Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike

Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike
by Charles Durang
The Cape Playhouse

I suppose it’s unfair to judge a production based on the effectiveness of a different production: each production ought to be judged on its own merits. And on its own merits, this production of Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike was really very good. But I thought the Arena Stage version I saw recently was better.

The cast was excellent, except for Gregory Isaac Stone as Spike. He was fine, but he didn’t have the depth (yes, depth) that Jefferson Farber brought to the Arena version. Stone was rather bland; he didn’t do much with the role. Farber was cockier, more energetic, more of a playa. He was also much more self-centered. When Spike gets the boot from Masha, Farber’s Spike was hurt, wounded; Stone was just, okay, seeya. Farber also showed more bafflement during Vanya’s tirade at the end of the play. Stone just sat there, not showing involvement. In fact, all of cast, except Maren Bush’s Nina, were pretty much uninvolved with Vanya’s speech. Granted, they were seated mostly facing away from the audience, but their body language made it clear they were just waiting for him to finish. (The speech is overly long.)

I thought Toni DiBuono was well–cast as Sonia. She was frumpier than Sherri Edelen, which I thought perhaps suited the role a bit better. And Danielle Lee Greaves was fine as Cassandra, but she wasn’t quite as over-the–top as Jessica Frances Dukes at Arena—and she didn’t have Dukes’ long, beaded braids to flail about. I also liked Vanya’s dwarf costume better in this production; there was something not quite right about Eric Hissom’s costume at Arena. The set was elegant, and the sound was okay (I thought the use of Russian music at Arena was cleverer).

Vanya John Scherer
Sonia Toni DiBuono
Cassandra Danielle Lee Greaves
Masha Margaret Reed
Spike Gregory Isaac Stone
Nina Maren Bush
Director Bruce Jordan
Stage Manager Dan Zittel
Scenic Designer Nicholas Dorr
Costume Designer Mimi Maxmen
Lighting Designer Erik Fox
Sound Designer James C. Swonger

Giant Box of Porn

Giant Box of Porn
By Patrick Flynn
Field Trip Theatre
Capital Fringe Festival 2014
The Warehouse

A giant box of porn (a gross of VHS tapes, as wife Kate describes it to the police) is sitting in a couple’s living room when they come home from a vacation, and its presence causes great shifts in the relationships between Kate and her husband Ron, and her sister Vanessa (and Vanessa’s offstage husband), and, to a lesser extent, Ron and Kate’s flaky neighbor Sherlock.

Slowly the relationships unravel, and we steadily learn more about the characters’ secret feelings as they open up to each other. The characters are very well written, the dialogue is very natural, and the situations… well, I suppose they aren’t particularly out of the norm. Unhappy families may all be unhappy in their own way, but I suppose they outnumber the happy families.

I regard Patrick Flynn as a Fringe “find” (much like Alexandra Petri, although I was familiar with her essays in the Washington Post), and I will make it a point to see any of his other works that show up on the stage. (He’s local, so I expect it won’t be difficult to find them.)

Macbeth: The Instruments of Darkness

Macbeth: The Instruments of Darkness
By William Shakespeare
The Rude Mechanicals
Capital Fringe Festival 2014
The Warehouse

There were some very interesting things in director Joshua Engel’s 75-minute abridgement of Macbeth. Engel used the three witches as the core of his ensemble: they appeared as Lady Macbeth’s ladies in waiting, and as the thugs that Macbeth sends to kill Macduff’s wife and children. And that was an interesting scene: they kill Macduff’s daughter (there were a number of alternate gender castings), but Lady Macduff manages to kill them before they kill her. And then the three thugs rise, witchlike, and converge on Lady Macduff. The scene ended with one of the few blackouts during the production, followed by Lady Macduff’s scream.

I thought the play was well-staged, on a bare set, except for the ever-present throne upstage. (On online viewer complained that the play wasn’t well-blocked for those sitting on the sides of the thrust stage, and observation I kept in mind when choosing my seat.) And the compression of the play led for some clever transitions. Three thugs (the witches again) kill Banquo, and then levitate him into the throne, where he’s ready to “appear” to Macbeth in the banquet scene, which follows immediately.

With the small cast, many parts were eliminated and, as I mentioned above, several parts were cast across gender. The Porter, the one bit of comic relief in the play, has his share of dick jokes (“makes him stand to and not stand to”), but having the Porter played by a women allows a vagina joke as well: “Come in, tailor; here you may roast your goose”, the Porter says, spreading her legs wide. (For the three characters she talks about letting in, she singled out three people in the audience.)

