Luminarium's "Mythos:Pathos": Illuminating

Luminarium (literally, a body that emits light), which recently ended its season with the final iteration of its work “Mythos:Pathos”, performed at the Oberon complex in Cambridge, is a contemporary dance company founded two years ago by two Mount Holyoke alumnae, Merli V. Guerra and Kimberleigh A. Holman. Their intent was to provide a new entity for performing arts, a space in which they hoped to merge dance with other visual and aural elements such as projection, video, film, lighting design and music. In so doing, they are attempting to shed light on issues and enlighten audiences as a self-described “think tank, museum, and gallery for contemporary dance and for contemporary ideas”. Thus it was supremely ironic that the event was held in Cambridge, concurrent with two external events, one unpredictable, one predictable. The former was a power outage that left significant parts of Cambridge, including the campuses of Harvard and MIT, in complete darkness (but not the Oberon); the latter was a full moon. Luminarium, as its name suggests, hopes to heighten the senses of its audience.

Often contemporary dance is perceived as somewhat abstract exercises that emphasize the beauty of graceful movement and precise athleticism, concentrating on a viewer’s intellectual appreciation while not particularly affecting her or his emotional involvement. In the case of “Mythos:Pathos”, as the name suggests, there are intentional and easily discernible allusions to Greek mythology as having resonance for an audience today with themes that are timeless. This work attempts to do this in the form of nine related pieces. “Now we are here” (a solo performed by Kara Fili), “Of good, evil” (with Virginia Byron, Guerra, Amy Mastrangelo and Katie McGrail), “A voice without a tongue” (featuring Akshaya Tucker and Fili), “Seiren” (represented by Rose Abramoff, Jess Chang, Melenie Diarbekirian, Guerra and Mastrangelo, with the sailor performed by Mark Kranz), “The passing storm (Nephelae)” with Byron, Fili, Jessica Jacob and McGrail), “Andromeda” (danced by Diarbekirian), “Hubris” (with Abramoff), and two segments identified by their suffixes, “-us”, the first being “Icarus” (with Kranz along with Abramoff) and the second being “Prometheus” (featuring Chang as well as Kranz). The choreography for the whole work was split between the co-founders and artistic directors, Guerra (who also created an accompanying film segment) and Holman, with the lighting designed by Brandon Bagwell and Matthew Breton. The music sources are about as eclectic as one could imagine, perhaps chosen precisely to emphasize the universality of the ideas presented throughout.

It isn’t absolutely necessary to follow the segments too specifically as they segue from one to another more or less seamlessly, but the more familiar one is with their mythological origins, the more the work impacts. This reviewer was fortunate enough to have had formal classes in mythology as well as acting, music and dance, even if some of this foundation is a little rusty. Those less familiar with the ancient archetypes could still find significant enjoyment in the company’s fluidity and seemingly effortlessness. That effortlessness is, of course, the fundamental illusion at work here; in order to seem so free, so spontaneous, a great deal of painstaking study, work and rehearsal is essential. It helps as well that the performing space was so flexible and the technical elements so well coordinated. What might not have helped some in the rear of the space were the imperfect sight lines; much of what took place in the work was on the floor, which can hardly be easily visible from that vantage point. At times, there might have been a bit more light on the subjects in order to discern who was in which segment, but perhaps again universality rather than individuality was the intent.

This is a young company which has managed in an incredibly brief lifetime to make its unique mark on the local dance scene and promises to enlarge that audience if it maintains the standards of quality and effort evidenced in this work. Pathos is defined as the power of life experiences to affect us emotionally, something this company is well on its way to attaining.


New Rep's "Chesapeake": Retrieving the Existence of Dog

If one were to pick a bone with New Rep’s production of “Chesapeake”, it would be to wonder why it took so doggone long to appear on the company’s schedule. The 1999 play by Lee Blessing, best known for his 1987 work, “A Walk in the Woods” (nominated for a Tony as Best Play and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama), is a marvelous piece of theater. In the current mode of such works as “ART”, “Bakersfield Mist”, “Red”, and “Pitman Painters”, “Chesapeake” is an examination of the nature of art and the reliable judgment as to its worth (and, in the case of Blessing’s play, the consequent justification of its appropriateness for public funding). What could keep these dramas from becoming great art themselves is the fact that they share the same danger of potentially distancing an audience in that they are all more intellectually than emotionally involving. As political polemics, each must depend on the author’s gift of powerful speech and the actors’ equal gift of powerful interpretation. In the wrong hands, any of these plays could be a dull and pedantic diatribe. In the right hands, they can produce theatrical dynamite.

