Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Mouth is Not for Talking: La Voix humaine @ National Sawdust

Most people would admit they wished they used their smart-phones less. Just last week NPR’s Fresh Air broadcasted an interview (linked to below) about how addictive technology that at first seems like a social boon can turn into an isolating element. The idea of technology interfering with interpersonal relationships is not new. In 1928 Jean Cocteau penned a monodrama “La Voix humaine” (translated to “The Human Voice”) centering on an anonymous woman, Elle (“she” in English), by herself in a room having the final heart-rending conversation over the telephone with her soon to be ex-lover. Isolation pervades the piece. The audience not only never meets the lover but never hears his voice or his side of the story. To add insult to injury, interruptions frequently interfere with the phone line that functions as the final, tenuous, unreliable link between the two lovers.

For Francis Poulenc, who towards the end of his life set a reduced version of the play for orchestra and soprano, the play’s themes of isolation and abandonment struck a personal chord. Poulenc feared that Louis Gautier, a 29-year-old lover he had recently met, would abandon him in his final years. In a letter to his publisher written while composing “La Voix humaine”, Poulenc wrote “Blanche [referring to the protagonist in his masterpiece “Dialogues des Carmélites”] was me, and Elle is me again, and Louis, by anticipation. Life will necessarily take him from me in one way or another, that angel. He is exquisite to me and is a tender, polite, and deferential son (except at certain moments!)”1 Elle’s outbursts, expressing Poulenc’s personal trepidation, are deeply felt and without irony.

Billed as “A Mouth is Not for Talking: La Voix humaine” referring to a poem entitled “Forget the World” written by the popular 13th century mystic poet Rumi, this invigoratingly imaginative production of Poulenc’s “La Voix humaine” mounted at National Sawdust for one night only starred soprano Laura Bohn as Elle and pianist Mila Henry in the dual role of Poulenc’s orchestra and Elle’s counterpart. Directed by Mary Birnbaum with projection design by Hannah Wasileski and lighting design by Bruch Steinberg, the production is part of the National Sawdust’s 2017 SPRING REVOLUTION Festival. The festival is geared towards “two female attributes: empowerment, and discourse” explored through music and conversation.
           
Ms. Birnbaum setup the production’s comedic point of view in the show’s first moments. Ms. Henry entered and set a laptop in the middle of the stage, calling to the tech crew to make sure things were ready. The familiar sounds of a Skype conversation bubbled up and Ms. Bohn as her real-life self was projected onto the back wall. She seemed to be in a bedroom or hotel room and claimed that she had missed her flight from Amsterdam. They would have to perform the opera remotely. Bohn kept her promise ripping sheets of supertitles off a pad displayed on an easel next to her bed as she finished each phrase or two.

Then, as anyone who has relied on Skype would expect, the video began cutting out before dropping the call entirely. Flustered, Ms. Henry called up to the crew. Then her cell phone rang. The opera begins with a crossed phone line interfered with by an unwanted stranger.  Ms. Henry answered the phone and sang the opening of the piece herself as though she were trying but still failing to connect to Elle; a deliciously layered moment of meta-drama that set the stage for a diverting evening devoid of art-music pretension.

The drama revolves around Elle, and in a traditional production, with the help of the orchestra, is entirely Elle. Agitated, angry, and woeful, Laura Bohn’s Elle treaded through the thick conflict hoisted upon her by her relentlessly untender lover. We never see the lover nor hear his voice yet Ms. Bohn projected him clearly to the audience as an overbearing force indifferent to her suffering. Musical passages that allow for tenderness were delivered with venom. Hardly any affection remained between the couple.

Ms. Bohn’s Elle was driven by desperation – her lover possesses an essential part of her that she struggles to leave behind – but she was hardly tethered by the allure of potentially recovered sensuality. Ms. Bohn trimmed the lush musical passages of their fat eschewing rubato in favor of a stricter interpretation of musical time. Elle describes falling asleep after taking too many sleeping pills, dreaming that her lover abandoned her. She awakes glad to have merely dreamt the scene but immediately her gladness morphs to horror as she realizes their relationship is in fact over. Poulenc summons the forces of Verdi and Mussorgsky writing full throated passages for a voice like Renata Tebaldi’s (for whom early on Poulenc considered writing the piece). But Ms. Bohn and Ms. Henry pushed determinedly through the passages in strict tempo suggesting that Elle cannot indulge an ounce of sentimentality for this man.