Unfortunately, the performers themselves were not uniformly polished. Sam David, as Lady Macbeth, was good: she acted her lines. Unfortunately, they tended to be informed by a Cruella deVil-sort of sensibility. Alan Duda’s Macbeth was rather wooden, and he muffed several of his lines. Michael C. Robinson as Macduff fared better, except when he erupted into histrionics in the face of bad news: they were a bit over the top for such an intimate production, and which otherwise had a more restricted range of delivery. And the fight early fight scenes were unimpressive; the final duel between Macbeth and Macduff was somewhat better.

The Rudes are doing this production again shortly in Greenbelt (they’re a longstanding local company), so perhaps it will be a bit more polished by then.


by Cristina Bejan
Capital Fringe Festival 2014
Ft. Fringe — Redrum

Districtland is an engaging play about four twenty-somethings sharing a house, and their friends, lovers, co-workers, and other folks they meet. Through a series of vignettes of varying lengths, we see a day in their lives, from the moment they wake up in the morning, to when they finally turn in in the wee hours of the morning.

There is a lot of humor in their interactions—humor that would be found in any group of people their age. But there is a lot of inside-the-beltway humor, too. One of the funniest bits of the evening comes early in the play, as Frank is desperately trying to get through the turnstile in the Metro, and the thing just. will. not. accept his SmarTrip card. We’ve all been there, and we laugh in sympathy as we see his hand shaking as he realizes that he’s close to missing his train.

There’s also the obligatory scene in which a Congressman puts the moves on one of the women. (This scene was filmed in an actual trailer as part of the publicity for the play.) And twice we saw a tone-deaf white woman ask a person of color, “Where are you from?” When the answer is something like Pittsburgh (I don’t remember the actual answers), she persists, “No, I mean, where are you really from?” (Both are native-born, but one was born to Chinese parents, the other to Cuban parents.) And there’s a wonderful episode near the end where two of the characters take a ride in a cab with an Afghani driver. According to the program, the driver is a real person, and he really did write a book. (And presumably he did get paid for his first gig, from National Airport to somewhere in the Maryland suburbs, with sex in the back of his station wagon from a desperate housewife.)

While I think the play would be well-received elsewhere, it was particularly appreciated by the audience, who either identified with the characters, or knew people just like them. I think it did a fair job of poking fun at our city’s foibles, and acknowledging its strengths. (I say “our”, because I was born in Columbia Heights. I’m very much a local boy.)

The troupe putting this play on is called “Bucharest inside the Beltway”, and the acknowledgments included a thank you to the Romanian Embassy. I’m not sure what the connection is; there was nothing in the play about Romania. But Bejan is local playwright (maybe she’s Romanian), so perhaps she’ll have another offering next year. If so, I’ll look forward to her work as much as I do to that of Alexandra Petri.

National Symphony Orchestra

The National Symphony Orchestra
Sir Mark Elder, conductor
Stephen Hough, piano
David Hardy, cello
Daniel Foster, viola

Mark Elder is a passionate advocate of his countryman Elgar, so he made a few remarks before In the South to set in in Elgar’s larger oeuvre. He observed that the central maestoso section, with its open fifths, represented the ancient Roman influence—not only in Italy, but also in England. Elder said the section particularly represented ancient Roman roads, which go on and on and on in straight lines. Even in today’s England, he said, you can still find ten-mile stretches of perfectly straight roadbed. And he said that the following folk-like melody that followed was of Elgar’s own invention, but was a barcarolle like any gondolier might sing to his sweetheart. As you might imagine, the performance was lush and convincing.

Hough’s performance of the Liszt was rousing and energetic, but I thought it was a bit erratic. In particular, there was a long trill near the top of the keyboard in the slow movement that I thought was too loud. Yes, it was an impressive trill, but the musical interest lies elsewhere—in the piano, and in the orchestra—and the trill didn’t warrant the volume.

I thought there were a couple of balance problems in Don Quixote, too. Yes, the tenor tuba is part of the ensemble playing the role of Sancho Panza, but it was almost always too loud during its entrances. Interestingly, the tenor tuba was sitting in the midst of the strings, behind the cellos and in front of the double basses, and not with the rest of the bass, presumably to highlight its solo role. Hardy sat on a platform at the front of the cello section, facing the conductor, and not downstage like a full-blown soloist. I suppose this was because he played with the section when he wasn’t playing solo lines, so Elder was treating him as a sectional soloist. The concertmaster doesn’t need a platform in, say, Scheherazade, because he’s already down stage, so the platform gives the cellist a bit of a boost in being heard. In some of the early passages, the orchestra covered Hardy’s solos, but the balance improved as the work continued.

