Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Queering Marlowe

There's good news and bad news about Spotlighters Theatre's new production of Christopher Marlowe's Edward II.  The good news is the very fact that this Elizabethan tragedy, often read in college English courses but rarely produced, is on the stage in Baltimore.  Furthermore, Jonas David Grey's riveting performance as the doomed English king is one of the finest performances one will see in the local or any theater.

The bad news is the "adaptation" of the play by the same Mister Grey and the eccentric direction by Brad Norris.  Marlowe's play centers around the conflict between Edward and his courtiers, outraged that Edward has given too much power and too many privileges to his favorite, Gaveston.  Edward's alleged dereliction of duty and favoritism lead to his violent downfall.  Marlowe's script keeps the nature of this doting friendship ambiguous.  No such ambiguity in this adaptation, where the reign of Edward apparently consisted of nothing other than heavy petting with Gaveston in the throne room. 

Even odder is the decision to set the play in 1930's England, complete with little nightclub acts wherein formally costumed singers offer shaky renditions of 1930s pop hits before, during the intermission, and after the show.  The director argues in the program notes that this transition was perfectly justified by the parallel between Edward II's fall for reasons of love and the Duke of Windsor's fall because of "the woman I love."  But why in the 1930s do we keep hearing about English military campaigns in France?  In this historical drama we are obviously in the midst of the Hundred Years War and not in the midst of Neville Chamberlain bargaining away the Sudetenland.

Back to the good news: James David Grey's superb performance as the hapless king.  Edward II presents a challenge to any actor since this feckless, corrupt, and slothful monarch presents little that is attractive in his character.  His courtier opponents may be manipulating popular opposition and his eventual downfall out of their own violent ambitions, but his moral mediocrity is all his own.  Grey brings out the anguish of Edward as he loses his grip on power.  His riveting final scenes underscore the emotional complexity of a man who on the surface appears to be just another colorless politician undone by his own venality.  Grey miraculously manages to bring a certain regal grandeur to the disgraced king in his final moments of pathos.

The supporting cast is mixed in quality.  Standouts are Daniel Douek as Warwick and Madeline Long as Queen Isabella, steely opponents of the king who gladly bring Edward down with a dash of sadism.

Sympathetic Tribes

With its production of Nina Raine's Tribes, Everyman Theatre ventures into one of the least explored terrains of diversity: the world of people with disabilites.  Raine's play concerns the family conflict swirling over a deaf son who after a life of quiet resignation suddenly becomes a militant member of the deaf sign-language community and denounces his family for the infantilization to which they have---lovingly and unknowingly---subjected him.  Directed by Vincent Lancisi, the handsome production brings out the emotional depth of the family conflict and the political fractures within the deaf community.

At the center of the production is John Mc Ginty's dazzling performance as Billy, the deaf son who finally declares independence as he conducts his first romance and is introduced to the broader deaf community with its divisions between those who prefer to sign (considering it their own native language) and those ---like Billy---who have long survived on lip-reading and learning how to speak audially.  Lancisi's direction is especially adroit at evoking the internal world of the deaf through the use of unusual lighting effects to suggest internal states of mind.  Daniel Conway's set design and Ja Herzog's lighting design masterfully externalize the shifting mental moods of the protagonist.

The limits of the production are the limits of the play.  In its study of the isolation and anger of the deaf, the script at times sounds like an after-school special.  There is more than a bit of whimpering self-pity clogging the action.  The closing scene, where Billy's brother assures him that love conquers all, packs an emotional wallop---audience members were audibly weeping---but it feels meretricious.

Tribes is a moving exploration of a world and an anguish unknown to most of us.  It is another fine example of the extraordinary ensemble work of which Everyman has been capable this season in its new home.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Omni Trio Cycles

An Die Musik is one of Baltimore's hidden artistic jewels.  Quietly hovering above Charles Street, the second-floor recital hall looks more like a salon out of the court of Louis XV.  Each patron gets his or her nicely rounded armchair.  The elegant stage supports a chaste piano and a small number of chamber musicians.  The back wall features a gently arched sounding bell to amplify the music.