To criticize this play for this lack of emotional heft would be barking up the wrong tree. What sets this work apart is that it is basically a piece of performance art about a piece of performance art threatened with being defunded. The title refers to a Chesapeake Retriever, variously referred to as “Rat” or “Lucky”, owned by one Senator Therm Pooley (insert here “Strom Thurmond”, “Jesse Helms”, or your favorite conservative flavor of the month), who has attained political power largely based on his opposition to NEA (National Endowment for the Arts) funding for the artist Kerr (rhymes, not coincidentally, with “cur”). The first act sets up the conflict between the Senator and the artist, as well as the roles of the Senator’s wife, aide, and that canine. It ends with a literal cliffhanger. The second act, a lengthy shaggy dog story, becomes fantastic in both senses of the term, indescribable without this critic’s being guilty of one of theater’s all-time spoilers. Suffice it to say that the entire cast is fabulous, again in both senses of this term.

That entire cast happens to consist of one Georgia Lyman. As directed by Doug Lockwood, (who ironically performed in New Rep’s “ART” last season), she’s a one woman powerhouse. As the audience members first take their seats, she’s found sitting quietly on the sidelines, then gradually interacts with them, drawing them into her storytelling. The plot is based in part on the real-life experiences of the artists who in 1990 became known as the NEA Four, having had their funding revoked. If this sounds too heavy or pedestrian, rest assured that Blessing, Lockwood and Lyman manage to build, especially in the second act, a series of hilarious scenes. Lyman has never had such a golden plum of a role, which she gleefully inhabits. She’s aided by the extremely effective Lighting Design by Deb Sullivan (also responsible for the simple set involving a canvas floor cloth), perfectly timed Sound Design by David Reiffel, and appropriately versatile Costume Design by Adrienne Carlile.

At one point, Blessing has Kerr refer to the concept of “neoteny”, or physiological maturation that is slowed or delayed, later more specifically alluded to as childlikeness. Without sounding too, uh, dogmatic, isn’t that what good theater often brings out in all of us, as we experience the impact of role-play? And how terrific is it when we’re also motivated to ponder life’s mysteries. (For example, is there a dog?). Amidst all the (all too) familiar typical holiday fare of Dickensian urchins, rodent monarchs and ubiquitous caroling, you’d do well to unleash your inner non-seasonal theater fan and get thee to New Rep. Dog forbid you should miss this one.


Trinity Rep's "Christmas Carol": Three Ghosts Walk into a Bar.....

Trinity Rep’s “A Christmas Carol” is a family-friendly version of the Dickens classic that young folks, and the young of heart, will love, especially if they share a considerable tolerance for broad humor. As adapted decades ago by Adrian Hall and Richard Cumming, this production presents the familiar story in five “staves”, a curious use of the term, which normally means verses of a poem. In fact, the tale does seem at first to be just that, rather like an operatic recitative, but this musical device is, fortunately, discarded early into the play. It starts out with an unusual (but not particularly effective) flashback as told to a group of Victorian urchins by “The Reader”, as enacted by Tom Gleadow. As anyone who hasn’t been holed up in a cave for the past couple of centuries knows by now, it portrays the miserly Scrooge as he spends a Christmas Eve visited, as in the title above, by three ghosts. (Full disclosure here: this reviewer used the same line when reviewing another local production of the classic yuletide tale a few years ago, but then what can one say new about this chestnut?)

In the current revival under the direction of Tyler Dobrowsky, any trace of subtlety is lost in the transition to this ninety minute work. Truth to tell, subtlety is lacking even in the original Dickens, but his gift with storytelling made up for this with a considerable dollop of whimsy and feeling. The same cannot be said for this production, though the cast works hard at punching home this atypically funny approach. The Set Design by Eugene Lee, fairly monochromatic, is authentically Dickensian in spirit, and allows for some truly ingenious entrances and exits. The Lighting Design by John Ambrosone, Sound Design by Peter Sasha Hurowitz, and Costume Design by Alison Walker Carrier, all contribute consistency to this television sitcom effort.