The playing in the Strauss was fine. This has always been one of my favorite Strauss tone poems, and it’s not one that gets performed (or played on the radio) frequently. Elder made some remarks about this work, too. He described the wandering line introduced by the violas at the beginning of the work as representing Quixote reading and reading, while the other parts of the orchestra represented the topics he was reading. These themes pile up and intertwine until, finally, Quixote goes bonkers, and sets out on his adventures.

I heard the wind machine in the seventh variation, but I didn’t see it. The mechanical wind machines I’m familiar with are these large round things that the percussionist cranks, faster and slower to vary the pitch. I saw a percussionist move after the variation, and if he was the wind machine player, then either it was offstage (except I didn’t notice him entering), or it was somehow synthesized on a keyboard (one of which did seem to be in the vicinity he was leaving). That’s progress, I guess.


Edward Elgar In the South, Op. 50, “Alassio”

Franz Liszt Piano Concerto No. 1 in E-flat Major
  • Allegro maestoso
  • Quasi adagio—Allegretto vivace
  • Allegro marziale animato

Stephen Hough, piano


Richard Strauss Don Quixote, Op. 35
  • Introduction
  • Don Quixote, the Knight of the Sorrowful Countenance
  • Sancho Panza
  • Variation I: The Adventure of the Windmill
  • Variation II: The Battle with the Sheep (“The Victorious battle against the army of the great emperor Alifanfarón”)
  • Variation III: The Dialogue of Knight and Squire
  • Variation IV: The Unhappy Adventure with a Precession of Penitents
  • Variation V: The Knight’s Vigil
  • Variation VI: The Meeting with Dulcinea
  • Variation VII: The Ride through the Air
  • Variation VIII: The Unhappy Voyage in the Enchanted Boat
  • Variation IX: The Combat with the Supposed Magicians
  • Variation X: The Duel with the Knight of the White Moon
  • Finale: The Death of Don Quixote

David Hardy, cello
Daniel Foster, viola

Annapolis Symphony Orchestra

Annapolis Symphony Orchestra
José-Luis Novo, conductor
Peter Serkin, piano
Maryland Hall for the Performing Arts

Maestro Novo chose a rather ambitious program for this concert. While most everybody else is busy celebrating the bicentenaries of Wagner and Verdi, Novo was celebrating the centenary of Benjamin Britten, who is one of the truly great composers. (The BSO and the NSO are both celebrating with performances of his monumental War Requiem. I didn’t see the NSO performance, but I’ll see the BSO performance next week.)

And to make things interesting, he didn’t go with the obvious choices: The Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, or the Four Interludes from Peter Grimes. Novo chose an early work, the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, because he also wanted to play a work by Bridge himself, The Sea. (Bridge was Britten’s teacher, and Britten was Bridge’s only pupil.) The Variations are based on the second of Bridge’s Three Idylls for String Quartet—actually, just on the “A” section (the brief work is in A-B-A form, with a much more energetic “B” section). Although it wasn’t on the program, Novo had the chairs of the string sections play the Idyll before the full string sections played the Britten. This was a really nice touch, because it was clear how Britten took the theme and transformed it. Because the “A” section is really through–composed, and not your typical theme for variations, Britten’s variations are a lot looser and wide ranging. They’re not like his variations on Purcell’s Abdelazer, or Brahms’s Haydn Variations; they’re more like Elgar’s Enigma Variations.

Alas, the Britten did not play to the ASO’s strengths—or rather, it played to their weakness. The ASO strings often lack precision when playing long, exposed lines in unison. This was particularly noticeable in the second variation, where the first and second violins played unison in their upper registers. They were much better in the faster sections, like the Moto perpetuo eighth variation.

Bridge’s The Sea went very well (the rest of the orchestra filed in for this work). Although written half a decade after Debussy’s La Mer, Bridge’s work is somewhat less modern. The program notes say Bridge was particularly influenced by Ravel and Scriabin, but I thought the resemblance to Elgar (a slightly older contemporary) was more evident. Britten, at the tender age of 10, was so enamored of the third movement, “Moonlight”, that he decided that Bridge would be his teacher. I didn’t quite see what Britten found so revelatory, but I enjoyed the work, and was glad of the opportunity to hear it.

