Sunday, December 13, 2009

Exquisite Messiah

In the neo-baroque splendor of Saint Ignatius Church, the Handel Choir of Baltimore presented an exquisite performance of the hardy Advent perennial, Handel's Messiah. Melinda O'Neal's subtle direction of the choir created more than brilliant sound; it brought out the tonal range and theological soul of the oratario. Highlights were the chorus "Since by man came death," reduced to a musical whisper about the certitude of death, and the apocalyptic chorus "Worthy is the lamb that was slain," in which the triumphant hymns of praise crescendo into a literal shout. Using period instruments, the Baltimore Chamber Orchestra provided intimate accompaniment to the singers, although the "pastoral symphony" embedded in the oratorio sounded muddier than the rest of the performance. The small brass section was a standout, especially in the eschatological movements concerning the Last Judgment. Providing vivid interpretations of the oratorio's recitatives and airs, Katharine Dain (soprano), Ian Howell (counter-tenor), Steven Brennfleck (tenor), and Craig Phillips (bass) served the oratorio as vibrant soloists. Ms. Dain and Mr. Howell often thrilled by their rippling variations on the Handel score.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Stuff of Dreams

How do they do it?

Baltimore's Single Carrot Theatre has recently offered us Shakespeare, Ibsen, comedy sketches, satires of slam poetry, and neo-classical myth. In their latest production, Illuminoctem, they've turned to yet another genre: mime theater. Like their previous productions, this presentation of a tale by George MacDonald dazzles by its professional rigor and creative exuberance.
The literary inspiration for the production is simple enough. MacDonald's tale features a witch (Giti Jabaily) who torments the "day boy" (Nathan Fulton) by keeping him in heavily lit places and torments the "night girl" (Alexandra Lewis) by keeping her in exactly the opposite. The inevitable happens: boy meets girl, the spell is broken, and we retire to love on a standard 24-hour schedule.
If the inspiration is simple, the production is complexity itself. Four choreographers designed the movement for four separate pieces of the play. Marilyn Mullen's opening movement establishes the violence of the witch and her minions as they writhe and oppress the hapless, imprisoned girl and boy. Naoko Maeshiba gracefully stages the girl's encounter with fireflies as she flees from the witch. Sarah Anne Austin develops every conceivable gesture of longing in the romantic encounter between the boy and girl. The weakest piece is the final scene choreographed by Kwame Opare. The pulsing drums, day-glow effects, and rocking ensemble dance seem to have walked out from a rather dim disco lounge. The elegance and elision of the earlier scenes have disappeared.
The entire cast works supremely well as an ensemble, even if the athletic movements of the evening are clearly more of a challenge to some cast members than to others. Jabailly is starkly convincing as the witch whose mysterious desire to enslave and humiliate propel the action and finally her own downfall. As the light/darkness couple, Fulton and Lewis movingly project terror, naivete, and finally delight as they escape their opening oppressors. Jessica Garrett and Aldo Pantoja provide particularly strong performances as jailors who torment the imprisoned boy and girl through the ironic use of dramatic movement and musical movement as instruments of torture themselves.
Brendan Regan's consistent direction and the excellent lighting design by Joey Bromfield propel this eerie tale forward as a stream of dream-like images rapidly evolving from the starkest oppression to figures of hope and final redemption from evil, even for evil itself.

Gracious Virtues

The Memorial Players based at Bolton Hill's Memorial Episcopal Church recently offered an inspirational anthology of scenes illustrating the themes of faith, hope, and charity. The opening scene, the famous table confrontation between Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker, was vividly executed by Chloe Wright (Helen) and Stacey McGhee (Annie). The physical realism of the battle between two determined women had the audience wincing and occasionally moaning in their seats. Christopher Mergen (Peter) and Amelia Wright (Anne) delicately recreated one of the lighter moments in The Diary of Anne Frank: the courtship scene between two hunted, uncertain adolescents. In O. Henry's perennial Christmas favorite, The Gift of the Magi, Halima Aquino and Jamie Griffith movingly expressed the affection and the humiliating poverty of the newly wed couple. This dramatic version by Thomas Hischak brings out the theological dimensions of the story. Extended references to the original Magi, King Solomon, and even the obscure Queen of Sheba give a broader framework to a story that often appears as sheer sentimentality in its more secularized film and television versions. One of the evening's heroes was set designer John Seeley; his breezy painted side panels provided visual definition to the spare production and elegantly echoed the vaulted ceiling and chandeliers of the Parish Hall, where the plays were performed. Adele Russell's sophisticated direction brought out the emotional truth at the core of each scene and underscored the universality of what could otherwise appear to be very private moments in families that are clearly different from the contemporary American norm. Gracious Virtues is a model of what church theater, as opposed to the simple performance of dramatic pieces on church property, can truly be.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009


Single Carrot's recent production of Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice was an enchanted production which rightly produced sold-out audiences. This reworking of the Orpheus-Eurydice myth presents us with a rather intellectual Eurydice (her nose glued to a book) enthralled by musical genius Orpheus, whose music in his head transcends the occasional music we hear in the theater. As Orpheus attempts to rescue the dead Eurydice from the underworld, Ruhl adds a new character to the myth: the father of Eurydice who has somehow maintained shards of memory after an imperfect bath in the river of Lethe, the underworld's pool of forgetting. A magnificent chorus of stones and a lecherous Lord of the underworld on a tricycle provide more humor than menace to the desperate play of the central triangle revolving around death, mourning, and forgetting.
Giti Jabailly (Euryidce), Aldo Pantoja (Orpheus), and Brendan Regan (the father) provide the right blend between fervent attachment and cool other-worldliness to maintain the magical atmosphere of the tale, although one does wonder why both men go to such lengths to liberate a woman who does not seem similarly interested in them. The set designer Joey Bromfield works wonders in the Single Carrot's tiny black-box theater. Billowing white sheets, a dark pool of Lethe, and a straw-colored boardwalk evoke a barren, repetitious underworld where only the occasional passion survives in the royal purple costumes worn by several characters. Director J. Buck Jabailly smoothly balances the choreographed movements of the stones and the stilted gestures of the leads with the play's outbursts of grief and affection. Even the longer, preachier moments in Ruhl's script are lent a certain dignity and wonder in this succession of subdued tableaux vivants.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Charming Cocktail

