Vaught Contemporary Ballet: Dune

Dune: The Ballet
Vaught Contemporary Ballet
Music mostly from the movie and TV versions
Choreography by Katie Vaught
Baltimore Theatre Project

Vaught Contemporary Ballet’s version of Dune (“DUNE the ballet”) was interesting and generally successful. It was brief—a little over an hour, including a brief intermission to allow for some prop placement—and consisted of 19 short scenes sketching out the action of the novel.

The ballet was performed by a corps of nine women, with costumes doing a mostly good job of delineating the characters. (The program didn’t provide a mapping of dancers to roles.) While the costumes were very good, there were a couple of moments where I wasn’t sure who the characters were. I know, for example, that Dr Yueh is there in the scene where Leto Atreides dies, but I wasn’t sure which dancer was Yueh. And at the end of Paul’s fight with Feyd-Rautha, three women show up just before the blackout: I assume the one in white with the tiara was supposed to be Chani, but that’s not the costume I would have expected.

The choreography was a mix of modern and classical. The ensemble work was occasionally a bit rough, and there were a couple of dancers who weren’t quite up to the movements (even though they weren’t really that demanding).

I particularly liked Scene 13, “Sayyadina”, in which Jessica drinks the Water of Life and becomes a Reverend Mother. Her solo takes place in a largish spotlight, while three other women dance in the dark corners of the stage—an effective way, I thought, of portraying the Other Memory which has become available to Jessica.

I also liked the call-and-response format of Scene 14, “Paul Trains Fremen”. Paul demonstrates a sequence of moves, which has a mixture of contemporary, jazz, and martial arts influences, and then the Fremen warriors repeat the sequence with him. The sequences get progressively longer and more complex. (This was some of the most interesting choreography of the evening.)

I had been wondering how they were going to portray the sandworm, and the answer in Scene 15, “Paul Conquers Worm” was … that they didn’t. The worm remains offstage. Paul and the Fremen throw their lines onto the offstage worm and then follow along, drawing the lines in and moving closer and closer to the worm. I had been hoping for something a little more concrete, but this was perfectly acceptable, and much more suited to the small company and the restricted performance space. (There was basically no wing space, just sets of curtains that were perhaps five feet wide.)

I didn’t think Scene 17, “Big Battle”, was particularly interesting. Representing the battle between the Harkonnen forces and the Fremen, it was danced by two trios of women. The ineffectiveness wasn’t in the small numbers of dancers, but rather the dullness and the symmetry of the movements. In contrast, the following scene, “Muad’dib—Paul Kills Feyd”, was a really good fight scene. Paul and Feyd fought with invisible swords, but it was a real rough-and-tumble duel, as good as anything I’ve seen for Romeo and Tybalt in in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet.

The music was compiled mostly from the sound tracks for the David Lynch movie and the Sci-Fi Channel’s mini-series. Last night’s performance was sold out, and I think tonight’s performance may have been, too. If not, it was pretty close. Tickets to tomorrow’s final performance will probably be hard to get.

First Glimpse: A Little Night Music

This is going to be an amazing production. Artist Director Eric Schaeffer has lined up some of the best talent in the DC area.

Schaeffer has directed 28 Sondheim shows, but this is the first time he has directed A Little Night Music. On his own, that is. The show was done in the garage 19 years ago. I asked him during the reception who directed that production, but I’ve already forgotten the name. (Frank something?) Apparently the show was going to be a disaster. Schaeffer gave the director several hours of notes, and the latter quit over artistic differences. So they cancelled the first preview show, and Schaeffer did a last-minute salvage job. But he didn’t redo it from scratch, so apparently he doesn’t consider that to be “his” production.

The Liebeslieder Singers and Sam Ludwig (Henrik). Schaeffer kept calling them the Liebesleider Singers until Kalbfleisch corrected him.

The Liebeslieder Singers and Sam Ludwig (Henrik). Schaeffer kept calling them the Liebesleider Singers until Kalbfleisch corrected him.