The Brahms second piano concerto is my favorite work of all time, edging out Mahler’s Seventh and Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder. And I was really looking forward to hearing Peter Serkin, who was one of the preeminent pianists of his generation, and perhaps less heralded because of his affinity for the more demanding works in the repertory. (When I was in college, I heard him perform Messiaen’s Vingt regards sure l’enfant-Jesus.) But I was disappointed by his playing. I thought the opening arpeggios were stilted, and his playing was overly cautious. For example, the diverging arpeggios which recur throughout the first movement were very studied and carefully played; they were accurate, but instead of being exuberant, they were wooden. There were occasional flashes of bravura playing: it really depended on what technique was required (thundering octaves and scales were fine). The shape of things was fine, the phrasing was good, but it was not a relaxed performance. (Plus, Serkin has picked up this annoying habit of stomping with his left heel. It’s really, really loud.) Todd Thiel did a good job on the treacherous cello solo in the third movement.

I was invited to a reception after the concert. Maestro Novo was there, along with a couple of the string players (not Serkin). I had the opportunity to chat with the maestro, and to tell him (again) how much I appreciated his choice in programming. The lady at the wine and soda table, who was the organizer of the event, was a little distressed at the size of the crowd. There were maybe 30 or so people there, but apparently twice as many had RSVP’ed. I suggested it might have been the late hour; it was a long program, well over two hours (it was 2230 when we had this conversation), and since the ASO audience skews old, they probably just went home.

And I wondered why I was invited (not that I minded). There were lots of folks who were Trustees, or on the Board of Directors. There must be scores of subscribers like me, and dozens of donors (and I’m not even one of their high–rolling donors). And nobody from Development approached me about increasing my giving, or volunteering services or anything. Do you suppose they actually invited everybody, and this was all who accepted and then showed up? That seems so sad, when all they were trying to do was something nice, no strings attached.


Benjamin Britten Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10
  • Introduction and Theme
  • Adagio
  • March
  • Romance
  • Aria italiana
  • Bourée classique
  • Wiener Waltzer
  • Moto perpetuo
  • Funeral march
  • Chante
  • Fugue and finale
Frank Bridge The Sea
  • Seascape
  • Sea–Foam
  • Moonlight
  • Storm


Johannes Brahms Piano Concerto No. 2 in B-Flat Major, Op. 83
  • Allegro non troppo
  • Allegro appassionato
  • Andante
  • Allegretto grazioso

Peter Serkin, piano

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Music by Benjamin Britten
Libretto by the composer and Peter Pears
Based on the play by William Shakespeare

After the end of the second act, the woman next to me turned to her friend and said she thought that the opera was “charming”. Really? “On the ground, sleep sound” is ravishing. Britten’s opera is very carefully and cleverly constructed, but you don’t need to know that, because the orchestration choices manifest themselves on a subtle, emotional level. The three main character groups—fairies, mortal lovers, and “rustics” (as Britten calls the rude mechanicals)—have their own sound, and their own styles, so you always know where you are in the plot.

The first act set is a long panorama that slowly scrolls to the right as the action drifts slowly away from Athens and deeper into the woods. The second act is in a green frame with a green floor: the depths of the forest, close to the heart of mystery. The third act stage shifts from the forest to the open air of Athens, with a frame stage for the rustics’ play. Before the opera began, a crude drawing of a house spun slowly up the curtain and out of site, reminding me of Dorothy’s house. At the end, a full-size drawing descends, becoming the house into which the three wedding couples go, and that’s when the very odd stage floor, with it’s projection over the orchestra pit made sense: it’s the shadow of the house.

The costumes were interesting. In the first act, everyone is in basic twentieth–century business attire (although Puck’s and Oberon’s suits are covered with glittery sequins). The rustics are all working class men in their Sunday best, with hats and dark frame glasses. In the second act, the Athenian lovers are in long flowing gowns, sort of like night gowns with flowing trains. By the third act, they’re in long chitons, while Bottom and Flute, as Pyramus and Thisbe, are in 19th-century Graeco-Balkan folk costumes (a fustanella for him, and a long hoop skirt for “her”).

The cast was uniformly strong, but the three standouts (because of the way the parts are written), of course, were Oberon, Bottom, and Puck (listed as “guest artist”, because it’s a spoken part). Britten really was inspired when he cast Oberon as a countertenor, and all the fairies as children. (The quartet of named fairies were particularly good.) The program notes said that Peter Pears played Flute in the original production. Since he had generally had starring roles in Britten’s previous works, I thought that was commendable—especially since, at fifty years old, he wouldn’t have been particularly believable as an Athenian lover. But Flute has his flash of glory with his mini–mad scene during the play–within–a–play, so I suppose Pears got the attention he needed. I had to look it up to confirm it (because I always get the pairings mixed up), but the vocal ranges of the Athenian lover pairs are the same as those in Così fan tutte, which is undoubtedly an Easter egg homage from Britten (just like Tytania’s snide remark in response to Snout’s Sprechgesang as the wall).

