case of this opera, which received its world premiere in Moscow in 1879, it's more the star-crossed and ill-timed lovers in Russian tragic literature, made more compelling by the composer's lush and elegant music. One might defy an opera goer not to find the main theme imbedded in one's mind for days after hearing Tchaikovsky's much-repeated leitmotif throughout this piece, reflecting the stasis in which these characters find themselves (or, rather, never quite find one another).

It is fall in the 1820's in the Russian countryside, where the widow Madame Larina (mezzo Elena Zaremba) lives with her daughters the bookish Tatiana (soprano Anna Netrebko), a romantic, and the spirited Olga (mezzo Elena Maximova), the latter being pursued by their neighbor the poet Lenski (tenor Alexey Dolgov). When his friend the aristocratic Eugene Onegin (baritone Peter Mattei) visits him, Tatiana falls in love with Onegin, writing him a very passionate letter, which she sends via her maid Filippyevna (mezzo Larissa Diadkova). He responds that he can offer her merely friendship, advising her to curb her emotions should a man seek to take advantage of her. Come January, Lenski convinces Onegin to accompany him to the name day celebration for Tatiana, where Onegin becomes bored and flirts with Olga. Lenski jealously challenges him to a duel, at which Lenski is killed. Years later, Onegin returns from a self-imposed exile and visits the dashing Prince Gremin (bass Stefan Kocan) in St. Petersburg, where he learns Tatiana has wed the prince. This time it is Onegin who writes to express his love and urge her to run away with him. She confesses she still loves him, but refuses to leave her husband, leaving Onegin in despair.

In this Co-Production by the Metropolitan Opera and the English National Opera, there's much to admire, notably from Conductor Robin Ticciati, (Music Director of the Glyndbourne Festival) who splendidly leads the Met Orchestra in this Production by Deborah Warner. The Costume Design by Chloe Obolensky, Lighting Design by Jean Kalman, Video Design by Finn Ross and Ian William Galloway and Stage Direction by Paula Williams all contribute to a feel for the period. The Set Design by Tom Pye is a vast improvement on the Met's previous stark and boring one, and the Choreography by Kim Brandstrup, though in cramped spaces, is lively, as is the always-reliable Met Opera Chorus under its venerable Chorus Master Donald Palumbo. The HD Director Gary Halvorson and HD Host Renee Fleming add to the enjoyment. But highest among the accolades one could confer on this production is the singing, which is of course as it should be in opera. Netrebko is outstanding, especially in the justly famous “letter scene” aria, as are Mattei in the unsympathetic title role and Dolgov in the poignant “Lenski's aria”. Even Kocan in his brief role of the Prince is unforgettable, with his seemingly impossible low range and eyes meant for HD closeups.

In the end, the quality of the music and its mostly eloquent delivery in this performance make the case for this opera once again. One need not urge Beethoven to “roll over and tell Tchaikovsky the news”; Piotr is yet again in the operatic headlines.

Fathom Events will re-broadcast "Eugene Onegin" on Weds. April 26th at a cinema near you.


Odyssey Opera's "Dwarf": Diminutive or Gigantic?

Ales Briscein in and as "Der Zwerg"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

Der Zwerg (The Dwarf), a one-act opera by composer Alexander von Zemlinsky, freely adapted by librettist Georg Klaren from Oscar Wilde's short story The Birthday of the Infanta, is the third production in Odyssey Opera's “Wilde Opera Nights”. It premiered in 1922 in Cologne, just as Zemlinksy had ended his relationship with Alma Mahler (future wife of Gustav, as well as subsequent spouse of architect Walter Gropius and of novelist Franz Werfel). Artistic Director and Conductor Gil Rose refers to Zemlinsky as “a brother of Korngold”, whose Die Tote Stadt was presented so memorably by the company last season. Korngold was the last great prodigy of the romantic era, whose voluptuous music with its highly melodic and expressive nature was one of two influences that inspired Zemlinky. The other was the highly psychological and complex work of Arnold Schoenberg and Alban Berg. Rose speaks of Zemlinsky's opera as a rather “bizarre hybrid...a cocktail” that echoes Richard Strauss. It was no wonder that Zemlinsky would respond to the kind of scandalous Oscar Wilde story reminiscent of Strauss' own opera Salome, which Der Zwerg frequently sounds like. It's in fact a tragic fairy tale, which, as so many such stories do, ends grimly.

A sultan sends a dwarf (tenor Ales Briscein) as a present to the royal eighteenth birthday celebration of the Infanta, the Spanish princess Donna Clara (soprano Kirsten Chambers). The dwarf falls in love with the Infanta, singing a love song to her in which he imagines himself as her brave knight, all this while he is described by others as a jest of cruel nature with his notable hump. She toys with him, knowing he is unaware of his own physical deformity, giving him a white rose as a present. He finds a mirror when he is on his own, seeing his reflection (and his deformity) for the first time in his life. When he tries to get her to kiss him, she spurns him, calling him a monster. Heartbroken, he dies clutching the rose, while the Infanta rejoins her party, which includes Ghita, her attendant (soprano Michelle Trainor), Don Estoban, her chamberlain, (bass James Johnson), her First Maid (soprano Erica Petrocelli), her Second Maid (soprano Dana Varga), and her Third Maid (mezzo soprano Vera Savage) as well as Friends of the Infanta (the sopranos and altos of the Odyssey Opera Chorus). Don Estoban had warned that truth could be the death of the dwarf, as God has created us all blind to ourselves. For her part, the Infanta declares that “for the future let those who come to play with me have no hearts”.

The performance was, as noted above, conducted by Gil Rose, with his typical sensitivity, and superbly played by the Opera Odyssey Orchestra. It was beautifully sung in German with English titles by the cast of seven principals who seemed to revel in the acoustically wondrous venue that is Jordan Hall. A standout was the titular little person, sung and acted by Briscein (who was a hit at the Boston premiere of Dvorak's Dimitrij last year), with his stunningly impressive voice and facial expressions that convincingly conveyed his character. Equally memorable were Chambers as the almost mechanical Princess (a la Olympia in Tales of Hoffman) and Trainor, who seemed genuinely surprised at the audience's enthusiastic reception. In a city where people give standing ovations to the openings of supermarkets, this one was indisputably deserved. All of the soloists and chorus shone. The sound of a hundred musicians on stage (the orchestra of seventy, chorus of thirty, seven soloists and conductor) was extraordinarily thrilling. It was, in the end, ninety minutes of lush post-Romantic music with a story that was dark and compelling, with what the program notes rightly state as a “score that magnified the text and educed the drama's extremes of emotions” with “vocal leaps and bold harmonies, horror and hysteria”. It was an apt production for Good Friday from a company whose local presence every season can only be described as.....gigantic.


Moonbox's "Barnum": Rah Humbug?