Schaeffer talked a bit about the genesis of A Little Night Music. Sondheim’s previous show, Follies, had been a financial disaster, and Hal Prince said they needed a hit to recover. They eventually settled on Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night, but Sondheim’s original take seems to have been rather dark: “whipped cream with knives”. There’s still a bit of edginess to the play. It’s unusual in that most of the songs are inner monologues. Music Director John Kalbfleisch mentioned that this and Sweeney Todd are his favorite Sondheim musicals (mine, too), and that what they had in common were books by Hugh Wheeler.

The original show had an orchestra of 25 to 30 pieces. (When they told Tunick what they wanted, he immediately said “strings!” There were also three French horns.) Several years ago, an orchestrator (whose name I don’t remember) needed to scale down the orchestration, he reset it for string quartet, wind quintet, double bass, piano, harp, and percussion. That’s basically the instrumentation they’ll be using for this production. (Kalbfleisch said 14-piece orchestra, so I’m not sure what I’m missing.)

L to R: Sam Ludwig (Henrik), Nicki Elledge (Anne), Bobby Smith (Fredrik), Holly Twyford (Desirée), and Will Gartshore (Carl-Magnus). The empty chair was for Maria Rizzo (Petra). Off to the right (my view was obstructed by a pillar) were Anna Grace Nowalk (Fredrika), Tracy Lynn Olivera (Charlotte), and Florence Lacey (Madame Armfeldt).

L to R: Sam Ludwig (Henrik), Nicki Elledge (Anne), Bobby Smith (Fredrik), Holly Twyford (Desirée), and Will Gartshore (Carl-Magnus). The empty chair was for Maria Rizzo (Petra). Off to the right (my view was obstructed by a pillar) were Anna Grace Nowalk (Fredrika), Tracy Lynn Olivera (Charlotte), and Florence Lacey (Madame Armfeldt).

This particular production got its impetus from a performance of “Now” that Bobby Smith did at a revue at Signature a few years ago. Schaeffer decided that he needed to cast Bobby as Frederick. The next building block came when he convinced Holly Twyford to do her first singing role. She acceded partly because her mother said she’d kill her if she didn’t, and partly because she realized that if she didn’t continue to grow and stretch her boundaries, she would stagnate as an artist. (Nobody mentioned the fact that Desirée is not an overly challenging role, especially as Sondheim roles go. Glynis Johns, the original Desirée, was not a particularly impressive singer, even if “Send in the Clowns” was written specifically for her.)

The cast performed three excerpts: “The Glamorous Life”, “Now” (the song that got it all started), and “A Weekend in the Country”. The turnout for this event was so large that it coudn’t be done in the rehearsal space upstairs; it took place in the lobby, and there were probably close to 200 people in attendance.

National Symphony Orchestra In Your Neighborhood

National Symphony Orchestra
In Your Neighborhood Chamber Concert
Arena Stage
Kogod Cradle

For several years now, the NSO has run the “In Your Neighborhood” program, which brings NSO musicians in varying combinations to local venues (schools, churches, community centers) for informal concerts. This year the program is focusing on the Southeast/Southwest region of DC, and the formal opening program was held in Arena Stage’s Kogold Cradle.

The program began with brief remarks by Earl Stafford, a Vice President of the NSO Board of Directors with special purview for Community Development. Mr Stafford presented the Irene Pollin Community Service Award to the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, which has been serving the Capitol Hill area for 45 years. (Who knew?)

The musical portion of the program consisted of Claude Bolling’s Suite for Violin and Jazz Piano Trio. I know the flute suite fairly well, but I don’t think I’ve heard the violin suite. It’s one of a series of such suites which Bolling wrote for some of the most prominent classical musicians in the world: Jean-Pierre Rampal, flute; Pinchas Zuckerman, violin; Maurice André, trumpet, Yo-Yo Ma, cello.