Oberon, King of the Fairies Iestyn Davies
Tytania, Queen of the Fairies Kathleen Kim
Puck Riley Costello
Theseus, Duke of Athens Ryan McKinny
Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons,
betrothed to Theseus
Tamara Mumford
Lysander, in love with Hermia Joseph Kaiser
Demetrius, in love with Hermia Elizabeth DeShong
Helenaa, in love with Demetrius Erin Wall
Bottom, a weaver Matthew Rose
Quince, a carpenter Patrick Carfizzi
Flute, a bellows–mender Barry Banks
Snug, a joiner Paul Corona
Snout, a tinker Scott Scully
Starveling, a tailor Evan Hughes
Cobweb, a fairy Seth Ewing-Crystal
Peaseblossom, a fairy Kiki Porter
Mustardseed, a fairly Benjamin P. Wenzelberg
Moth, a fairy Thatcher Pitkoff
Solo trumpet Billy R. Hunter, Jr
Conductor James Conlon
Director Tim Albery
Set and Costume Designer Antony McDonald
Lighting Designer Matthew Richardson
Choregrapher Philippe Giradeau
Children’s Chorus Director Anthony Piccolo
Assistant Stage Directors Peter McClintock, J. Knighten Smit
English Coach Felicity Palmer
Ass’s Head Ralph Lee

The Nose

The Nose
Music by Dmitry Shostakovich
Libretto by the composer, with Yevgeny Zamyatin, Georgy Ionin, and Alexander Preis
Based on the story by Nikolai Gogol
Metropolitan Opera

The Nose is Shostakovich in his spiky, challenging mood. For the most part, there aren’t the searing melodies of the First Cello Concerto, or even the academic refinement of the 24 Preludes and Fugues. But the modern, discordant sounds suit the story, which is remarkably surreal, given when it was written. (Or maybe not: Gogol is a contemporary of Edgar Allen Poe.)

The video projections were particularly compelling in setting the bizarre reality of the story. Strange shadow images of people and horses seemed to assist in pulling the set components across the stage. A couple of the interludes featured the shadows of three-dimensional statues slowly rotating: in one instance, the strange jutting lines resolve into an outline bust of Shostakovich; in another, two rotating components finally resolve into the Nose astride a horse (an image which featured in many other projections). The tone of these projections reminded me of Fantastic Planet, a rather trippy French/Czech science fiction cartoon from 1973.

Although I enjoyed seeing the opera, I don’t think I’d listen to it. I avoided listening to it on a Met broadcast, because I didn’t want to hear it before I saw it. I wanted to get the full effect of a first–time experience. And I’m glad I did. This is very much a theater piece, and I don’t think it would work as fully without the visual of a human–sized nose capering and scampering across the stage, or without the crowds in their strange postures.

Interestingly, this production did nothing to hide Kovalyov’s nose once it went missing. (I thought that maybe Szot was going to surreptitiously slip a mask on as he was tossing and turning in bed at the beginning of the opera.) In the end, it didn’t matter (especially from where I was sitting); Szot held a handkerchief in front of his nose when he wasn’t singing, and the suspension of disbelief (or the acceptance of metaphor, as a friend put it) kicked in after that. And the scene where the life–sized nose is beaten down to its normal size was really well done. Even from my vantage point in the eyrie of the hall, I didn’t see the nose disappear once he was surrounded by the mob.

At this performance, I was surrounded by 30 or so high school boys, who were apparently there on a high school field trip. I’m not sure what they got out of it. I don’t think they were students of Russian, and I think a couple of them slept through most of it (a remarkable accomplishment). This isn’t the opera I would have chosen for a school field trip. The Nose may not be as inaccessible or challenging as Lulu or Wozzeck, but it’s no Carmen. I guess you go when the schedule works.