A daring and impactful directorial move, Ms. Birnbaum wholly integrated pianist Mila Henry into the dramatic structure of the work as an essential supporting character. Ms. Henry disabled Elle’s avoidance tendencies acting as an antagonistic spirit guide, like a best friend calling out Elle on the hard truths to protect her long-term spiritual needs. Ms. Henry bristled when Elle was spineless or unnecessarily self-deprecating. She related to Elle’s nightmare, projecting tough-love sympathy as Elle exasperatedly exclaimed “Quelle comédie”, the absurdity of it all. Ms. Henry’s character had hard edges too, acting out violently at Elle’s self-pity, throwing Elle to the ground when it seemed like Elle might need her most.

In an astonishing moment, Elle tackled Ms. Henry off her piano bench halting the music. The two wrestled furiously on the ground. Ms. Henry on her way to the floor yelped, “I’m trying to help!” eliciting from the audience cautious laughter tempered by the genuine violence of the encounter and the justified frustration of both women. Never approaching glibness or ironic detachment, Ms. Henry’s character grounded Elle’s journey and facilitated the audience’s experience.

Musically, Ms. Henry communicated the orchestration clearly when possible. It is a shame that the piece is rarely produced with its original instrumentation. Listen to a recording – the orchestration is masterful.

From Ms. Bohn, one hoped for clearer phrase direction and a more savory legato of which she is clearly capable. Her voice bloomed beautifully in its top which, in a piece so full of limited-ranged speech rhythm, only increased the desire for her to lean into the vocally expansive moments. The highest note of the piece occurring in the climactic setting of “je devenais folle!” whizzed by with a whiplash effect. With an extended accelerando preceding the climax, the voice at its top and the piano playing a full fisted chord buffered the next beat by extreme low bass octaves, the phrase surely calls for expansion, the rubato written into the musical markings.

But these technicalities are often a function of comfort and with only one performance are easily forgiven. One hopes that the production will see more performances and continue to evolve. The staging is genuinely inventive and the highly capable musicians, director and technical team clearly have a close artistic and interpersonal rapport and distinctive dramatic vision.


Link to the Fresh Air interview:

1From Francis Poulenc by Benjamin Ivry

Review By: Jeremy Hirsch

Friday, February 10, 2017

ALCINA @ OPERAROX

The fledgling company OperaRox Productions, founded by Kim Feltkamp and Jaimie Appleton as an offshoot of the OperaRox tumblr page, produced a sold-out two-show run of G.F. Händel’s Alcina, directed by Maayan Voss de Bettancourt, at the Player’s Theater in the West Village on Friday and Sunday, February 3th and 5th.

The source material of Alcina’s libretto is Orlando Furioso, an early 16th century epic poem by Ludovico Ariosto. The list of composers that have used the poem as the basis for operas is long and includes Lully, Rameau, Caccini, Haydn, Vivaldi, Thomas and others. Händel himself has two other canonical operas using the poem’s stories (Orlando and Ariodante).

The plot of Alcina can seem convoluted on paper, though once the characters’ names, alter-egos and genders become familiar, things become clear. OperaRox offered a succinct synopsis that’s worth quoting:

            Alcina is a sorceress with her own island. Her sister, Morgana, is in a relationship with Oronte, but falls for Bradamante, who is dressed as her own brother so she can save her fiancé, Ruggiero, from Alcina’s clutches. Melisso, Ruggiero’s commanding officer, accompanies Bradamante to the island and helps Oberto find her lost father.

That’s the gist. What the synopsis leaves out is that Alcina has a pesky habit, when her temper flares, of turning former lovers and people at large into beasts and inanimate objects.