On Sunday night, the Omni Trio presented a superb rectial of art songs by Francis Poulenc and Benjamin Britten.  Composed of mezzo-soprano Loralee Songer, soprano Danya Katok, and pianist Dylan Perez, the new formation specializes in the performance of contemporary vocal compositions.  In reviving some of the more obscure works of Poulenc and Britten, they did not disappoint.

The highlight of the evening were song cycles by the two composers.  With a powerful soprano voice and admirably clear diction, Katok delivered a textured interpretation of Poulenc's cycle of poems by Louise Lalanne (the psudonymn for Apollinaire).  The mood shifted from melancholy to determination to puzzlement as the soprano followed the cycle's temporal shift from the past to the present.  Songer provided a touching interpretation of Britten's cycle Ballad Songs.  She delivered the witty "Tell me the truth about love" with ebullience.  The sad, ballad-like "Johnny" expressed the mealncholy of the love lost and abandoned.  While powerful, the mezzo-soprano's voice clearly has some problems of control at the top of her vocal range.

Perez provided ardent and competent musical accompaniment throughout the progam as well as offering some brief, informal introductions to these poorly-known works.

One reservation: In several of the song cycles, the singers attempted to turn the songs into dramatic vignettes.  At one point, a scarf mysteriously appeared, then sunglasses; shortly afterward, the sunglasses disappeared, then the scarf unraveled.  The attempted drama stuck this listener as precious, an unnecessary distraction from works which carry their own aesthetic punch through the unusual literary quality of the texts as well as the varied musical genres woven into their scores.


Saturday, February 8, 2014


The Peabody Chamber Opera is offering an intriguing double bill of contemporary one-act operas at Theatre Project this weekend.  Directed by Jennifer Blades, Thomas Pasatieri's Before Breakfast (1980) and Amy Beth Kirsten's Ophelia Forever (2005) work in quite different musical modes, but in their study of psychological anguish in a woman destroyed by an indifferent man, they bear uncanny similarities.

Based on a play by Eugene O'Neill, Before Breakfast studies the emotional meltdown of an alcoholic woman in the early morning hours.  As she roams through her 1920s apartment, she recounts the tale of a diastrous love affair which has led her to the bottle and despair.  The social background of the decade---especially the unwillingness of her paramour and his coterie to accept someone from a different economic and ethnic class---suffuses the romantic collapse.  The accessible Pucciniesque score permits the heroine Charlotte (Vanessa Rosa) to express post-traumatic feelings which cascade from disbelief to anger to grief for her lost child to rage at social prejudice and to final collapse.  Blades's direction permits the emotional arc of the melodrama to unfold smoothly with growing intensity as Charlotte's hopes and rationalizations crash.  Rosa provides a solid musical interpretation of the role with a rich, vibrant, modulated voice matching the emotional arc, but her acting skills await further maturation.

More cerebral in construction, Ophelia Forever studies Ophelia from different pyschological angles.  The one Ophelia of Shakespeare is now split into Violated Saint (Nicole Cascione), Mad Mermaid (Lisa Perry), and Faithful Seductress (Elizabeth Kerstein).  The stark, color-coded costumes visually separate the chaste Ophelia, the sprightly Ophelia, and the tempting Ophelia.  The Wagnerian singing by the three principals clearly expresses the emotional palette specific to each one.  The frequent, tightly harmonized trios are one of the evening's highlights.  Blades's careful ensemble direction of the piece gives it a steely choreography.  One haunting touch is the occasional appearance of a silent, sepulchral Hamlet (Nicholas Dogas) attracting the Ophelias to their watery grave but providing no reason, no explanation, no solace.  The conceptual brio and psychological symmetries of this serialist score represent one of its limits; its construction can be admired but there is little emotional interest generated in the synchronized water-ballet demise of our subdivided heroine.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

Soaring with SONAR

Sonar, Baltimore's musical ensemble devoted to the performance of contemporary music, treated the city to a mystical concert the past week at Theatre Project.  Entitled "Dark Visions,"  the program offered three contemporary works rivaling each other  in their etheral atmosphere and avant-garde sound.