Concertmaster Nurit Bar-Joseph pointed out that she isn’t good at improvisation, as the other musicians are, but the work has an improvisational feel built into all the parts. It’s certainly a bravura part for the violinist. The different movements (mostly dance forms) hinted at the skills an repertory of the original performer. The Caprice started with the solo violin playing a lot of difficult double stops, reminiscent of the Paganini caprices. The Gavotte had a fugal opening reminiscent of Bach. The last movement was titled Hora, but it sounded like a tour-de-force tarantella, rather than anything of Slavic (or Israeli) origin.

Bar-Joseph omitted one movement: the Tango. It’s written for viola, not violin, Pinchas Zuckerman being proficient (to put it mildly) on both instruments. Bar-Joseph doesn’t play the viola (I had assumed all violinists could manage the viola, but apparently not), and she was a bit surprised that the Tango had been listed in the program.

For an encore, the ensemble played Ravel’s “Pavane pour une infante défunte”—”as you’ve never heard it before”, as Bar-Joseph said. I’m not sure whose arrangement it was, but the pianist was clearly playing from a lead sheet, so it’s quite possible there was as much improvisation as arrangement.

Claude Bolling Suite for Violin and Jazz Piano Trio

  • Romance
  • Caprice
  • Gavotte
  • Tango
  • Slavonic Dance
  • Ragtime
  • Valse lente
  • Hora

Encore:

Maurice Ravel Pavane pour une infante défunte

The Bridge Ensemble

“A Gentle Beginning”
The Bridge Ensemble
Gilbert Spencer, Artistic Director and Conductor
Saint John’s in the Village

Gilbert (he’s a friend, so I’m taking the liberty of using his first name) always puts together interesting programs, and “A Gentle Beginning” is no exception. This concert was heavily influence by the current political environment. The ensemble for this concert was half the usual size (eight, instead of sixteen), but the acoustics in St John’s are excellent, and they had no trouble filling the room. (If anything, I think the balance was better; the sopranos occasionally have a tendency to overbalance the rest of the ensemble.

The ensemble focuses on the earliest music, and the most recent. So this concert included a number of early carols, some modern settings of early carol texts, and some very recent compositions. In fact, in these concerts (this was a repeat of a program earlier this month), the Bridge Ensemble presented the North American premiere of “The Flight”, by Richard Causton—a work which was commissioned by King’s College, Cambridge, for their legendary Service of Nine Lessons & Carols, broadcast internationally by the BBC. Quite a coup, Gilbert.

Causton felt that it was inappropriate to celebrate the birth of Christ while ignoring the plight of current-day refugee children, and so the text, written for him by the poet George Szirtes, draws parallels between the Christ child and these new displaced children. “The Flight” alternates between dissonant choruses and a more assonant, contemplative chorus. In the final verse, the sopranos make these high wailing sounds, like warning sirens—something the refugee children probably hear on a regular basis. All in all, it’s a haunting work.

The performance was uniformly excellent. I’ve always enjoyed Poston’s “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree”, one of the handful of works on this program I’ve sung myself. Another that I’ve sung is “Coventry Carol”, where Gilbert really milked the cross relations in the last line. (Actually, it bordered on too much, but most people are too timid really dig into the dissonance, and the tension suited the general tenor of the concert.

I liked David Lang’s “make peace”, which consists of a lot of short, fragmented phrases, and lots of parallel sevenths. The text is a paraphrase of the last section of the Mourner’s Kaddish.

Jim Clements’ “Gabriel’s Message” and Jonathan Varcoe’s “Lullay, Lullay, Little Child” were both lush arrangements. The Varcoe is a setting of a 15th-century text; I assume the melody is old, too, but I’ve never heard it before. Edwin Fissinger’s setting of “Love Came Down at Christmas” is a simple ABA setting of Rosetti’s text (which I set as a simple hymn ages ago).