The Cast of Moonbox Productions' "Barnum"
(photo: Earl Christie)
What can one say about the 1980 musical Barnum, which, despite a weak book, managed to be hugely entertaining and had a lengthy run of almost 900 performances on Broadway? It tells the story of Phineas Taylor Barnum, the self-described king of hype and humbug, from 1835 to 1881. Barnum was never given its due by critics, but was nominated for ten Tony Awards, winning three, for its title performer, sets and costumes. Despite its sketchy Book by Mark Bramble, it had terrific jaunty Music by Cy Coleman and clever Lyrics by Michael Stewart. It was such a smash for audiences that it transferred to London and was revived several times over the past few decades. One need only overlook the libretto and enjoy the performances of the rousing songs in this unabashedly exciting, energetic, dynamic show in its present snazzy Moonbox Productions mounting.

From the opening number, “There Is a Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute”, sung by Barnum (Todd Yard) in the pursuit of promoting his sideshow attractions, we're aware, via the presence of the Ringmaster (Zaven Ovian), that we're about to encounter Barnum's life as a loosely connected series of circus acts. His sideshow attractions include the Oldest Woman Alive, Joice Heth (Carla Martinez) who delivers the number “Thank God I'm Old”, Tom Thumb (Bransen Gates) who sells the number “Bigger Isn't Better”, and Jumbo the Elephant (who doesn't sing at all). Meanwhile not all is well in the Barnum household as he and his long-suffering wife Charity (Shonna Cirone) share in “The Colors of My Life”. Also along for the tour is Jenny Lind (Jessica Kundla), the Swedish Nightingale (“Love Makes Such Fools of Us All”). Later the Barnums exchange loving promises in “Black and White”. Still later Barnum is urged to “Come Follow the Band” and to “Join the Circus” by James Bailey (Ovian again) of Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus fame. Barnum's final attraction is the reprise of “There Is a Sucker Born Ev'ry Minute” as co-producer of The Greatest Show on Earth.

Bransen Gates as General Tom Thumb in "Barnum"
(photo: Earl Christie)

Stupendously directed and choreographed by Rachel Bertone, with great Music Direction by Dan Rodriguez, this production is a smashing success. The multi-talented ensemble consists of Dance Captains Matthew Kossack and Daniel Forest Sullivan, Joy Clark, Andrea Lyons, Dan Prior, Allison Russell, and Alexa Wang, all of them triple or quadruple threats who demand to be mentioned. It's a cast of thousands (well, OK, a baker's dozen; that was a bit of humbug). The creative work includes the perfect Set Design by Cameron McEachern, bright and beautiful Costume Design by Marian Bertone, fine Sound Design by Brian McCoy, and electrifying Lighting Design by John Malinowski. This was an extraordinarily complicated show to present and the hard work shows, even thought they make it seem so easy, especially those solo showstoppers Martinez (with great deadpan delivery) and Gates, a fabulous find whose singing and dancing were absolutely infectious. Yard kept things together with a terrifically animated presence. Bertone's inventive choreography (though too dependent at times on the jazz hands made iconic by Bob Fosse) keeps everything fast paced and the acrobatics quite believable. It's not Cirque du soleil, but it's not hogwash either, as it juggles all the elements of the greatest show on Tremont.

Back in 1980, just after the opening of Barnum, this critic was present for a talk by Stewart in which he stated he was through with Broadway and that his type of musical was no longer in vogue; he then conducted a quiz about authors of musical comedy librettos, which this critic won, telling Stewart that his gift was like manure in that it only did any good if you spread it around (a reference to his Hello Dolly work). He did subsequently work on a few musicals (even including a sequel to Bye Bye Birdie) which by and large didn't meet with much acceptance, but he at least showed that he was game for it. The prize for winning the quiz, incidentally, was an autographed (by Stewart) original cast album LP (remember those?) of the then-new Barnum.

So what are you waiting for? Come follow the band and join the circus. These days a bit of hoopla goes a long way, and we need the pure escapism a show like this provides. “Of course that was a long time ago”, Barnum sums up at the end of the show, “and Joice Heth is gone and forgotten
...Jenny Lind...and my poor Tom Thumb...so my kind of humbug's disappeared. Pity”. Or maybe not, if you've been paying attention to the last six months in politics. Perhaps hype and humbug (sadly, of a much more sinister type) are still very much with us. Pity.

Lyric Stage's "Barbecue": Skewering Around with Theatrical Interventions

James R. Milord, Lyndsay Allyn Cox, Jackie Davis, Jasmine Rush
 & Ramona Lisa Alexander in "Barbecue"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)
It may truthfully be said that there is such a thing as a virtually unreviewable play, especially if it is essentially a compilation of spoilers.

Such a work is Barbecue, by playwright Robert O'Hara, which first appeared off-Broadway in 2015, and is now receiving its local premiere at Lyric Stage Company. It's the story of a family who gathers at a public park for an ostensible barbecue somewhere in Middle America. Directed by Summer L. Williams (Bootycandy), its cast of ten comprises two separate groups, one of black actors and one of white actors, and that's about all one knows until just before intermission. For the record, the actors involved are Ramona Lisa Alexander, Lyndsay Allyn Cox, Jackie Davis, James R. Milord, and Jasmine Rush; and Sarah Elizabeth Bedard, Bryan T. Donovan, Adrianne Krstansky, Deb Martin, and Christine Power. It may be discretely revealed that the clan consists of Lillie Anne, James T., Marie, Adlean, and their sister Barbara, nicknamed Zippity Boom, for whom they want to plan an intervention with some straight talk about her substance abuse. In order to preserve some real surprises, programs are not handed out until after the first act, so that's about all one should say about the cast and whom each actor plays.
Though the subject is serious, in the first act there's brilliantly funny spot-on skewering of these equal-opportunity stereotypes who all approach the hot dog barbecue with relish.
Hilarity ensues.
Then comes the second act, quite serious for the most part, though given a comic edge. Suffice it to say that the playwright still has a couple of tricks up his sleeve.

Sobriety accrues.

Christine Power, Sarah Elizabeth Bedard, Deb Martin, Bryan T. Donovan
& Adrianne Krstanksy in "Barbecue"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

It's frustrating not to be able to single out a character or the actor who creates her or him, but no matter, as the whole cast is wonderful. (All right, one has to mention the diva named Barbara, hysterically funny in her channeling of an otherwise-spelled “Barbra” portrayed last season by Phil Taylor in Buyer and Seller; and one would also have to mention the final scene when Krstansky's mute terror is on display). Thus one could imply that Williams directs with a very keen touch, and so she does. The rest of the creative team was up to Lyric's standard as well, with ingenious Costume Design by Tyler Kinney, apt Scenic Design by Jessica Pizzuti, realistic Sound Design by David Wilson and crucial Lighting Design by Jen Rock (who, with the playwright, creates arguably the best final-line blackout, literally, in theater history).

O'Hara has stated that his goal is not how many people he can make comfortable, but the opposite, by creating a communal experience where we are all part of the conversation. How he does this and how well he succeeds, well, you'll have to see for yourself. It's not for every theatergoer, and could profit from a nip and tuck here or there in some lengthy segments, but at the end of the day, or the end of the play at least, what we've witnessed is writing at its cleverest and wisest, a dazzling display of imaginative, inspired lunacy.

Pass the mustard.