The Vagabond Players' new production of A.R. Gurney's The Cocktail Hour is a delightful romp through family rivalry and the mores of the American Protestant bourgeoisie.
The simple plot concerns a playwright, John (played by Blaise d'Ambrosio), who returns to his family home with the unwelcome news that he has just finished an autobiographical play about the family. Entitled "The Cocktail Hour," the play immediately becomes an object of fear, suspicion, and outrage among the family members: the domineering father, Bradley (played with suave aristocratic charm by Denis Latkowski), the sympathetic but anxious mother, Ann (played with an earth-mother solidity by Joan Crooks), and the hysterical sister, Nina (played with scenery-chewing gusto by Janise Whelan.) As the family progresses through its own cocktail hour, they trade quips about incompetent servants, dinner with the Episcopal bishop, the various charitable boards they control, and T.S. Eliot and other literary stars of yore. The banter thinly conceals their lament for a genteel Protestant culture that has vanished and their anxiety that John's play will open up a few family secrets they want to protect from the prying eyes of the public.
Roy Hammond's direction keeps the traffic moving smoothly as the characters bounce around the Antiques Roadshow decor of the set. The direction can't completely compensate for the limits of the script. At the end of each act, Gurney tries to transcend the cocktail chit-chat by having a man-to-man confrontation between the domineering father and the hazier son. But the climax of these disputes is simply melodrama. At the end of the first act, the son cries out to the father: "I think you've never loved me!" (Lights out. Intermission.) At the end of the second act, when an unconvincing reconciliation between father and son has been concocted, the father cries out that the revamped play (in his favor) should be called "The Good Father." (Ugh! Lights out. Stage call.) It is the funny yet moving portrait of a vanishing Protestant suburban elite, with its cocktail napkins, snobbish clubs, literary culture, and preoccupation with status that is the play at its strongest.
The real heroes of the evening are the set designer (Tony Colavito), the lighting designer (Bob Dover), and the unnamed sound designer. The set is an overstuffed living room filled with dated bourgeois artifacts that exude a nostalgia for an earlier, more glamorous past. The lamee curtains are too much Fred-and-Ginger; the walls groan under too many paintings; the arranged flowers are too perfect. An omnipresent blue light bathes the entire scene in a calm that is preternatural and that doesn't survive the increasingly anxious assault over the new script. The background music, a thousand-strings medley of show tunes from earlier times, sets the stage for the travails of a family lost in the alcoholic glow of a more glorious age.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Mercy at the Strand

The Strand Theater's new production of Neil La Bute's The Mercy Seat is well worth a trip to their intimate theater in the North Station district.
The taut play features two lovers who happen to find themselves in the mistress's New York apartment at the moment of the 9/11 attack. The attack could permit Ben Harcourt, the male paramour who should have been at his office in the World Trade Center at the moment of the attack, to escape from a marriage that has gone sour. He dreams of fleeing with his mistress (who just happens to be his boss) and restarting life under a new identity. It could also permit the female paramour, Abby Prescott, to flee a job she constantly squawks about and start a new, more romantic life. The choices aren't simple, however, as marital duty and moral realism start to dawn on the stranded love duo.
In La Bute's usual manner, the discussion of these strange alternatives quickly degenerates into an obscenity-laced row about sexual harassment, family duty, romantic disenchantment, personal obsessions, and civic duty toward fellow citizens.
Ably directed by Danielle Young, Kasey Arnold and M. Brett Rohrer bring this one-act diatribe to life as they permit the emotions of their quarreling characters to rub each other raw. The bitter dance of recrimination and possible escape convincingly escalates in intensity until the play arrives at its quiet, ambiguous conclusion. The realistic set, complete with 9/11 wreckage dust peppering the furniture and costumes, underscores the intensity of the Arnold/Rohrer duel.
La Bute's script does not completely convince. Why would Abby even think of abandoning her powerful job for a man she humiliates as a selfish coward? Why would such an obviously intelligent woman (her lines are full of crisp literary and historical allusions) even consider a plot to disappear that clearly can't work? And why would Ben so passionately love a woman who insults him and denigrates him at every turn? For all the script's flaws, the Strand's production powerfully brings out the black humor and spiraling bitterness of an illicit relationship that has shattered two psyches as devastatingly as the terrorists shattered the WTC in the ashes of 9/11.


9/08/o9 High Zero Festival. Baltimore's High Zero Festival has begun to sprout in the North Station area (quickly becoming Baltimore's new Bohemia, with an assist from the expanding Maryland Institute and College of Art.) The installation-exhibit wing of the free improv sound festival opened tonight at the Load of Fun Gallery. In a conscious effort to out-avant the avant-garde, some of the installations are simply out there and not terribly enticing. Still, there is much to engage the contemplative gallery visitor. Top pics are Owen Gardner's "Space is Deep," where three electronically tuned guitars emit resonant sounds as they lie propped up on paperback classics of a vanished '60's counterculture, and Ayako Kataoka's "A Girl Said," an effort to capture sound visually in a wax-like medium. Hers is the quietist but most probing of the installations as it creates a Buddhist alternative to the audial score.