Next up from the ensemble: a reprise performance (although scaled down) of David Lang’s the little match girl passion, next week: music to slit your wrist’s by. As I said when Gilbert mentioned the upcoming concert on Facebook, that’s the way I like my Christmastide music: with a side of bleak. I expect it to be a good concert.

O Do Not Move John Tavener (1944–2013)
Beata Viscera Pérotin (c. 1200-1250)
Sara Woodward, soprano; Blair Skinner, violin
Jesus Christ the Apple Tree Elizabeth Poston (1905–1897)
make peace David Lang (b. 1957)
Nesciens mater Jean Mouton (c. 1459–1522
Coventry Carol Anonymous (c 14th century)
In dulci jubilo Johann Walter (c. 1496–1570)
The Flight Richard Causton (b. 1971)
Gabriel’s Message Jim Clements (b. 1983)
Lullay, Lullay, Little Child Jonathan Varcoe (b. 1950)
What Child Is This Andrew Gant (b. 1963)
Love Came Down at Christmas Edwin Fissinger (1920–1990)
Es ist ein’ Ros entsprungen Michael Praetorius (1571–1621)

L’amour de loin

L’amour de loin
Music by Kaija Saariaho
Libretto by Amin Maalouf
The Metropolitan Opera
Co-production of the Metropolitan Opera and L’Opéra de Québec;
In collaboration with Ex Machina

It took me a while to warm up to the music in Saariaho’s music for L’amour de loin. I described the music to someone as being not-particularly-dissonant atonal music. There are moments of old-fashioned tonality, like the men’s chorus in the second half, but these emerge organically from the music, so maybe it’s not as atonal as I think. It’s very lushly and interestingly orchestrated. There’s some electronic touches, but for the most part they blend in. (It seemed to me that the chorus sounded miked, but I don’t see how that could be possible.) I also liked the second half (Acts 4 and 5, in the composer’s division) better. I don’t know if that’s just a matter of acclimation, or if the second-half music was more approachable. The program notes do say that there is a change in the music as the two protagonists come closer together in the second half, so who knows?

One reason I’m inclined to call the music atonal is that it never moves. At least to my non-perfect-pitch ears, the gestures are always the same notes (like the little bending-note gesture in the flutes). This give the music a certain static quality. For someone used to the tension between contrasting keys, this requires a certain relaxation of expectations. You need to sit back and just float with the music as it bobs back and forth across the Mediterranean.

The production itself was brilliant. Robert Lepage, who created La Machine for the recent Ring production, has created a mini-machine. It’s a moving platform which tilts, developing steps and turning into something that looks like the old stairs for boarding airplanes. This platform, along with a boat piloted by the Pilgrim, moves back and forth across a sea composed of strings of LED lights that cover the entire stage and spill over the orchestra pit. The colors shift, based on where the action is taking place (Rudel’s Blaye in Aquitaine, Clémence’s Tripoli in the Levant, the sea in between), and, to some extent, the moods of the protagonists. The intermezzo at the beginning of Act 4 (the second half) has a wonderful tempest effect, with the LED strings rising and falling.

I wonder if Eric Owens was under the weather; I did notice him cough at one point. He sang with great expression, but he was occasionally overpowered by the orchestra. Susanna Phillips, as Clémence, and Tamara Mumford, as the Pilgrim, both sang beautifully, without any trouble being heard.

Amin Maalouf’s libretto is remarkably literate, as opera libretti go. Like Hoffmansthal’s libretti for Richard Strauss’s operas, this libretto could stand on its own as a straight play. It’s a meditation on the nature of love, and the unattainability of pure love—or the purity of unattainable love. The staging is minimal, but anything more would be distracting. The opera is a series of conversations between the two protagonists, Jaufré Rudel and the Countess of Tripoli, and the Pilgrim, their go-between. The two protagonists really only talk to each other face-to-face at the end of the opera. A chorus of heads floating above the water provides occasional commentary.

This is not an opera you can listen to in the background (which is why I didn’t listen to the recent Met radio broadcast); it requires attention. But I think it well repays that attention, and I would certainly try to see it again if the Met offers it in future seasons.