OperaRox comes to the table with a specific production mission. The company is clear about wanting to provide meaningful performance opportunities for young singers that generally haven’t sung their assigned role, create an environment that encourages experimentation, pay its cast and crew, and build general interest in opera, particularly among younger audiences. OperaRox seems to successfully hit these marks.

The opening of the production made clear that neither the director nor her actors would be sheepish about physical intimacy. In the first moments, a domineering Alcina drags on a handsy, sex-slave-like Ruggiero, the two of them necking and making out. The opening was a good preparation for the bumping and grinding, sexual massage, and other raunchy action coming later. The confidence with which the young actors dove into the sensuality was refreshing. The amount of sexuality was abundant but not gratuitous.

Morgana, played by soprano Anna Slate, radiated a contagious delight. She championed the show’s comedic elements with her insatiable but winningly naïve sexual appetite. Slate’s recitatives flowed easily and idiomatically, neither overly spoken nor sung. Her Morgana had a sympathetic core that remained throughout the character’s journey to self-knowledge. One hoped that she would escape the fate to which her foil, Alcina, seemed destined.

Tenor Eric Alexieff proved a sympathetic Oronte. Alexieff was particularly charming as the jaded, abandoned lover commiserating with Ruggiero during his Act I aria. Popping open one beer after another, he elbowed and teased Ruggiero with the tough love of an older sibling.

Mezzo-soprano Melanie Ashkar commanded her musical material as Bradamante. Ashkar sang with both an even and agile tone, handling the difficult coloratura of her arias with poise and clarity. She maintained a calm and focused presence on stage, grounding her scenes by listening and reacting intently and in the moment.

Baritone Kevin Miller portrayed a paternal, well-meaning Melisso. Perhaps too meek to convincingly play a drill sergeant, Miller’s earnestness did add to the show’s heart and fit well with the company’s overall encouraging demeanor and supportive mission.

Mezzo-soprano Chloë Schaaf played Ruggiero, the backbone of the opera, with deep commitment. Responsible for the bulk of the opera’s emotional heavy lifting, Schaaf broke down into forceful convulsions, scolded by his sergeant Melisso for having wronged his wife-to-be Morgana. Schaaf also managed a deft act of emotional subtlety in her act II aria in which Ruggiero convinces Alcina that he is in love, though under his breath mutters, not with Alcina herself. With Schaaf’s portrayal, one couldn’t help but wonder whether Ruggiero felt deeply attached to both Morgana and Alcina and was heart-broken wronging either of them.

As the title role, soprano Zen Wu bounded around the stage confidently, singing voluminously but at times unwieldly. She played an Alcina thirsty for vengeance and blinded by lust.

Ginny Weant, as the young boy Oberto, sang her final aria with momentum and dexterity.

Made up of the cover cast, the chorus sang with a well-honed, appropriately sized mezzo-forte sound. They functioned as Alcina’s semi-sedated minions, most useful as reflections of the sorceress’s state of mind during arias.

The band, led by Dmitry Glivinskiy at an electric keyboard, filled out by Katie von Braun on violin and Spencer Shen on cello, executed the concise orchestration with proficiency and understated style. Cuts to the score were judicious, though more were possible; Bradamante’s act III aria “All’alma fedel” could have mercifully been cut, as it slowed the opera’s pace in the home stretch.


 There were other weak spots in the production – a handful of out of place swear words in the supertitles garnering cheap laughs, varying levels of musical, linguistic, and vocal fluency, some clumsy staging particularly with the chorus, and hardly any set to speak of – regardless, it was a strong effort from a young cast and budding company of bright, hardworking opera devotees.