Opening the concert was the string quartet "Ainsi la Nuit" (1976), written by the French composer Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013).  Broken into seven apparently unrelated movements, the composition hauntingly interwove sounds that characterize the dream and the cloud.  The movement titles indicate the vaguely religious mood of this nocturnal piece: "litanies," "constellations," "temps suspendu."  The Sonar string quartet masterfully evoked the impressionist mood of the work, with its distant echoes of Debussy, although at times the squeaks weakened the composition's lyrical undertow.

The second piece was the world premiere of "By the Light of the Stars" by local composer Lonnie Hevia (b. 1970).  This stirring piece was a blend of contrasts.  The opening movement evoked the cold, distant spectacle of the stars while the closing movement turned suddenly jazz-like as the brass and winds of the Sonar ensemble agressively intensified the sound, rhythm, and tempo of the music.  The piano and xylophone performances made an especially strong contribution to the rousing finale.

The revelation of the evening was the performance of Salvatore Sciarrino (b. 1947)'s odd one-woman operatic drama, "Infinito Nero" (1988), which the composer himself labels an ecstacy in one act.  Guest conductor Robert Baker expertly conducted the Sonar ensemble in this difficult work, full of sudden stops and eruptions.  Mezzo-soprano Megan Ihnen gave a mesmerizing dramatic and musical account of the strange mystic, Saint Mary Magadelen de Pazzi (1566-1607), on whose obscure religious effusions the monodrama is based.  A controversial visionary, De Pazzi would periodically explode into torrents of ungrammatical words expressing her experience of religious ecstacy.  The following phrase was a typical result: "The Spirit was transforming into blood, understanding nothing but blood, seeing nothing but blood, tasting nothing but blood, feeling nothing but blood, thinking nothing but blood, unable to think anything but blood."  Sciarrino accurately describes his subject: "She did not speak---words actually shot out of her like a machine gun."  His composition begins with a pointlillist movement of semi-sounds, breaths, isolated notes, and semi-words.  The body itself, with its respiration, its sighs, and its semi-retracted phrases seems to give utterance.  The work then builds to a cacophony of words, instrumental counterpoint, and an explosion of passion by Ihnen as her ecstatic embrace of and by a crucified God reaches its apex.

One minor reservation.  The performance of each of the compositions was accompanied by a video in the background.  The video work was colorful and certainly attuned to the particular mood of each piece.  Nonetheless, it tended to distract from rather than enchance the performance.  The austere purity of these ethereal pieces stands on its own. 


Saturday, February 1, 2014

Elusive Eno, Brilliant Carrot

Opening its new and spacious theater in the Remington neighborhood---quickly turning from declasse to genteel---Single Carrot starts on a perfect note with Will Eno's The Flu Season, a postmodern play with enough epigramms, poetic flights, fables, confusing conflicts, and menacing blackouts to test any troupe.  Master of the off-balance meditation, the Carrots tackle this elusive piece with aplomb.

A splendid cast brings this dream-like, fractured tale of romance and death to poetic life.  Apparently patients in a mental asylum, Man (Paul Diem) and Jessica Garrett (Woman) wander through incoherent therapy sessions, monologues, and dialogues as they slowly awaken to interest in each other, then fall into a romance punctuated by absurdist one-liners ("I wanted to marry someone who I could bring to my dream house and then divorce "), which slides into a harrowing abortion (daintily described as "the procedure," complete with flowers and heart-shaped box of chocolates thrown in to ease the pain), and then ultimately slides into the suicide of the aborted mother, who no longer sees the point of the pain.