Cast:
Jaufré Rudel Eric Owens
Clémence, Countess of Tripoli Susanna Phillips
The Pilgrim Tamara Mumford
Crew:
Director Robert Lepage
Conductor Susanna Mälkki
Associate Director Sybille Wilson
Set and Costume Designer Michael Curry
Lighting Designer Kevin Adams
Lightscape Image Designer Lionel Arnould
Sound Designer Mark Grey

Annapolis Symphony Orchestra

Annapolis Symphony Orchestra
José-Luis Novo, conductor
Christopher Janwong McKiggan, piano
“Dance Mix”
Maryland Hall for the Performing Arts

The continuing theme for this season’s concerts is the work of Marc Chagall, and this evening’s concerts featured excerpts from two works depicted in Chagall’s painting on the ceiling of the Paris Opéra (painted in 1960): Adam’s Giselle, and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.

The Giselle excerpt was the Grand Pas de Deux from the second act. While I don’t think it was exceptional, any ballet company would have been thrilled to have such a solid accompaniment. The Tchaikovsky excerpt was a suite from Swan Lake labeled Op. 20a. It’s not a suite I’ve ever heard: it included two scènes and six dances (the Dance of the Cygnets and four of the Act III national dances). Christopher Sala played the solo in the Neapolitan dance with a bit of caution, but concertmaster Netanel Draiblate, principal cello Todd Thiel, and harpist Haley Rhodeside did a wonderful, delicate job of the scene for Odette and the Prince.

The concert opened with a subdued performance of the Scherzo capriccioso. In his remarks, Novo pointed out that the scherzo is, at its core, a furiant. I would have liked it to be a bit faster, and more dance-like (in keeping with the season’s theme). I though the orchestra was a bit unsteady for the first page or so, but they settled into a decent performance.

The highlight for me was the North American (Western Hemisphere?) premiere of Zhou Long’s piano concerto. It was premiered in 2012 as a joint commission by the Proms and Singapore (I presume the Singapore Symphony Orchestra; Novo wasn’t specific). It’s only been performed a few times since; I wonder how Novo discovered it. It’s a fascinating, exciting work. The first movement has some interesting, irregular rhythms and complex harmonies. And like the ensuing movements, it has some interesting effect. In this movement, the pianist played a low note percussively while muting the strings with his hand.

The second movement (according to Joseph and Elizabeth Kahn’s program notes) imitated two different kinds of bells: the Mighty Bells and the Frost Bells. The Frost Bell are probably the tinkly sound in the uppermost register of the piano, supported by high winds. The Mighty Bells were, I’m sure, portrayed with another special effect: the pianist reached into the body of the piano and played a downward glissando on the lowest octave or so of the strings, followed by a thump with this right hand on the same strings. It was an interesting effect, and appropriately evocative of a large bell. I did think the movement went on a bit long; there were a couple of places where I thought it could end.

The last movement was the only one to feature the typical “Chinese” pentatonic melodies. It also included several Chinese instruments, including those cymbals with the strange gulping sound that are featured in Lion Dances. The movement had a percussive, driving rhythm, which is appropriate for a movement that was a portrait of the Monkey King. Christopher Janwong McKiggan did a remarkable job of this complex, challenging score. This was one of the few occasions where I thought the audience’s standing ovation was justified. I’d really like to hear this work again.