Handel & Haydn's "Vespers of 1610": An Auld Person's Guide to the Orchestra

Harry Christophers conducts "Vespers of 1610"
(photo: Kat Waterman)

One never forgets her or his first exposure to Claudio Monteverdi's much beloved Vespers of 1610 or Vespro della Beata Vergine, widely considered a “pillar of the baroque”, a memorable experience that is currently being offered by Boston's Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra and Chorus and their Vocal Arts Program Young Women's Chamber Choir under the direction of Conductor Harry Christophers. This performance featured the prescribed seven vocal soloists, including soprano Margot Rood, soprano Sonja DuToit Tengblad, tenor Jeremy Budd, tenor Mark Dobell, tenor Jonas Budris, baritone Woodrow Bynum, and baritone David McFerrin. Two of them, Budd and Dobell, were integral to the recording of this work in 2015 by the British choir and period instrument ensemble The Sixteen (founded and conducted by Christophers). Based on the daily practice of evening prayers from the hours of the Divine Office, unchanged in 1500 years, this was the most ambitious work of religious music before Bach arrived on the scene. A ninety minute piece for soloists, chorus and orchestra, with both liturgical and secular music, it was not just composed for services. As Teresa M. Neff (Handel and Haydn Historically Informed Performance Fellow) states in the program notes, Monteverdi proclaimed that the “text was the mistress to the music”, with the music expressing the text's emotions, what he called the “second practice” of his composing, complementing the more traditional “first practice”. Often consisting of up to ten vocal parts, it is essentially, as the title indicates, a piece that is profoundly Marian, with the sole exception of the text in the Duo seraphim sung by the three tenors. It was published in 1610 in Venice, dedicated to Pope Paul V.

With the first line in the introductory Deus in adjutorium , followed by a more expansive multi-voiced response, it's clear what is the basis for the work, namely Gregorian plainchant, (with its simple arsis and thesis), along with five Psalms with sacred motets, a traditional hymn, and the setting of the Magnificat, (which concluded all Vespers services). It remains a versatile work, as illustrated for example by the composer's dual scoring of this Magnificat for both large and smaller groups of musicians, and is equally regarded when performed with organ or period instruments. This was easily appreciated with the inclusion of instruments that reflect those of the early 17th century, such as the dulcian (predecessor of the bassoon), the lute-like chitarrone, sackbuts (similar to today's trombones) and the trumpet-like cornetto (leather-wrapped wooden pieces). The chitarrone in particular is a fascinating instrument in both sight and sound.

With so many possible permutations and combinations of vocal and instrumental elements for the listener, the program was a joy to experience. Christophers obviously loves this music, which he has described as emotional and sensual, from its triumphant Orfeo-like operatic beginning to its final flamboyant Amen. It was as much a pleasure to watch his entire-body conducting, as it was to follow Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky with her infectiously exuberant playing. The entire orchestra and chorus were amazingly precise and coordinated. All seven vocal soloists had an opportunity to shine, notably Budd and Dobell, especially in the Audi coelum in which the composer wittily offers a true echoing of the Latin text by dueling tenors, intriguingly utilizing the excellent acoustics of Jordan Hall, where the opening performance took place.

There were two repeat performances, one on Saturday April 8th at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the company's first visit to New York since 1996) at the Temple of Dendur, and the other at Sanders Theater in Cambridge on Sunday afternoon April 9th . It's an incomparable event that have been on the schedule of every serious lover of early music.


Huntington's "The Who & the What": Not for Prophet

Aila Peck & Rom Barkhordar in "The Who & the What"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

All are welcome here”: it says it right in the program of the play The Who & the What, by Ayad Akhtar, and the Huntington Theatre Company goes on to demonstrate just that with its very engaging production of this very funny play about a very serious subject. Disgraced, the playwright's previous work, was the most produced original new play in this country last season, as well as a 2012 Pulitzer Prize winner, a work that was met by both critical and commercial success, and also presented last year by Huntington. That play was about Muslim characters who were struggling with their “foreignness” as Muslim American citizens, and was tragic. This new play looks inward, and with an ample supply of whimsical humor. Rather than being about identity politics, it portrays how Islam is in conflict with itself, with the core of the play being a particular generation gap. Akhtar has stated that his new play was written to counter widespread misinformation and deconstruct assumptions about Muslim communities in this country, by humanizing them. He further contends that access to the real wisdom in Islamic tradition is blocked by literal scriptural adherence, with misunderstandings which can be expressed theatrically. Too often the prophet (never named, respecting Muslim tradition) has been, as Akhtar puts it, “framed and re-framed...told and then mistold to justify people's decisions”. Akhtar took as his inspiration two similar sources, the television comedy “All in the Family” and Shakespeare's “Taming of the Shrew” (and its musical version,“Kiss Me Kate”), with all of their misogyny intact, but involving a Pakistani-American family. The issues and contradictions that develop between dutiful daughters toward their fathers and their desire to assimilate are obvious in the playwright's tale of one particular family. It's quite reminiscent of a certain other play, a musical with Jewish characters, about a milkman with five daughters, but this one unfolds on the “steppes” of Atlanta, Georgia in 2014.

This is indeed high praise, as the author has succeeded in portraying another memorable father, a sort of Afzal on the Roof, in the character of Afzal (Rom Barkhordar), a successful taxi company owner with two daughters of marriageable age. The elder Zarina (Aila Peck), a Harvard grad, is engaged in writing about Islam and women. She meets Eli (Joseph Marrella), a young man recently converted to Islam who runs the local mosque and soup kitchen, and who bridges the gap between her modernized life and her traditional (religious) heritage. Upon discovering her latest manuscript, her father is horrified, as is her sister Mahwish (Turna Mete), engaged to her longtime boyfriend but nurturing a crush on her GRE instructor. She too has strong convictions about people with strong opinions about Islam and women, especially those who are neither. As she puts it: “Everyone's always making a big deal about women in Islam. We're just fine”. Meanwhile, Zarina had broken up with her non-Muslim boyfriend, since her father didn't want her to marry outside the faith. Afzal, in a move not to be revealed here, gives new meaning to the concept of arranged marriage. And Zarina's latest writing centers on the mandatory wearing of the hijab, as she bemoans: “I hate what the faith does to women...(by a) story that 's used as an excuse to hide us”. At the same time, Afzal confides to Eli the telling statement that Zarina “has more power over you than she really wants...she can't help it. And she won't be happy until you break her.” (Like a horse?)

At the core of this work is the fundamental question: “what is Islamic feminism?” Is the term an oxymoron? While acknowledging the spiritual equality of men and women in Islam, there remain the social and political realities of gender inequality. Basic intolerance takes many forms, of course, and Islam possesses no claim to the only faith-based discrimination against women (Jewish women behind screens, Catholic women unable to lead their communities, and so forth). Akhtar asserts that when he wrote that play he never expected to see that the “kind of degradation of rhetoric could exist anywhere but the theater...but now we're living in a world where what's happening on stage is not all that controversial”. In his striving to “reconcile contemporary life with traditional Islamic culture”, and “what it means to be Muslim in America”, the playwright concedes that “Islam is of course more than just a faith-based system, but a way of life, a culture, a system of values”. There remains the question of how to recognize the potential empowerment of women and include them in the current political milieu, which has made the issues this play confronts all the more significant. When told by Eli that he understands her pain in dealing with Islam, Zarina counters that he “didn't have to grow up as a woman inside it."