A punctilious pair of Doctor (Michael Scloni) and Nurse (Genevieve de Mahy) frame the suffering inmates with both humor and menace.  As the therapy sessions advance, both doctor and nurse suppress the narratives of the patients and insist on hogging the time to tell their own tales of romantic woe and metaphysical confusion.  Their own odd, rather eldercare romance breaks out to fill the loneliness between their skating outings, their outings to the mountains for a group photo op, and their disappointed walks to catch the perfect sunset---or is it the dawn?

An in-your-face and right-in-the-audience's-lap duo of Prologue (Dustin C.T. Morris) and Epilogue (Allyson Hurely) urges the audience to interpret the action differently.  A preppy exhibitionist in his stockbroker suit and ready to wave a flag at any instant, Prologue provides an upbeat, romantic, loquacious interpretation of the rising and cresting romances.  Epilogue in overalls has washed one dish too many and seen one too many romances where the same mendacious words("I love you forever," "You're the only one," "Wait for the dawn,") have been repeated over and over.  In her cynical view, these efforts at love just happen like the weather.  There is no final cause.  Prologue's valentine-laced hope is lethal illusion.

The play's most intriguing characters, Prologue and Epilogue provide the play with its metaphysical bookends.  Why is the effort at love so doomed to betrayal and death?  Why is communication of the soul so difficult?  Why is our rhetoric of love and of therapeutic revelation so often a stereotyped script, a jumbled mosaic of slogans and stock phrases, rather than an honest expression of persnal truth? 

Prologue and Epilogue are also the guardians of the play as meta-drama.  The confusion of the action is the failure of the playwright to bring his materials into complete clarity.  The repeated surrender to cliche is what we all do, even in our most belles-lettres discourses.  No matter how original, every love story is that same old story with the same hopes and promises that rarely survive the accident or the adultery or the abortion as it limps toward death.

The superb direction of Alix Fenhagen keep these various dream-like pieces of the play moving with dynamism.  The stark set design byRyan Haase, the moody modular props by Ryan Haase and AngieMcNulty, and the alternately eerie and romantic score by Dan Cassin give color and surprise to a production that could easily turn static with such austere, difficult material.

This is not an easy play to watch and hear during its two-hour run.  Thinking is tiring.  But the dream-like images, the offbeat jokes, the questions about love, the testing of theatrical reality, even those strange words read out of the dictionary will stay with you through the night---and then some.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Romeo and Juliet under the Portico

Tinkering with Romeo and Juliet is a venerable theatrical pastime.  I have seen lesbian productions, gay productions, blue-men-in-Tahiti productions, even a sci-fi production set on the planet Venus.  Spotlighters' new production of the Shakespeare classic moves the setting gently backward to ancientGreece.  The result is a neo-classical, black-and-white tragedy stripped of the Renaissance pageantry.

The concept works quite well.  The lines of conflict in this complex family feud are crystal clear.  The tragic passion of Romeo and Juliet burns at white heat from beginning to end.  The ominous role of Friar Laurence, who in mistaken benevolence guides the star-crossed couple into an illicit marriage and into a fatal game of poisons, is underlined by his elaborate side-stage chapel and laboratory.  The clean neo-classical set by Alan Zemla, the lighting design by Fuzz Roark, and the costumes by Marie Bankerd all give a moonlit, dreamy atmosphere for Lance Bankerd's spare direction of the work.

Patrick Gorirossi (Romeo) and Caitlin Carbone (Juliet) place an unusual spin upon the romantic couple.  Gorirossi is a slightly-built, athletic Romeo who leaps around the stage as his infatuation for Juliet mounts and as he sinks ever more deeply into Shakespeare's lush metaphors for sudden love.  Carbone towers over him, a woman clearly older, more mature, and more self-possessed as she moves majestically around the stage.  One has the impression of a young student stunned by the beauty of his statuesque teacher---and of the teacher who immediately returns the forbidden desire.  The enthusiasm and passion of the doomed lovers only deepen as the plot thickens and the poetic riffs become more desperate.  In their speed of delivery, however, some of the more complex sentiments and poetic devices of Shakespeare remain unmined.