Scherzo capriccioso, Op. 66 Antonin Dvořák
Postures, Concerto for Piano and Orchestra* Zhou Long
  • Pianodance
  • Pianobells
  • Pianodrums
Christopher Janwong, McKiggan, piano

Intermission

Grand Pas de Deux from Act II of Giselle Adolph Adam
Swan Lake Suite, Op. 20a Piotr Ilych Tchaikovsky
  • Scène
  • Valse
  • Danse des cygnes
  • Scène: Pas d’action (Odette et le Prince)
  • Czardas: Danse hongroise
  • Danse espagnole
  • Danse napolitaine
  • Mazurka

*American premiere

Guillaume Tell

Guillaume Tell
by Gioachino Rossini
Libretto by Etienne de Jouy and Hippolyte-Louis-Florent Bis,
assisted by Armand Marrast and Adolphe Crémieux
based on the play Wilhelm Tell
by Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller
The Metropolitan Opera
A Co-production of the Metropolitan Opera and Dutch National Opera

The general consensus of my friends is that the singing in the production of Guillaume Tell was excellent, but that the production was (in the words of one friend) “risible”. The Tyroleans were all in the drab beige costumes that I thought looked like they had been stolen from a production of Nabucco. (And Jemmy was wearing a particularly un-boyish outfit.) The Austrians were, naturally, all in black, with some of the women looking like they had stepped out of a production of Swan Lake by way of Cabaret. (That must be where they got the riding crops they used to make the locals dance.

The set was abstract, with a few rock formations that got moved around, and some forest lookout towers. In Act II, there were a handful of large boulders that my friends and I variously thought looked like oversized pebbles, dried beans, or large cheeses. Bryan Hymel, as Arnold, was given some particularly bad blocking: he had a tendency to lurch and stagger around the stage. In the end, though, I suppose it didn’t matter, because his singing was superb.

Then there were the animals hanging upside down at the top of the stage: a sheep and a cow, in Act I, and a stag in Act II. There was a large frame ship that stretched across the top of the stage. It’s purpose became clear during the storm scene in Act III, but in earlier acts it served as another platform, with more cheeses below deck as ballast. Or something.

In Act II, Arnold tells the local populace about armaments that Tell and Walter had hidden under rocks behind a house. They all rush over to the house and swarm it, but then they come away empty-handed, and they march off to battle unarmed. What, the Met couldn’t afford a few prop pikestaffs or pitchforks?

It seems a shame that, after an 80-year hiatus, this opera is brought back with such a lame production. But as we all agreed, you could just close your eyes and listen to the music.

The orchestra actually stayed put through the curtain call. This seemed new to me, and one of my friends said that, when the latest contract was negotiated, it required the orchestra to stay put through at least the first round of curtain calls. I suppose it does look rather sloppy, especially from the higher tiers, for all the musicians to be bailing early. But I think that, in this case (perhaps because it’s the last performance of Tell this season), the orchestra really wanted to stay. When the conductor was brought out on stage, they players heaved dozens of flowers at him from the pit.

This as a long day. For various reasons, I took the train up in the morning, and I took the train back home in the evening (it was a matinee performance), but all in all, I think it was worth it.

Cast:
Ruodi Michele Angelini
Guillame Tell Gerald Finley
Hedwige Maria Zifchak
Jemmy Janai Brugger
Melcthal Kwangchul Youn
Arnold Bryan Hymel
Leuthold Michael Todd Simpson
Rodolphe Sean Panikkar
A Huntsman Ross Benoliel
Mathilde Marina Rebeka
Waltur Furst Marco spotti
Gesler John Relyea
Crew:
Conductor Fabio Luisi
Director Pierre Audi
Set Designer George Tsypin
Costume Designer Andrea Schmidt-Futterer
Lighting Designer Jean Kalman
Choreographer Kim Brandstrup
Dramaturg Klaus Bertisch
Chorus Master Donald Palumbo

Venus in Fur

Venus in Fur
by David Ives
Black Box Theater
Cotuit Center for the Arts

The black box theater at the Cotuit Center for the Arts is the most intimate space I’ve been in since I saw One in the Chamber. It was set up to seat about 35 people in an L shape around the stage, with the vertex of the L interrupted by Thomas’s desk and chair. The actors were never more than 4 or 5 feet away, so the audience was really drawn into the characters’ interaction.

Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the production. The actors were fine, and they delivered their lines skillfully. But so much in this play depends on accent. Vanda is supposed to have a broad Bronx accent, something that will contrast sharply with the RP accent she assumes when reading the play. The last time I saw this play, the actress didn’t have the accents down solid, and there was light between the accents, as it were. Lexi Langs didn’t even try for Bronx: she went for a watered down Valley girl. (Langs is Equity, so I was hoping for better.) So the ricochet shifts from Vanda–the–actress and Vanda–the–character didn’t have that crystal clarity. (And her German wasn’t the best, either.) The same was true of Santino Torretti; his shifts between bland American and “continental” weren’t particularly sharp. These accents are crucial to the mercurial balance between the two characters. When Vanda shifts accents the first time when she starts reading the play, Thomas is supposed to be shocked: this is the first indication that there is more to Vanda than meets the eye. The shift wasn’t shocking, and Torretti didn’t have much of a reaction.

I think this lack of clarity in accents contributed to the role reversal at the end of the play being less effective; certainly the final apotheosis wasn’t as harrowing as it should be.

The set was about as minimal as it could be. The window through which we see the lightning was fake, which was okay, except that Vanda is supposed to throw Thomas’s phone out the window as she begins to take control. Throwing the phone out the window is an irrevocable break between Thomas and Stacy, and Thomas finally realizes he has lost control. It’s not as effective (or as irrevocable) if Vanda merely tosses the phone aside on the sofa.

I’m sure the rest of the audience enjoyed the performance (it was opening night, and the house was full). And it was enjoyable, as far as it went. But the rest of the audience won’t know what they missed.

Cast:
Thomas Santino Torretti
Vanda Lexi Langs
Crew:
Director Aisha Stewart
Stage Manager Erin Tainor
Costumer Greta Bieg
Set/Props James Newton

The Pirates of Penzance

The Pirates of Penzance
Music by Arthur Sullivan
Libretto by W. S. Gilbert
Adapted by Sean Graney
co-adapted by Kevin O’Donnell
The Hypocrites
Olney Theatre Center
Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab

This production of Pirates by The Hypocrites (a Chicago-based ensemble) runs about 85 or 90 minutes “with a one-minute intermission”. It’s a highly interactive production. The action takes place on and around a dock, which angles its way across the center floor of the stage. There are benches and coolers all around the dock, two circular picnic tables topped with baby wading pools, and a “lifeguard” tower at the back. The entrance from backstage is covered by a large curtain emblazoned with the word “DUTY”. And every time any cast member mentions the word “duty”, the entire cast does this funny little bow in the direction of the curtain. The audience is invited to sit in the “promenade” area, meaning the benches, the coolers, the picnic tables, and even the stage. The only catch is that fairly often they will be instructed to get out of the way of the players. In the nook of the angled dock, there’s a pool of beach balls of various sizes, and other pool toys, which were bounced around by cast and audience before the show (and used as props during the show itself).

It’s been years seen I saw Penzance, so I’m not really sure what got cut or compressed, But the play moves along with great panache, and a lot of comedic interaction with the audience. All of the actors play instruments: during the pre-show warmup (which included “Sloop John B”; the post-show number was “Come Sail Away”), the distribution was four guitars, three ukuleles and one double-stringed ukulele, a violin, and an accordion. Later doublings included a clarinet and a washboard. Two stage managers (wearing red Lifeguard hoodies) made their way around the theater redistributing props and handing out and collecting instruments (including Ruth’s sexy lady garments which she threw to me when they were no longer needed).

The cast was excellent, but I particularly want to call out Shawn Pfautsch as the Pirate King and Mario Aivazian as Frederic. The musical peformances were also excellent, but here, too, I want to call out a couple of numbers. After generally high-powered numbers through the first act, the sudden pianissimo a cappella performance of “Hail, Poetry” was breathtaking. And the Major-General’s song “Sighing softly to the river” was embellished with an obbligato from the Pirate King (seated in the non-moving section of the audience) and a bit of musical saw from Edith. (I talked with Shawn Pfautsch after the show, and he said he started singing that obbligato when he was just one of of the pirates, but he kept singing it as the Pirate King just because he had already worked out the complexities of the performance.)