Review: Jeremy Hirsch
Photos: OperaRox Official Site

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A COMEDY OF TENORS @ The Papermill Playhouse



In 2013 Paper Mill Playhouse produced Ken Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor with director Don Stephenson at the healm. Now, over 3 years later, Stephenson and the original cast are back for its sequel, A Comedy of Tenors. This grand reunion paired with a hilarious script filled with hijinks makes for an evening filled with hysterics.
The title immediately gives you a clue as to what’s in store- borrowing its name from Shakespeare’s A Comedy of Errors, Ludwig’s sequel has all of the trademarks of an outrageous farce. From mistaken identities, to slamming doors, lots of sex, a little bit of opera, and of course a wedding to tie everything up, this 2-hour long show is a fast paced wild ride. Set 2 years after the events of the original, we find producer Saunders (Michael Kostroff) in a hotel room in Paris attempting to keep his opera performance together. Returning are Max (David Josefsberg) his son-in-law and aspiring opera performer, and world famous Tenor Tito (John Treacy Egan) along with his hot-headed wife Maria (Judy Blazer). Along for the ride is Tito and Maria’s daughter, aspiring actress Mimi (Jill Paice) with her boyfriend, the new opera star Carlo (Ryan Silverman), and Racón (Donna Englisch), a former fling of Tito’s. With Tito already feeling jealousy that his stardom is being outshone by bright Tenor Carlo, things escalate when he mistakenly believes his wife is having an affair with the young singer, not knowing he is actually the secret boyfriend of his beloved daughter. Shenanigans ensue, while Saunders tries to keep everyone from strangling each other and get them ready to sing for a soccer stadium full of fans.
Kostroff, Josefsberg, Egan, and Blazer all reprise their respective roles from Lend Me a Tenor, and they excel in them. Their familiarity with the characters allows for lots of nuances within the absurdity and a real sense of connection between one another. Egan particularly shines, tackling a duel role. Much like his portrayal of Franz Liebkind in Paper Mill’s recent production of The Producers, he is able to deftly navigate moments of over-the-top absurd anger and moments of pure joy and silliness; and here his voice is allowed to soar even more in the few operatic occasions featured. Egan is certainly the standout, commanding the stage for the majority of the evening. Also returning from The Producers are Kostroff and Josefsberg who had been Max Bialystock and Leo Bloom respectively. It is fun to see these two teamed up again and show off their deft comedy skills. The final returning cast member from the original Tenors is Judy Blazer as Maria, whose fierce hot-headed Italian attitude is especially delightful, and I only wish there had been even more of her throughout the show. The three new characters are all amusing, but it is Ryan Silverman as Carlo who really stands out. His voice is incredible, and he proves a skilled comedic actor as he serves as the catalyst for all the wacky goings-ons.
All of this crazy action takes place in a hotel room in Paris, with Michael Schweikardt’s scenic design setting a wonderful grand atmosphere, with luxurious adornments and a gorgeous terrace featuring the Parisian sky and a view of the Eiffel Tower. The lighting design by Stephen Terry was quite appropriately simple for the room, but its prowess was shown through the terrace. Subtly, throughout the progression of the play, the outside sky began to change color, effectively communicating the passage of time and providing an insight of urgency to the audience that time was running out for everything to come together for the fast approaching opera concert. Paper Mill favorite and returning director from Lend Me a Tenor, Stephenson navigates the ridiculous A Comedy of Tenors with skill, stretching out the wacky moments for an optimal amount of laughs, while still letting the heart of the characters come through.

With lots of slapstick, screaming, singing, scandal, and a stirring script, Paper Mill’s A Comedy of Tenors is a fun night of laughter and entertainment. If you were a fan of Ludwig’s original show and want to see how these zany characters end up, or if you’re a newcomer looking for a farce check out this uproarious comedy before it ends its limited run on Sunday, February 26.
Review By: April Sigler
Photos By: Jerry Dalia and Kevin Thomas Garcia

Friday, January 20, 2017

THE PRESENT @ the ETHEL BARRYMORE THEATRE

It’s hard to review this show without just writing a love letter to the entire cast and crew. So to start off I will say, The Present is a show that will stick with you, that will challenge you, that will make you think days after seeing it, and will over all just blow your mind. Most people see the name Anton Chekov and either roll their eyes or jump for joy. Personally I have always been on the fence. I am a lover of the classics but I also have ADD so I have a short attention span. (It’s a curse) Writer Andrew Upton manages to take one of Chekhov’s early works and turns it into this modern high speed chase of love, life, passion, and of course vodka.  I honestly don’t think I have ever been so entranced with a show, and that’s saying a lot since this one is four acts!