An excellent supporting cast gives the production further vigor and focus.  The stentorian Jeff Murray creates a Friar Laurence who is both wise and foolish in his efforts to help the unhappy couple.  His charity is balanced by his incompetence in the contrived affair of the poisons, doomed to backfire.  His closing speech of repentance is moving rather than pro forma.  Nicole Mullins's ebullient Nurse energetically brings both comic relief and added pathos to the deteriorating romance of Juliet.  Opening and closing the play with philosophical lines on the folly of fratricide, the Prince is customarily presented as an omniscient, god-like figure.  Joshua Thomas's prince, however, is refreshingly laid back.  He speaks more quietly than the rest of the cast.  He is often seated on the floor or partially hidden behind a pillar.  His is not the voice of magisterial declaration in the center of the town square.  His is a weary, world-worn voice of a sympathetic observer who has seen too much civil violence and who is well aware that his peace policies, such as banning duels and banishing Romeo, have little chance to alter the self-destructive human condition.

This tunic-and-portico version of Romeo and Juliet capably opens up the multiple tragic lines of the romance through its ensemble acting, firm direction, and stark neo-classical look.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Underwhelming Crimes

Beth Henley's Crimes of the Heart has not aged gracefully.  Acclaimed as a new version of Southern Gothic---right up there with Faulkner and Carson Mc Cullers---the drama won the 1981 Pulitzer Prize for Drama.  At a distance of thirty years, however, the play's construction seems amateurish and the attempts at humor faint.  The new lackluster production of the work at Everyman Theatre does little to galvanize this period piece.

Loosely based on Chekhov's Three Sisters, the play focuses on the travails of three sisters who are reunited in their Deep South home (Hazlehurst, Mississippi) due to a series of personal mishaps.  The three Magrath sisters are genuine Southern grotesques.  Lenny (Beth Hylton) is a lonely spinster overwhelmed by her solitude as she celebrates her thirtieth anniversary.  Meg (Megan Anderson) is a country-western singer whose career has collapsed in the midst of an avalanche of professional lies.  Babe (Dorea Schmidt) has just shot her husband and is awaiting trial, with her unctious lawyer Barnette (Jamie Smithson) trying to unravel the mysterious details of the assault.

As the plot langorously unfolds, there are conflicts, betrayals, and revelations of family secrets among the unhappy trio.  Much of the script bears the faults of a novice playwright.  Nostalgia periodically breaks in with "Do you remember when?" monologues.  Information on the characters (such as age and romantic history) is not so artfully shoehorned into the dialogue.  Family secrets ("Why did Mom kill herself?") are treated with predictable melodramatic conventions.  The temporal structure of the play is pat.  We open with poor Lenny weeping as she sings "Happy Birthday" to herself over one candle in an upturned glass.  We end with Meg, Babe, and Benny joyously singing "Happy Birthday" over thirty candles on a huge cake as they dance around the formica table and get ready to face life together.  Like the table, the joy seems plastic.  The efforts to wring humor out of this depressed  sorority only aroused polite laughter in the audience.

The direction of Susanna Gellert does little to help.  Like the script, the direction is often amateurish.  When "important moments" occur in the play, the lights suddenly dim and the audience is forced to focus on some solemnly delivered lines.  The actors have clearly done ther homework but the earnestness of their performances cannot overcome the cartoonish quality of the production.

Despite its problems, the production is visually stunning.  Debrah Booth's scenic design and Jay Herzong's lighting design handsomely recreate a middle-class Southern home dominated by its large modern kitchen complete with matching cabinets, ample range, and formica-esque counter in the aisle.  Designed by Levonne Lindsay, the costumes are pefectly chosen to bring out the distinctive personality and mood of each character.