There was a talkback with most of the cast after the show. Some of the discussion centered on the improv nature of the staging. Pfautsch said that, in general, th show is about 98% scripted, but the improv can expand to 5% or even 10%, depending on the audience. He said that he particularly likes to play Katisha in The Mikado, because he can be as mean as he wants. At one performance, he made a really mean face, and did the two-fingered “I’m watching you” gesture at a four-year-old girl. The little girl, obviously a budding thespian, scowled and made the gesture right back at him, bringing the show to a halt. Each cast also has a repertory of “free skates”, little bits of improv that they can do one-on-one with members of the audience.

Cast:
Frederic Mario Aivazian
Major-General Matt Kahler
Pirate King Shawn Pfautsch
Pirate One Brian Keys
Pirate Two Eduardo Xavier Curley-Carrillo
Pirate Larry Lauren Vogel
Ruth/Mabel Kate Carson-Groner
Edith Dana Omar
Isabel Tina Muñoz-Pandya
Iphigenia Amanda Raquel Martinez
Crew:
Director Sean Graney
Co-Director Thrisa Hodits
Music Director Andra Velis Simon
Scenic Designer Tom Burch
Costume Designer Alison Siple
Lighting Designer Heather Gilbert
Sound Designer Kevin O’Donnell
Production Stage Manager Miranda Anderson

The Lonesome West

The Lonesome West
By Martin McDonagh
The Keegan Theatre

The Lonesome West is funny, but I don’t think it’s one of McDonagh’s best efforts. I was actually a bit disappointed. I think the root of the problem is that the two brothers in The Lonesome West are psychopaths—and nothing more. The eponymous Lieutenant of Innishmore is a psychopath, but he does have some redeeming characteristics. He’s sincere in his defense of innocent Catholic children from James’s petty drug dealing (although he doesn’t give tuppence for the Protestant children), and he’s deeply devoted to his cat Wee Thomas. And the nominal Beauty Queen of Leenane is a twisted sadist, but you can understood how she got there with her cruel domineering mother.

The brothers in The Lonesome West don’t have any such mitigating circumstances. They’re just mean. They take pettiness to new heights, and their brag-off of offhand cruelties in the denouement of the play are typical of McDonagh (even though they’re only described, they’re still not for the faint of heart). But I never felt any sympathy for either character.

Father Welsh is a sympathetic character, if somewhat mopey. But he’s generally ineffective, and he’s not the central character. Girleen’s crush on him comes on rather suddenly; in fact, I almost didn’t recognize it for what it was until the scene was almost over. And then, of course, it goes permanently unrequited. And it seems to have been a surprise to the brothers when they finally figure it out.

Looking at the slightly seedy middle-class living room of the two brothers, I found my self wondering, how do they support themselves? Sure, Valene gets an inheritance from their father, but what did the father do? And what do the brothers do? They don’t seem to have any form of employment. (The Beauty Queen, at least, seemed to be on some form of the dole, and she did grow vegetables or something in a small garden.)

I would go see another production of Lieutenant if it came around, but I don’t think I’d bother with The Lonesome West, even if it were on a subscription (unless it had some sort of powerhouse cast).

Cast:
Coleman Connor Matthew J. Keenan
Father Welsh Chris Stezin
Valene Connor Bradley Foster Smith
Girleen Kelleher Sarah Chapin
Crew:
Director Mark A. Rhea
Set Designer Matthew J. Keenan
Lighting Designer Colin dieck
Costume Designer Erin Nugent
Sound Designer Tony Angelini
Stage Manager Alexis J. Hartwick
Hair and Makeup Designer Craig Miller
Set Dressing and Properties Carol H. Baker
Assistant Director Josh Sticklin
Fight Choreography Casey Kaleba