The playbill is key in this production because Mr. Upton gives you some backstory of these characters if you are unfamiliar with Chekhov’s work. But beyond the stellar writing, director John Crowley has staged this production so beautifully.  Upton and Crowley have managed to make Chekhov actually funny.  We have a cast of 13 very different characters and Crowley gave each of them shinning moments and it never felt, crowded or upstaged, it was perfect chaos.

Now, let me gush my love for the actors. Bare with me because, after this show I feel as I know them, and we are all now friends.  Cate Blanchett! Cate Blanchett! CATE BLANCHETT! I could watch her on stage just sitting doing nothing and she would manage to make it interesting some how. She has this ease, and effortless about her that is just memorizing. And just when you think she is just perfectly poised, she gets up on a table and dances to punk rock! I was with her on her entire journey of her 40th birthday.

And then we have Mr. Richard Roxburgh. Who in my opinion steals the show. He starts off as this classic flighty playboy; all the girls love him (on and off stage) and then becomes the most grounded character. He manages to make you laugh in inappropriate situations and you can’t help but love him. And when he’s with Ms. Blanchett its pure magic!

The ensemble is filled with so many stars its hard to talk about them all. Toby Schmitz (Nikoli) has a spark that whenever he was on stage I couldn’t stop watching.  Chris Ryan (Sergei) is probably the most loveable character on stage, and I just rooted for him through the show.  Jacqueline McKenzie (Sophia) plays the perfect balance of a hot mess. Every actor on stage did beautiful work!


If you are looking for a show to make you make you laugh, cry, and honestly feel better about your friends and family, head to the Ethel Barrymore Theatre and see The Present!

Review: Bri Burnside
Photo Credit: Joan Marcus

APARTMENT COMPLEX @ THE BARROW GROUP w. the NOW Collective


Self produced and self shaped theatre is very much a living, breathing entity clamoring under rug swept by the glitz and sparkle of Broadway. But its there. You just have to find it. Theatre makers are taking the industry into their own hands, arthritic from self promotion on any and every social media medium, and shaping their fates. I know, I know, easier said then done. And beyond that? Easier said then done WELL.


You know who does it well? The NOW Collective- a new group of graduate apprentices from The Barrow Group. Their mission is to provide a collaborative environment for emerging artists like themselves to get stoked and work on new pieces together. And if their current show, Apartment Complex, is any indicator as to the work we can expect from this group, I anticipate a bright future ahead.

Apartment Complex is a series of shorts by various playwrights and actors within the group about, you guessed it; the trials, tribulations and absolute thrills of living in one of the best cities in the entire world. And what a smart move that was for this fledgling company. Their first big show off the bat was material that invites an audience in, almost as if they too were a part of the ensemble, because as people of New York, we could identify with it ALL.
 
The evening truly got kicked off when actress/playwright Sam Evans found a bedbug on her sweater, which hilariously segued into a performance art piece where the actress, in a garbage bag and rain boots, destroyed everything in her apartment. Evans was absolutely captivating and had the audience convulsing in their laughter. A highlight of the evening for sure.

Next up is Adrian Burke, an extremely talented gentleman we need to be tracking. He had two plays up in the night, one of which Burke himself was in, and not only were they really frigging funny, they were poignant and satiated the audience on a different level. Hallways was particularly brilliant. It was a two man bit satirizing how we grieve and how we are allowed to grieve in our current climate. These points were punctuated perfectly and with care by actors Andrew Dobbie and Morgan Bartholick.

Sean T McGrath’s Dinner Party was also very well received within the audience. Dinner Party took us on an emotional rollercoaster, even in such a brief amount of time, which is super admirable. Kasey Lee Huizinga was heartbreaking in her pursuits of trying to maintain homeostasis in financial insecurity, a feeling we all know far too well.

Catch this show in it’s last weekend at The Barrow Group Studio Theatre over on 36th. In this current political climate, we all need a friggin laugh…and more importantly, support the arts. Don’t allow them to get evicted from their homes.

Review: Brittany Goodwin
Photos: Kyle LeMaire Photography