Kovalyev Paulo Szot
Police Inspector Andrey Popov
The Nose Alexander Lewis
Act I
Scene 1: The Shop of the Barber Yakovlevich
Ivan Yakovlevich Vladimir Ognovenko
Scene 2: The Home of the Barber Yakovlevich and his Wife
Ivan Yakovlevich Vladimir Ognovenko
Praskovya Osipovna Claudia Waite
Scene 3: On the Embankment
Constable Grigory Soloviov
Ivan Yakovlevich Vladimir Ognovenko
Scene 4: Interlude
Scene 5: In Kovalyov’s Bedroom
Ivan, Kovalyov’s servant Sergey Skorokhodov
Scene 6: Gallop
Scene 7: Kazan Cathedral
Female Voice Ying Fang
Male Voice Tony Stevenson
Footman Brian Kontes
Act II
Scene 1: Outside the Police Office
Porter of the Police Inspector Sergey Skorokhodov
A cabby Gennady Bezzubenkof
Scene 2: The Newspaper Office
The newspaper clerk James Courtney
The Countess’s footman Ricardo Lugo
Caretakers Brian Kontes, Keven Burdette, Matt Boehler, Joseph Barron, Grigory Soloviov, Philip Cokorinos, Kevin Glavin, Christopher Job
Scene 3: Entr’acte
Scene 4: Kovalyov’s Apartment
Ivan, Kovalyov’s servant Sergey Skorokhodov
Scene 1: The outskirts of St Petersburg
Policemen Brian Kontes, Sergey Skorokhodov, Keven Burdette, Matt Boehler, Michael Myers, Joseph Barron, Brian Frutiger, Tony Stevenson, Jeffrey Behrens, Grigory Soloviov
Father Philip Cokorinos
A mother Maria Gavrilova
Sons Michael Forest, Christopher Job
Pyotr Fedorovitch Todd Wilander
Ivan Ivanovitch Ricardo Lugo
A matron Theodora Hanslowe
A pretzel vendor Claudia Waite
Coachman Kevin Glavin
Scene 2: The drawing rooms of Kovalyov and Madame Podtochina
Ivan, Kovalyov’s servant Sergey Skorokhodov
The doctor Gennady Bezzubenkof
Yaryzhkin Adam Klen
Mme Podtochina’s daughter Ying Fang
Mme Podtochina Barbara Dever
Scene 3: Intermezzo
Gentlemen Sergey Skorokhodov, Michael Myers, Brian Frutiger, Brian Kontes, Kevin Burdette, Joseph Barron, Tony Stevenson
Old man Jeffrey Behrens
Newcomers Michael Forest, Grigory Soloviov
Black Marketeer Matt Boehler
Distinguished Colonel Todd Wilander
Dandys Philip Cokorinos, Michael Myers
Someone Kevin Glavin
Students Sergey Skorokhodov, Brian Frutiger, Joseph Barron, Christopher Job, Tony Stevenson, Jeffrey Behrens, Todd Wilander, Richard Lugo
A respectable lady Kathryn Day
Respectable lady’s sons Kevin Burdette, Matthew Boehler
Khosrev–Mirza Vladimir Ognovenko
Scene 4: Kovalyov’s apartment
Ivan, Kovalyov’s servant Sergey Skorokhodov
Ivan Yakovlevich Vladimir Ognovenko
Scene 5: The Nevsky Prospect
Kovalyov’s acquaintances Brian Kontes, Michael Myers, Kevin Burdette
Mme Podtochina’s daughter Ying Fang
Mme Podtochina Barbara Dever
Acting ensemble Snezhana Chernova, Frank Colardo, Svetlana Kifa, Stass Klassen, Vadim Krol, Erik Parillo, Dan Renkin, Dina Rose Rivera, Sasha Semin, Tatyana Zbirovskaya
Conductor Pavel Smelkov
Director William Kentridge
Stage Directors William Kentridge, Luc De Wit
Set Designers William Kentridge, Sabine Theunissen
Costume Designer Greta Goiris
Video Compositor and Editor Catherine Meyburgh
Lighting Designer Urs Schönebaum
Chorus Master Donald Palumbo
Video Control Kim Gunning
Assistant Stage Directors Eric Einhorn, Sarah Ina Meyers

Two Boys

Two Boys
Music by Nico Muhly
Libretto by Craig Lucas
U. S. Premiere
Metropolitan Opera

Warning: Contains spoilers below.

This was the opening night of the U.S. premiere of Two Boys. I didn’t realize that, but it meant that I got to see the composer, the librettist, and others (the choreographer and the projection designers?) take a bow at the end. The production has been workshopped since the London premiere a couple of years ago, given Muhly the opportunity to create “a more focused ending”. But there are still some issues, which I’ll discuss in a moment.