Barkhordar, with moving and barely controlled ferocity, creates a character for the ages, with his own narrowness (speaking of his older daughter's former boyfriend Ryan as “Catholic. Irish. You know the type.”). Peck in turn provides his perfect foil, unable to restrain from incendiary and deeply felt proclamations (“You erased me. And I let you” and “Hell is a metaphor for human suffering”). Mete and Marrella both serve to support both points of view as Peck defends her all-too-human, perhaps blasphemous, portrait of the prophet that attempts to help Muslim women and “give them permission to ask questions” about "Who" the prophet really was and "What" he was really like. This quartet of actors is a marvel, exquisitely tuned by Director M. Bevin O'Gara, with fascinating Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco, appropriate Costume Design by Mary Lauve (the kind of clothing people would actually wear), intricate Lighting Design by Annie Wiegand, fine Sound Design by M. L. Dogg, and contributive Original Music by Saraswathi Jones.

This is a play to cherish, with its insight and profundity beneath a very welcoming sense of humor. The final curtain line is a gem, also not to be revealed here, that sums up the playwright's genius and respects the company's stated commitment to “telling stories of all races and cultures...a platform...to expand our definition, recognition and understanding of the human experience...
resisting fear and intolerance...to cultivate generosity, artistic excellence and radical hospitality.” It is devoutly to be wished that Akhtar's next play will echo this radical hospitality and reflect the stark reality of what our American Muslim fellow citizens must now navigate in a profoundly hostile administration. That play might well be The Where & the When.


"Mrs. Packard": Using It or Losing It?

Olivia D'Ambrosio in and as "Mrs. Packard"
(photo: Mark J. Franklin)

Bridge Repertory Theater has the much deserved reputation of presenting unusual and provocative plays in the four years of their existence, and this remains true with their latest production Mrs. Packard in their new home at the Multicultural Arts Center in East Cambridge. The play is based on a relatively unknown but important true story of a woman whose place in feminist history should by all accounts be on a par with the suffragettes who secured the vote for women in this country. Playwright Emily Mann's mission was to celebrate this overlooked heroine and establish her rightful place in that history (or herstory). In this co-production by Bridge Rep and Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company, she has successfully managed just that, even though the result is less drama than polemic. Her 2007 work takes the true tale of Elizabeth Packard (referred to by everyone in the play, including her husband, with her more formal title rather than her first name) who was institutionalized in an insane asylum for the unforgivable crime of questioning her Calvinist preacher husband's beliefs in public. While difficult to believe today, in 1851 the State of Illinois passed a law that enabled a husband to have his spouse “entered or detained in the hospital on the request of the husband...without the evidence of insanity required in other cases”. The play is set in the State of Illinois from 1861 to 1864, the years of Mrs. Packer's virtual imprisonment.

In the title role, Bridge Rep's Producing Artistic Director Olivia D'Ambrosio creates a stunning character who dominates the play with the extraordinary breadth of her performance, perhaps even beyond the playwright's words. It's easily D'Ambrosio's most memorable work, as she navigates the perilous tightrope between proving her sanity while not relinquishing her own integrity. The task is made difficult, seemingly impossible, by the insidiously corrupt role of Dr. McFarland (superbly portrayed by Producing Artistic Director of Playhouse Creatures Theatre Company, Joseph W. Rodriguez) and the unbending rigidity of her husband Theophilus Packer (Steven Barkhimer). In the asylum she finds herself in the company of other women equally sane, and a staff that ranges from brutal, as in the case of Mrs. Bonner (Annabel Capper), to the more humane, as in the case of Mrs. Tenney (Shanae Burch). Only after several years does the opportunity to convince others of her sanity arise, in the person of Asylum Board Member Mr. Blackman (Matthew Zahnzinger), who perceives in her the passion that was incorrectly viewed as insanity, and her using of reason as opposed to losing it. The entire cast of eighteen is uniformly brilliant. It should be noted that Burch in particular creates a very believable character with more humanity than might be expected; the same could be said for Zahnzinger, who provides yet another meticulously crafted role in a varied career. When Mrs. Parker is finally freed, after initially being held as a prisoner in her own home, and finally publicly cleared, she resolves to do all in her power to use her restored freedom to do good for others in similar situations.

And so she did, with her subsequent books that exposed the deplorable conditions in the era's institutions. She continued to be an outspoken champion not just for women's rights in this country but also for reform of those same institutions for the “mentally ill”. This production, ably directed by Emily Ranii, with clever use of the space by Scenic Designer Jon Savage and Lighting Designer E. D. Intemann, as well as appropriate Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl, is another memorable collaboration by the estimable Bridge Rep in its relatively brief existence.


New Rep's "Golda's Balcony": Hitting Pay Dirt with Golda Dust?

Bobbie Steinbach in "Golda's Balcony"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

Golda's Balcony, a 2003 one-person play by the late William Gibson, first saw the theatrical light of day in an earlier version titled Golda , essentially a vehicle for the actress Anne Bancroft, back in 1977, which played pre-Broadway in Boston (remember those days?). Gibson had previously worked with Bancroft in her Broadway debut, Two for the Seesaw, in 1958, and again in the unforgettable The Miracle Worker in 1959, so hopes were high that this would be yet another successful collaboration, but it was not to be (though it garnered a Tony Award nomination for Bancroft). More than twenty five years later, Gibson decided to dust off the cobwebs and rework his play and presented the rewritten version, a successful effort this time, which would become the longest running one-woman show in Broadway history, now appearing on the stage at New Rep. In its current form, it remains a solo vehicle for an actress, Bobbie Steinbach, as Golda, having last appeared at New Rep as Yente in Fiddler on the Roof.

As the name implies, this is the history (or herstory) of the American schoolteacher (born in Kiev, thus an immigrant to our then-welcoming country) from Wisconsin who became the fourth (and first female) Prime Minister of Israel, Golda Meir. Towards the end of the play, the title is revealed as a reference to the balcony area where visiting VIPS could observe the activity in Israel's secretive Dimona nuclear weapons facility. Therein lies the conundrum: while Meir's life was a fascinating one, bringing her life to the stage is another matter. Gibson himself stated that at the core of his theme was the question: “What happens when idealism becomes power?”, and in this work that query remains unanswered. This production is Directed by Judy Braha, with Scenic Design (a table, chairs, stools and seemingly hundreds of military boots under a multi-level playing area) by JiYoung Han, Costume Design (a single house dress) by Penney Pinette, Lighting Design by John Malinowski, Sound Design by David Wilson, and Projection Design by Seaghan McKay.

With this hundred-minute portrayal, has New Rep truly hit pay dirt? On the plus side, there is the drama of the plight of the children in Cyprus and the dilemma of whether to use nuclear weaponry in a preemptive strike to which there would be a response of worldwide destruction; on the negative side, there is too much didactic verbiage bordering on a polemic. In the end, one's involvement in this work may well depend on how vested one is, especially those who have Jewish ancestry. (It's of interest, though, that the author of this Israel-centric play was raised by his Irish Catholic mother). It's unsettling, in any case, to see in its final scene what almost threatens to be a glorification of war rather than peace. Golda herself is quoted in this regard: “to save a world you create...how many worlds are you entitled to destroy?”. The play, however, ends with the one word and concept it fundamentally fails to promote: shalom.


