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.