First, the production itself. I really enjoyed it. Muhly has a very rich musical vocabulary, and he writes really well for choral ensembles. His sensitivity in setting English text reminded me of Menotti more than Britten (whom Muhly claims as a major influence). He has worked closely with Philip Glass, but I think the forward impetus in his music is more like John Adams or Michael Torke. (There was one brief passage that particularly reminded me of Nixon in China.)

The overall production is dark, because of all the video projections, but that somehow suits the subject. The projections included the texts of the chat rooms, which appeared as the characters sang them. (Amusingly, the Met Titles preserved the internet spellings of the chat room: “r u there”, “c u l8r”, and so forth. Except for the occasionaly “lol”, which got typed, but not sung.) The chorus, representing the faceless masses of the internet, often singing overlapping and unintelligible text, often sat in rows of chairs, with their faces illuminated by their laptops, while abstract visuals and fragments of their chats scrolled across the back of the stage. The chorus was supplemented by a corps of dancers, who writhed and twisted among them. This was an addition since the London production, to lessen the static nature of the chorals scenes. One reviewer thought it was superfluous, but I thought it was an effective manifestation of the turbulent emotions that remain hidden and unspoken on teh interwebs.

There were also fragments of videos from the surveillance camera at the shopping mall where the stabbing takes place, which gives a gritty realism to the opera, but also is part of the undercutting of the plot. Which brings me to the “issues”. I think the opera has been misrepresented. The publicity makes it seem all about the two boys at the center of the story: one stabbing the other on the loading dock of a store. But it’s at least as much about the detective who is investigating the case. Think of Law & Order: Criminal Intent crossed with Tron. The guy next to me thought the detective’s back story and her issues with her invalid mother were superfluous. (She doesn’t want to take the case, because the boy who has been stabbed is the same age as the son she gave up in favor of her career. Apparently she divorced a husband, too, but not much is said about that. So did she give up the son before marrying, or only custody? The break would only be irrevocable if the former.) I suppose it was part of an attempt to “round out” the character, and I thought it was tenuous at best, but it was necessary, if only so that a chance remark by the detective’s mother could give her the clue to unlocking the case.


I was bothered by the casting of a young baritone as Jake, the boy who is stabbed and ultimately dies, because it has been made clear in the publicity, and in the video that runs on the scrim before the opera begins, that Jake is thirteen years old. (It’s a bit easier to accept a young tenor as Brian, who is sixteen.) It isn’t until late in the opera, when the boy soprano who had a solo in the Evensong sequence swaps places with the guy singing Jake, that I realized that the young man/baritone was Jake’s online persona, and that Brian didn’t realize Jake was thirteen until he shows up at Brian’s house. This also explains why Brian is so weirded out when the “boy soprano” in the choir keeps staring at him, when he thinks he’s going to meet Jake’s sister Rebecca at church. Jake has invented a whole cast of internet personas, using the names of his sister, a friend of his mother, and (perhaps) the family gardener, in order to get close to Brian. Part of the attraction is sexual—Jake gives Brian a blow job when he spends the night—but part is manipulative: Jake is goading Brian into killing him so that he (Jake) won’t have to endure a painful death from an inoperable brain tumor.

And that’s the clue that the detective’s mother provides to her computer–illiterate daughter: that it’s all a masquerade. On the internet, as the New Yorker cartoon says, nobody knows you’re a dog. It all makes sense at the end, of course, but the big reveal is a bit undercut, because the reveal that Jake–the–baritone is a creation of Jake–the–treble is itself undercut by knowing a priori that Jake is only thirteen—hence my confusion at the listed casting. (The boy soprano is credited only as “Boy soprano”, and not “IRL Jake”.)


The guy next to me at the Met thought that this opera would be too easily dated, and thus wouldn’t really enter the repertory (although he was a big fan of Muhly’s music). And I suppose it is fixed in time (viz., 2001): that’s about as late as you can get to have a middle–aged professional woman be so totally ignorant of the internet. Even her boss is reasonably well clued in. My counter to that was that Menotti’s The Consul is fairly rooted in time—the Cold War—and that doesn’t prevent it from being revived. (Not often enough, I think; it’s unjustly neglected, and possibly Menotti’s best work.)

And the reviewers in The Washington Post (Anne Midgette) and The New York Times (Anthony Tommasini) also complained that the characters weren’t rounded enough, they were two–dimensional. As if the characters in Il Trovatore or Norma have such depth? The title character of Rigoletto has depth, but not so much the rest of the cast. (The Duke is all about sex; that’s all you need to know about him. And Gilda is really a simpleton, a fool for love, albeit a very expressive one.) So from that point of view, I think the opera is being a bit harshly over–judged. And if it becomes a neglected jugendwerk, like Puccini’s Le Villi, well, I guess there are worse fates. (I saw Le Villi a couple of years ago at Opera Vivente, and I thought it held up rather well. Puccini had already “found his voice”, it’s no more or less profound than Giselle.)