Fathom Events' Met Opera's "Idomeneo": Hit or Myth?

Matthew Polenzani in Met Opera's "Idomeneo"
(photo: Met Opera)

Mozart's Idomeneo, with a libretto by Giovanni Battista Varesco, is a relative rarity in the repertoire of the Metropolitan Opera, but one which continues to grow in popularity with its many ardent fans. It premiered in 1781 in Munich in Italian when the composer was twenty-five years old. The full title was actually Idomeneo, King Of Crete, or Ilia and Idamante. It boasts over a dozen arias in its three acts, which have enhanced its reputation through the ages, even though its plot is not particularly involving, given that it's about mythological characters.

Idomeneo (tenor Matthew Polenzani), King of Crete, returns from the Trojan War to find that Ilia (soprano Nadine Sierra), a Trojan princess in captivity in Crete has fallen in love with his son Idamante (mezzo Alice Coote), who is also loved by Elettra (soprano Elza Van den Heever), princess of Argos. When his fleet is threatened by a storm, Idomeneo vows to make a sacrifice to Neptune of the first person he sees upon his return, who turns out to be his son Idamante. Idomeneo's confidant Arbace (baritone Alan Opie) brings word to Crete that the king has died at sea, but Idomeneo arrives in Crete very much alive. To save Idamante, he orders him to accompany Elettra back to Argos, but another storm appears, along with a sea monster. Idomeneo confesses his guilt, offering himself as a sacrifice. Since his father never told him of his oath, Idamante can't understand his father's actions. Crete has been devastated by the monster, and the High Priest (tenor Noah Baetge) demands to know who is to be sacrificed. Idomeneo names his son, who returns after having killed the monster. He insists that he be sacrificed as his father promised, but the voice of Neptune (bass-baritone Eric Owens) intervenes, with an offer that if Idomeneo were to relinquish the throne to Idamante and Ilia, the gods would be placated. Elettra collapses, in the weirdest mad scene ever on an operatic stage, rather as though she were the Queen of the Night when off her meds (and one could hear musical themes that would find their way into Mozart's later work in The Magic Flute). Idomeneo gives up the throne and unites Idamante and Ilia.

Under James Levine, still conducting at his peak, the performance was exemplary. The entire Production, Set and Costume Design were by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, with Lighting Design by Gil Wechsler, with the result being old-fashioned (the same Met production as some thirty-five years ago) and dark. The Live in HD Direction was by Barbara Willis Sweete. The direction was mostly static, in the stand-and-proclaim approach. The singing was top notch, with relative newcomer Sierra a real find in her believable acting and as well as her exquisite singing. Host Eric Owens did double duty, since he also sang, as noted above.

The Met Live in HD broadcasts are winding down for the season, with only two remaining, namely Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin next month and Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier in mid-May. The next season has already been announced, but more about that in future posts.

Fathom Events will present an Encore broadcast on Weds. March 29th at a theater near you.


PPAC's "42nd Street": Those Dancing Feats

The Cast of "42nd Street"
(photo cortesy of 42nd Street National Tour)

We all know the story of 42nd Street, now being presented at PPAC as part of the show's National Tour. Anyone who's seen the original black-and-white film version with Ruby Keeler (and who hasn't?) will find much that is comfortably familiar, especially the basic libretto. It's the story of the ingenue from Allentown, Peggy Sawyer (Clara Cox), who goes on in place of the injured leading lady, diva Dorothy Brock (Kara Gibson Slocum) who breaks a leg (well, OK, so it's an ankle) and the director of the Broadway-bound show Pretty Lady, Julian Marsh (Matthew J. Taylor), who tells Peggy she's going out a youngster but coming back a star, and all that. Also featured in the large cast are characters such as the wisecracking old-timer Maggie Jones (Gerrianne Genga), male ingenue Billy Lawlor (Connor Coughlin), and second banana Annie (Kahlia Davis) as well as a huge ensemble of dancing and singing actors (almost three dozen triple threats). But you could write the plot yourself. No matter, it was never about the threadbare tongue-in-cheek storyline. It remains all about the dancing, most of it in the form of audience-pleasing tap.

The original Broadway production back in 1981 won the Tony Award for Best Musical (and Choreography) and played for more than eight years. The revival twenty years later also won a Tony for Best Revival. It's one of those shows where you can enter the theater humming the score, a pastiche of golden oldies like the title song, plus such standards as “I Only Have Eyes for You”, “Lullaby of Broadway”, and “We're in the Money”, all to the Music by Harry Warren, Lyrics by Al Dubin and book by Michael Stewart and Mark Bramble (who also serves as the Director of this production, and was nominated in 2001 for a Tony for Best Direction of a Revival). The songs constitute one of the first of what would come to be called “jukebox musicals”, assembled from several films, some of them shoehorned into the score without any real context. The creative team boasts several established professionals, with fine Set Design originally conceived by Beowulf Boritt, fabulous Costume Design by Roger Kirk (seemingly hundreds of them) and expert Lighting Design by Ken Billington.

All of the performers are fine, with wonderful precision and synchronization, especially in the second act that makes no pretense of any plot to speak of but presents one showstopper after another . It's the kind of all-singing all-dancing ensemble show that easily conforms to the huge venue that is PPAC. The only disappointment was the number “Shuffle Off to Buffalo”, usually performed in the sleeping car by all the chorines, but rather anemically set in this version. Coincidentally, this critic got to converse years ago with both Michael Stewart and Ruby Keeler on a transatlantic crossing on the QE2, subsequently sitting right behind Keeler at a performance of this show on Broadway. Both were extremely gracious and eager to share memories of their respective roles in the history of the film and play. They would surely feel the same way towards this production.


SpeakEasy's "Grand Concourse": An Unconventional Nun

Alejandro Simoes, Thomas Derrah, Melinda Lopez & Ally Dawson in "Grand Concourse"
(photo: Glenn Perry Photography)

Sorry I'm stuck I'm stuck” begins the attempted prayer by unconventional nun Shelley (Melinda Lopez), as she finds she's gotten out of the habit, in the SpeakEasy Stage Company New England premiere of Grand Concourse by Heidi Schreck. In a sparse script virtually devoid of punctuation, making for very realistic and natural dialogue, Sister Shelley resorts to timing her conversation with her God by means of a microwave (the only spoiler you'll find here, but one couldn't resist sharing this example of the playwright's bizarre sense of humor) in the industrial soup kitchen in the belly of a Bronx church. Shelley is nothing if not supremely self-aware (not at all atypical in religious life that stresses introspection), thus resulting in a crisis of faith for someone who inexplicably no longer loves her work. She finds herself more comfortable in dealing with the needs of others than dealing with her own pain, later revealed, and is beginning to entertain thoughts of alternate perspectives. The title of the play refers to the literal street (the longest through street in the Bronx) that was long ago planned to equal or at least mimic the Champs Elysees in Paris but has become the locale for the poorest of counties. It also references the concept of a grand coming together of people, but as the play develops, reality intervenes and challenges not only Shelley's inner turmoil but some larger issues as well, from the apparent dichotomy of selfishness vs. service to the difficulty of helping others when one is inwardly broken, to the fundamental question of what it means to forgive.