This year the cast includes Timothy Crowe revisiting his role as Ebenezer Scrooge, the aforementioned Mr. Gleadow as Mr. Fezziwig, Stephen Thorne as Marley, Mauro Hantman as Bob Cratchit, Mia Ellis as the Ghost of Christmas Past, three actors (Elliott Peters, Daniel Duque-Estrada and Joe Wilson, Jr.) as various stages (or staves?) of the Ghost of Christmas Present, Leicester Landon as the Ghost of Christmas Future, and the alternate (“Green”) cast of young thespians, all of them believable, with standout performances by Lily Clurman as Martha and Phineas Peters as Tiny Tim. All seemed to be having a swell time.

So did the audience, for that matter. If you’re tired of the same old treacle-filled versions you’ve seen in the recent and/or distant past, this laugh-filled production is just what Santa ordered. For those more traditional folks like this reviewer, an annual reading of the original masterpiece (for example, in a worn old forty-five-cent paperback copy) will fill the bill.





Huntington's "Betrayal": The Pause That Refreshes

Harold Pinter remains the king of silence; no one wrote pauses as well as he did. Over his lengthy career he wrote over fifty works for the theater and screen, few so universally praised as his 1978 play, “Betrayal”, one of his so-called “memory plays”. This was a revealing effort at the time, since Pinter himself was then involved in an extra-marital affair with a British journalist. “Betrayal”, which plays in reverse chronology from 1977 to 1968, is about a seven year long affair encompassing several layers of betrayal. The original 1980 Broadway production lasted a mere 170 performances. It was first seen in a Boston production that same year, at the Charles Playhouse Theater, with Jenny Agutter, Paul Benedict, and Richard Jordan; the film version in 1983 starred Jeremy Irons, Ben Kingsley and Patricia Hodge. Those are impressive acts to follow.

The current revival by Huntington Theater Company features Alan Cox (Jerry), Mark H. Dold (Robert), Gretchen Egolf (Emma), and Luis Negron (Waiter), impeccably directed by Huntington favorite Maria Aitken (“39 Steps”, “Private Lives”), who even overwhelms with a striking final blackout, which will not be disclosed here. This is a complicated story, not merely because of its time reversal or economy of dialogue. As with most Pinter works, much emotional baggage is hidden and motivations are at first unclear. There is a great deal of self-centered banter disguising fundamental issues with guilt, honesty and deception (including self-deception). As the play evolves in nine spare scenes, we gradually understand just how complex the relationships are; Emma may need both men at times, but the two men also need each other, and for a while all their individual betrayals keep them afloat. There is as much meaning in what is not said but merely implied as there is in what is spoken and explicit. What’s truly surprising is how much humor, albeit brittle, lies just beneath the surface; equally surprising, despite the paucity of verbiage, is attention to details (such as the purchase of a Venetian tablecloth) that come to have more meaning as we discover the truths at the core of the story.

Cox, Dold and Egolf are all wonderful players, and even Negron adds some color in his brief scene. Cox, in perhaps the most complex role as the romantic Jerry, is especially moving; Egolf is his perfect foil as the more practical and realistic Emma; and Dold excels in the least showy role as the uptight cuckold Robert who only once lets us see the buttoned down core underneath his very stiff British upper lip. Each has that absolutely essential ability to deliver Pinter’s sparse dialogue that paradoxically speaks volumes. That minimalism is echoed by the nuanced Scenic Design by Allen Moyer, the subtle Costume Design by Nancy Brennan, and the stark Lighting Design by Philip S. Rosenberg and Sound Design by John Gromada (including original music). The use of the cinematic “iris-in” device is very effective in segueing from scene to scene. And there’s that finale, with all the shared baggage this trio has accumulated over the course of their interrelated lives.

Seldom does one get treated to this exalted level of wit and profound depth of meaning. Too often playwrights who create a three character plot suffer from diarrhea of words and constipation of thought. When a writer like Pinter is at the top of his form, and is presented in such a terrific production, theater can be astonishing. In less capable hands, this seventy-two minute work might seem a pointless trifle. In these professional hands, this becomes an extraordinary piece of theater and proves yet again that less is more.