A quibble about the credits: they list Richard Cox as the “Celebrant”, when he really should be the “Officiant”. Muhly sets the whole opening of Evensong: the Preces, and the singing of Psalm 133 (with its subcontextual brethren dwelling in unity).

Anne Strawson, Detective Inspector Alice Coote
Liam, Detective Chief Inspector Ennis Petersen
Doctor Marco Nisticò
Cynthia, Jake’s mother Caitlin Lynch
Brian Paul Appleby
Rebecca Jennifer Zetlan
Brian’s mother Maria Zifchak
Brian’s father Kyle Pfortmiller
Americal suburban moms Anne Nonnemacher, Maria D’Amato
American suburban girl Ashley Emerson
Celebrant Richard Cox
Boy soprano Andrew Pulver
Anne’s mum Judith Forst
Fiona Sandra Piques Eddy
American Congressman Noah Baetge
American Congressional page Juan José de León
Jake Christopher Bolduc
Peter Keith Miller
Goth girl Sarah Mostov
Conductor David Robertson
Director Bartlett Sher
Set Designer Michael Yeargan
Costume Designer Catherine Zuber
Lighting Designer Donald Holder
Projections and Animation 59 Productions:
Leo warner, Mark Grimmer, Nicol Scott, Peter Stenhouse
Choreographer Hofesh Shechter
Chorus master Donald Palumbo
Dramaturg Paul Cremo
Fight Director Shad Ramsey
Assistant Choreograhper Christopher Evans
Assistant Stage Directors Jonathon Loy, Daniel Rigazzi, Kathleen Smith Belcher
English Coach Erie Mills


By Lisa D’Amour
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company

So it’s just the way things worked out, but maybe I haven’t made the cheeriest choices of plays to see while furloughed. First Rancho Mirage, in which a couple is quietly going bankrupt while another couple’s marriage is disintegrating; now, Detroit, in which a couple’s lives unravel when he gets downsized and a couple of not-quite-recovered drug addicts move in next door.

This is one of those plays you can’t really call “enjoyable”, because it’s too disturbing and thought provoking. We really don’t know our neighbors like my generation used to; although even in my neighborhood, I don’t recall anyone going next door to borrow a cup of sugar. Still, our parents did get together for coffee and the like, people got invited over to dinner, kids roamed the neighborhood and beyond. (Shortly after the Beltway opened, a friend and I would creep through the drainage pipe under the inner loop and go exploring in the median, which was a small nature preserve with a running stream, and, if you went far enough south, a dam that had been built by beavers.) People don’t do that sort of thing these days, particularly because you might run into a pair of wackos like the two new neighbors. And yet, it’s Kenny’s and Sharon’s freespiritedness (once they fall of the wagon) that pushed Ben and Mary to the breaking point that allows them to move forward (although burning their house down might seem a bit extreme).

The set was really effective. Woolly’s backstage was filled with riser seating on the “north” side of the stage, which bisected the seating area. The backs of two two-storey houses rose at either end, and the small backyards abutted in the center. It’s a tricky layout, because occasionally an actor will only face half the audience when making a reaction-shot grimace. (I missed a couple of looks like that because a deck umbrella blocked my view, but fortunately it got taken down fairly quickly.)

There was a fair amount of mayhem in the play, including a couple of bodily injuries that were realistically done. Kenny gets his head cut when the aforementioned umbrella collapses, and Ben gashes his shin when he he steps through a plank in his neighbor’s unfinished deck. I know Ben’s blood pack was probably hidden under his pant leg the whole time, but I was completely surprised by Kenny’s bloody scalp. I guess the blood pack must have been hidden in the umbrella. Both injuries were so well done that they looked real.

This was an excellent cast, and there was also an excellent sense of ensemble. This was certainly an auspicious opening to Woolly’s season.

Sharon Gabriela Fernández-Coffey
Kenny Danny Gavigan
Ben Tim Grtman
Mary Emily K. Townley
Frank Michael Willis
Director John Vreeke
Set Designer Tom Kamm
Costume Designer Ivania Stack
Lighting Designer Colin K. Bills
Sound Designer Christopher Baine
Video Designer Erik Pearson
Fight Choreographer Joe Isenberg
Production Dramaturg Miriam Weisfeld
Production Stage Manager William Cruttenden III

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