Shelley is belatedly coming to the realization that she is becoming detached not from feelings but from outcomes as she interacts with security guard Oscar (Alejandro Simoes) and wacky homeless
jokester Frog (Thomas Derrah), described as a “manipulator” by Shelly even before we first meet him. Into this milieu steps Emma (Ally Dawson), a nineteen-year-old volunteer, on her first day, seemingly looking for a sense of purpose, who will become the catalyst for the tumult that follows. Though her first reaction to the soup kitchen regulars is a valid one, that there is a lot of need present, she subsequently becomes the proverbial straw that breaks Shelley's back, as well as a bit of a wake-up call. Though Shelley first remarks that Emma brings a lot of light to their underserved and vulnerable population, as the young woman's flaws become more evident in her depression, inconstancy, and eventual inability to keep commitments, the older woman comes to realize that offering help can be a way of seeking help (or needing to be needed). There are eventual conflicts, personal secrets, and rather unexpected betrayals along Shelley's journey, and a great deal of humanity as well.

What first appeared as a world divided into givers and receivers of help devolves into a realization that there are some poor souls in their flock who suffer not so much from poverty as from mental illness. Some of these damaged individuals, like Emma, see right through to the insecurity that makes all of the other characters susceptible to manipulation. In the end, Shelley finds she must face the stark reality that perhaps there are acts that cannot be forgiven, and that forgiveness is a process, not a default strategy, telling Emma that what she did “was evil...I'll be relieved of obligations to forgive you. I don't want to forgive you, ever, ever, ever”. Shelley is not going to forgive her, which the playwright observes is a liberating moment that would allow her to reach authentic forgiveness. She even washes her hands in a nod to Pontius Pilate, which any nun would recognize, as what Schreck calls an “act of grace”.

If this all sounds a bit heavy, never fear, for Schreck laces her scenes with abundant humor, expertly delivered by her cast of four. Any opportunity to experience the acting skills of Derrah is cause for hurrahs, and to see him on stage (for the first time ever) with the wondrous Lopez is grand concourse indeed. They're ably supported by the excellent Simoes and relative newcomer Dawson, under the extraordinarily keen direction of Bridget Kathleen O'Leary with meticulous Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord (from the countless complex props, to the broken stained glass panes covered with plywood, bilingual posted notices, and more food on hand than in the musical Waitress), detailed Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl, fine Lighting Design by Karen Perlow (with a lot of blackouts), and realistic Sound Design by Lee Shuna. All around, this is a superlative piece of storytelling.

As Schreck has stated about the implications of her work, “figuring out one's purpose in today's political climate is more vital than ever.....if you're not political, not addressing the system, not trying to solve those problems on a systemic level, is what you're doing effective?” She also quotes famed Catholic Social Activist Dorothy Day: “the gospel has taken away our right forever to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor...giving is something we just ought to do”. Unfortunately, research has demonstrated that the better off one is, the less likely one is to empathize with people. O'Leary notes the play's universal application in its simplicity that mirrors “our individual struggle to find our own capacity for faith in things much bigger than ourselves”. One's faith, especially facing atrocities such as the proposed federal budget, is tested every day. Who could have foreseen that one's most appropriate response would be resistance?

The character of Frog divides humanity into “angels and assholes”, and even Shelley yells to some neighborhood rock throwers: “Jesus loves you, but you're making it hard for Him”. In this wise and witty play, one could hope for a bit more back story for all of the characters, but especially Shelley. Schreck's naturalistic style and cryptic asides hint at more complexity in tantalizing ways, but who are we to complain about a few lacunae? After all, it might seem unseemly and ungrateful in a soup kitchen to leave feeling hungry, for which one should perhaps beg absolution.


Cotuit's "Lines in the Sand": Brave, Strong & Free?

Nick Bucchianeri & Tony Travostino in "Lines in the Sand"
(photo: Jim Dalglish)

In relating an earlier incident in which a fifteen-year-old initially identified only as Boy in the play Lines in the Sand by Jim Dalglish exaggerates his reaction as feeling “brave and strong and free”, we're given a window into what the world of being bullied is like today. The play, being given its world premiere currently at the Cotuit Center for the Arts, is in some ways reminiscent of the playwright's Unsafe which was produced last season. In about ninety minutes of dialogue between two protagonists (the other initially identified only as Man), there persists a feeling of dread, that something wicked this way comes. The title refers to those points beyond which one will proceed no further, or once a decision is made, it is permanently decided and irreversible. The fifteen year old Boy, Billy (Nick Bucchianeri), a high school student who has been the object of stereotyping and anti-gay bullying, meets the thirty-two-old Man, Tom (Tony Travostino), an apparent stranger, by whom he is rescued from a gang of violent seniors. What develops thereafter (and won't be revealed here) is somewhat predictable in that it's perfectly logical, leading to a treatment of larger issues such as redemption and the question of forgiveness.

The two at first agree on little but the realization that the catch phrase “it gets better” is just so much bull that teachers, coaches and counselors say with respect to bullying, especially when directed toward gay youth, or those perceived as gay. They also tend to agree about the “bull...you hear every day. About everyone being special...they're assholes and losers in their own special way”. It's a cynical view, though not based on abstract issues but on how the system works today; as Tom cryptically puts it: “always somebody out there”. The older man advises the boy about his instinctive flinching from threats: “gotta work on that”. His most sage advice is about Billy's reaction, in that “there's this little part of you that believes them. That's what kills you”. His solution is literally a graphic one: “you gotta draw the line...fight for that line with everything you've got...inside those lines, that's you. Who you are”. At times the dialogue is a bit arch, such as when Billy describes his sketching: “what's left blank is just as important as what you can see” or when Tom opines that “forgiveness can be a difficult thing”. Other times things are left unremarked upon, such as Billy's choice for his alternate name: Christian (as a person who suffers passively?). Most of the time, however, the writing is in character and rings true, such as when Billy longs for “a place where you are not afraid to show who you are inside”, for which “all you have to do is close your eyes”.

A two-hander by nature is extremely dependent on the skills of the actors portraying the two roles, and in this case they're exemplary. Both Bucchianeri (belying his age and relative inexperience) and Travostino (so memorable in the former play, Unsafe) are, to use an adjective too often loosely applied, riveting. In such a tiny black box, each threatens to blow the place apart. As Directed by Dalglish and Ian Ryan, they come close to doing just that. The play has been selected to be performed at the fourteenth annual International Dublin Gay Theatre Festival this May, and it's easy to see why. Presented here with Artwork by Jackie Reeves and Original Music by Sam Holmstuck, it's another example of Dalglish's mixing of powerful “in your face” writing and wise restraint, not a mix that an awful lot of playwrights have the wit to threaten as well as to withhold.

The truth is, it does get better, but not because of external forces, but from what grows within. One need only close one's eyes to the banality of bullying and be open to the myriad of more positive forces that are inside oneself and mirrored in accepting that in communities there is “always somebody out there.” Like great theater, It gets braver, and stronger, and freer.


Odyssey Opera's "Earnest": Victoria's Secret

The Cast of "The Importance of Being Earnest"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

What better way to spend St. Patrick's Day than an evening with that ultimate Irish wit, Oscar Wilde? And who knew that his most popular play,The Importance of Being Earnest, had been turned into an opera?   Well, Gil Rose (Artistic and General Director of Odyssey Opera) did, at least after a bit of researching. It turned out that Italian composer Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco (known more for his cinema scoring, for hundreds of Hollywood films including Lassie Come Home and Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray) wrote such an opera (his last of five) in 1961-2, which, while not yet published, was subsequently performed in 1971 in Monte Carlo and in 1975 in New York. It's a three-act opera with eight singers (two tenors, three sopranos, two baritones and a mezzo-soprano) and one non-singing role, supported by two pianos and two percussionists. Intentionally comic quotations abound, with countless witty allusions to prior musical works. Thus it's presented very much tongue in cheek, which must make it awfully difficult to sing, but must be compensated for in that it is performed in English.

The plot follows that of Wilde's original play. Jack Worthing (tenor Neal Ferreira) visits his best friend Algernon Moncrieff (tenor Stefan Barner), who knows him as Ernest in the country, with the intention of proposing to Algernon's cousin Gwendolen Fairfax (soprano Rachele Schmiege). Algernon discovers a cigarette case inscribed “to Uncle Jack from little Cecily”; he learns that Jack is living a double life in the city and that the lady in question is Jack's ward, Cecily Cardew (soprano Jeni Houser), with whom Algernon falls in love. Gwendolen and her mother Lady Bracknell (soprano Claudia Waite) arrive. Lady B. is horrified to discover that Jack was found as a baby left in a handbag at Victoria Station. Meanwhile, Algernon seeks out Reverend Chasuble (baritone James Demler) to be baptized as “Ernest”, since his beloved insists she will only marry someone with that name. All turns on the secret revolving around that handbag, revealed by Cecily's tutor Miss Prism (mezzo-soprano Christina English). And all ends relatively well as Jack declares he has discovered the “vital importance of being Earnest”.

It's a lively piece, even at almost three hours, thanks largely to Conductor and Stage Director Rose, as well as his cast, including the butlers Merriman (baritone Colin Levin) and Lane (J. T. Turner, in a non-singing role). All of the principals are perfectly cast, and, if there's a real standout, it would have to be Waite's Lady B. (as in Battleax?), which is true of virtually every performance of this Wilde work. All of the costumes (designed by Brooke Stanton) are apt, with those of Lady B. amounting to profound social commentary (including one that seems to harbor half of the fauna of Sherwood Forest). The Set Design by local treasure Janie E. Howland is brilliant as usual, as is the Lighting Design by Christopher Ostrom. And the playing by pianists Linda Osborn and Esther Ning Yau and percussionists Robert Schulz and Nicholas Tolle also made the performance sing.

But the most fun of the evening was identifying (or attempting to) those hilarious musical references from so many familiar sources. They included Mendelssohn's Wedding March, Dies Irae, Hail Hail to Poesy, It's a Long Way to Tipperary, Claire de Lune, Tosca, Don Giovanni, II Trovatore, the mad scene from Lucia, and the Marseillaise, and that's just a partial sampling. Especially funny were the interpolation of Rossini's Una voce poco fa and the gossipy Flight of the Bumblebee. These were not arbitrary inclusions in the manner of current jukebox musicals, but were effortlessly and seamlessly utilized, with the most memorable being that of Lady B.'s entrances to the tune of Wagner's Ride of the Valkyries. This must all be seen and heard to be fully appreciated, to discover Victoria's secret.


Huntington's "Top Dog/Underdog": Everybody Has a Laughin' Place

Tyrone Mitchell Henderson & Matthew J. Harris in "Top Dog/Underdog"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
Watch me close. Watch me close now”.

So begins the dialogue between two protagonists in the current Huntington Theatre Company production of Top Dog/Underdog, the 2002 Pulitzer Prize winning play by Suzan-Lori Parks (Father Comes Home from the Wars, Parts 1, 2 & 3) . It takes place, “here” and “now” in the starkly furnished room of two young African-American men who are brothers, best friends and bitter rivals. Lincoln (Tyrone Mitchell Henderson), in his late 30's, is a former three-card monte hustler who now works as a Lincoln impersonator (in white face) in an arcade shooting gallery where people pay to shoot at him with plastic guns. Booth (Matthew J. Harris), in his early 30's, unemployed for quite some time, is a shoplifter who wants his brother to get back in the game and teach him the ropes. Both were twice abandoned in their youth, by both their father and their mother. “Link” seeks advice from Booth in honing his acting skills as a dying Lincoln, while Booth seeks to learn how better to execute the card game scam. Their efforts to attain their respective goals quickly devolves into what is described in the program notes as a “darkly comic fable of brotherly love and sibling rivalry...about family wounds and healing bonds”. In the course of their banter, we learn about Booth's obsession with his girl friend Grace (whom we never see) and perhaps sexual allusions to shooting blanks. Parks is particularly adept at such portrayals.

This two-hander, in its depiction of how each brother aspires to improve his skills, affords an opportunity to witness both the creation of a performance and the crucial stakes of enhancing one's success. Parks has stated that “there is a lot of watching...what theater is about” and that she likes larger than life characters, setting up a relationship between audience and performer, wonderfully enhanced by Director Billy Porter (Kinky Boots, The Colored Museum). Consider the words of “Link”: “Fake beard. Top hat. Don't make me into no Lincoln. I was Lincoln on my own before any of that” and “Cards ain't luck. Cards is work. Cards is skill.” And those of his brother Booth: “You're only yourself when no one's watching!”. The title of the play refers to the psychological term for the dominant side and the submissive side, and in this work they switch constantly, each continually trying to be the dominant person in the room. George C. Wolfe, who directed the play's New York premiere, references a “point in the play where the two brothers stop being brothers and turn into male animals. That's when deadly, awful things can happen”. And Parks' world is one of “curious contradictions”. Porter references the institutionalized racism that has quietly raged in this country for years, given the fundamental psychology of slavery as the breakdown of family, slaves ripped from their families, separated from their community. They are “constantly trying to come back together...we succeed a lot, but sometimes we don't. This play speaks to when we don't...stuck playing someone else's game”. Porter has exquisitely directed (or more to the point, choreographed) his two exemplary actors with their every gesture, every inflection, every nuance in harmony like a concert or ballet. They together produce an emotional wallop.

The creative team is at the level one expects from this company. The Lighting Design by Driscoll Otto and Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg are outstanding, providing a touch of magical realism. The Scenic Design and Costume Design, both by Clint Ramos, are truly extraordinary. Ramos' set, described by Porter as a room floating in the middle of the world, resembles nothing so much as a perch above a giant briar patch, which, if intentional, would be an ironic nod to the stereotypical Uncle Remus stories of Br'er Rabbit and his “laughin' place”. And there is much black humor (no pun intended) even within these crumbling walls. The details are wonderful, from the tin ceiling to the torn wallpaper and disrupted crown molding that are seemingly left over from a converted hotel ballroom. It creates a great playing space for the two brothers to interact, and Harris and Henderson make the most of it. Harris has by far the showier role and is amazingly fluid in his movement and dialogue, but Henderson in his own quietly storming way is a perfect match for him. The trio of Porter, Harris and Henderson are what unforgettable theater is at its best. Porter's work is astonishingly powerful, the finest piece of directing in decades of one's theatergoing. Yes, he's that good.

The play has one drawback: the predictability of its conclusion; but this should be viewed as a dramatic inevitability. Meanwhile, Parks is hard at work with more universal themes. She has always maintained that we have an important relationship with the past, and she continues to do so here. She sees life (especially for African-American males in this country) as a reaction to who the world thinks you're going to be, and how you struggle with that.  She also reflects on what it means to be a family, and, extrapolating to the family of man, how we are connected with somebody else. With specific reference to this work, she has bluntly stated that “a black play ain't playing your game. It might look like it's playing your game, but if it looks that way to you, then that means you been played, honey”. Porter echoes the thought:”If the three-card monte dealer doesn't want you to win, you do not win. If you win, it's only because he lets you”. More to the point, Parks has Lincoln declare to Booth:”you had the card but you didn't have the heart”. Parks has been acclaimed for her almost musical writing, re-imagining the past, filling the “Great Hole of History” as an archeologist of words. With a subtle sense of improvised jazz-like repetition and revision (what she calls “Rep and Rev”), she allows for the presence of metaphor, pulling us in with what she also refers to as “drama of accumulation”, sometimes reminding one of the films of Bunuel. One awaits more works from this keenly observant, still youthful writer; this is especially true given the recent damage done on the national level to what some of us had naively beheld as a post-racial era, when we elected and re-elected a president of color, only to see him be succeeded by a colorful performer with more dangerous racist tricks than card games up his sleeves. We need a playwright like Parks now more than ever; as she herself put it (in the aforementioned Father Comes Home from the Wars at ART in Cambridge two seasons ago), “keep your treasure close”.

Watch her close. Watch her close now.


BLO's "Rake's Progress": From Bedchamber to Brothel to Bedlam; No, Wait!

Jane Eaglen & Ben Bliss in "The Rake's Progress"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

It's rare in the operatic world to experience all of the creative stars (and not just those seen on stage) coming together in perfect harmony (and not just the musical kind) to produce a work that succeeds on every level to the extent that the Boston Lyric Opera does with their current production of The Rake's Progress. Composed by Igor Stravinsky with a libretto by W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman, this version is performed in English with English surtitles under Stage Director Allegra Libonati. Based loosely on paintings and engravings by Hogarth, it's the familiar tale of what risks one takes in bargaining with the Devil. First performed in Venice in 1951, it was given its American premiere by the Metropolitan Opera in 1953. One could fill volumes with information regarding its reception, history, and significance in the canon, but that's already been done. What hasn't been done, at least in our city and in our time, is the uncanny achievement of such a thoroughly transporting and delightfully bawdy time; not since the Marx Brothers has there been such an ingeniously clever night at the opera.

Unlike many other relatively lengthy operas, this work, while it runs almost three hours, lends itself to a somewhat succinct synopsis. In their pastoral countryside, Tom Rakewell (tenor Ben Bliss) and Anne Trulove (soprano Anya Matanovic) celebrate their mutual love, and the job offered him by her father Trulove (baritone David Cushing), though Tom wants a quicker and easier path to fortune. Tom's friend Nick Shadow (bass Kevin Burdette) arrives with news that Tom has inherited a fortune from an uncle unknown to him. Suggesting he serve Tom for a year and a day, Shadow takes him to London where he introduces him to the brothel run by “Mother Goose” (soprano Jane Eaglen). In his new house, Tom swiftly becomes bored, leading Shadow to suggest he meet the bearded lady, Baba the Turk (mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson). Anne arrives to find that he and Baba have been married. Bored again, Tom is told by Shadow about a machine that can turn stone into bread. When this business fails, after Anne arrives to find Tom's house under bankruptcy auction by the maniac auctioneer Sellem (tenor Jon Jurgens in drag), Tom is brought by Shadow to a cemetery, a year and a day after their agreement, disclosing that Tom must pay with his soul to Shadow. Shadow, to no one's surprise, turns out to be the Devil, who relents, offering Tom escape via a card game. Tom wins, but Shadow curses him with a life of madness. Anne arrives again (this woman does a lot of arriving) and, hearing her voice, Tom regains his love for her as Shadow sinks into the ground. Tom has survived, but at a price. He is sent to Bedlam under the supervision of the Keeper of the Madhouse (bass Simon Dyer). Anne arrives yet again to find there is little she can do for him. She is persuaded by her father to abandon Tom to his fate, and he dies. In an epilogue/curtain call, all the characters return to deliver the moral of this tale of progress from bed chamber to brothel to Bedlam. Something about idle hands and all that.

It should be noted that in this production, the largely mute role of Stravinsky himself is played by ballet dancer Yury Yanowsky, who also serves as Movement Director. His is an almost constant presence on the stage, frequently (but never intrusively) nudging the story along. He gets to deliver but one line: “No, wait!” (with permission from the Stravinsky estate). It's a nice touch in a production full of them, starting with the lead singers. Bliss is aptly named, as his singing is ubiquitously blissful (he's on stage for virtually the entire piece). He's matched by a lovely-voiced Matanovic, who also has a lot to deliver and does so beautifully. Burdette is charmingly insidious, Cushing is the perfect paterfamilias in acting and singing, and Eaglen and Johnson are each given scene-stealing turns. The rest of the cast, and the very busy BLO Chorus (one counted at least four costume changes they all managed to accomplish without missing a beat), are superb. (Down to the madhouse inmates' attire, each referencing a different Stravinsky work).

On the creative end, the production was meticulously Conducted by David Angus, with awe-inspiring Set Design by Julia Noulin-Merat, inventive Costume Design by John Conklin and Neil Fortin, expert Lighting Design by Mark Stanley, and a clever tongue-in-cheek use of Magic Designer Christopher Rose, with the BLO Chorus led by Chorus Master Michelle Alexander.

Libonati has stated elsewhere that the work has “morality play trappings, (but with) humans going through incredibly complex emotions”. Stravinsky was at the summit of his neoclassical phase, shortly thereafter turning to his unique adaptation of the twelve-tone technique for the rest of his career. As Tom puts it at one point: “Vary the song, O London, change!/Disband your notes and let them range”. It's one of Stravinsky's most accessible works, though some find it filled with “wrong notes”. There are no wrong notes in this production, however. It may be some time before we get to enjoy such consummate expertise again.

No, wait!

Next up: BLO's final production of the season: "The Marriage of Figaro" April 28, 30; May 3, 5 & 7.
Also due soon: Odyssey Opera Boston presents "The Importance of Being Earnest" Mar. 17 & 18.
And later: "Gay Shorts", seven short plays by local playwright George Smart, Mar. 30, 31 & April 1.