Archive | October, 2009

HGO’S ELIXIR OF LOVE – A Review

25 Oct

elixir photo

Houston Grand Opera 

By HOLLY BERETTO 

Houston Grand Opera opened its 2009-2010 season with a frothy frolic of love and the human spirit. Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love is a campy romp, peppered with warmth, good humor and a great deal of heart.           

It’s one of those boy-wants-girl, girl-can’t-admit-to-wanting-boy, happy ending affairs. The hapless but hopeful Nemorino is in love with the sassy, educated landowner Adina. So is the loveable rascal Sergeant Belcore. Adina can’t admit she pines for Nemorino, so she agrees to marry Belcore. Enter the quack Dr. Dulcamara, who sells Nemorino an “elixir of love,” which promises to have every woman in the village falling in love with him – 24 hours from ingestion.  You can probably guess the madcap turn of events that come next. No worries, even if you see where the story’s heading, you’ll have endless fun along the way.           

In her HGO debut, Ekaterina Siurina performs a glorious Adina, with a silvery, glistening soprano, perfectly matched to Donizetti’s bel canto music. Opposite her, as Nemorino, tenor John Osborn (also in his company debut) brings great soul to his part, his voice effortlessly tender, yearning and – ultimately – seducing. Together, they have a pitch-perfect chemistry and their duets showcase their command of the bel canto style. 

HGO Studio alumnus Liam Bonner returns in the role of Sergeant Belcore, combining his gift of comic acting and timing with a lyric baritone. Audiences who’ve seen his work during his time in the Studio will flat-out delight in his musical growth. Alessandro Corbelli is a delight as Dr Dulcamara, and his pattering aria hawking his amazing elixir is one of production’s highlights. So is the manic, miming Adam Van Wagoner, the actor portraying Dr. Dulcamara’s assistant who, without singing a note, lifts the spirit of this show to the rafters. 

Arriving at HGO straight from this year’s Glyndebourne Festival, this is a sunny, stunning production with sets and costumes by Lez Brotherston and lighting by Giuseppe di Iorio that wonderfully capture a village “somewhere in Italy.” Annabel Arden’s direction happily bounces the opera along, demonstrating both unrelenting joy and great tenderness over the love story at hand. 

Conductor Edoardo Muller, who was last seen at HGO conducting the equally joyous La Cenerentola, lifts brilliant melodies from the HGO orchestra, every note underscoring the wistful frivolity of the story. And throughout, the HGO Chorus is simply wonderful. The Elixir of Love proves once again why HGO is one of the finest opera companies in the country, delivering a warm and witty commentary on manners and love, with great, big heart.

Photo by Felix Sanchez: Ekaterina Siurina and the HGO Chorus

MARY POPPINS

24 Oct

mary poppins pic

Broadway Across America, Hobby Center 

By JOHN DeMERS 

As musical retreads from Walt Disney movies (a major genre on Broadway this past decade) go, Mary Poppins is practically perfect. 

Yes, of course. That’s the magical London nanny’s famous description of herself, and who among us can’t hear the words pronounced by Julie Andrews in our heads – though she and the film’s creators felt no need to build a whole darn song around it. Truth is, the songs they did feel a need for – “Feed the Birds,” “Let’s Go Fly a Kite,” “Chim Chim Cher-ee,” “Step in Time” and of course “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious” – are the heart and soul of the current stage version. And they’ve never sounded better. 

Still, by looking beyond the 1964 film to the books by P.L. Travers that began appearing in the 1930s, big-bucks producers Cameron Mackintosh and Disney have found enough new twists and turns to keep us guessing a little. While Mary herself played by Ashley Brown and Bert played by Gavin Lee, both touring directly from Broadway, remain as luminous as Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, the story’s namesake character has become snippier, more full of herself, perhaps simply weirder in a belovedly British sort of way. And the kids she nannies – Jane and Michael Banks, so cute and mostly cuddly in the movie – have become the sort of little terrors the Brits do so well. The kind, in short, who require someone like Mary Poppins to transform them. 

Sadly, not one of the new songs crafted for the stage by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe (of Honk! semi-fame) comes even close to the legacy of brothers Richard M. and Robert B. Sherman, who wrote for Mary Poppins and several other Disney hits. The new stuff is mostly reach-for-the-heavens, you-can-do-anything balderdash, sounding like an Army commercial but with a less catchy tune. But… they do fill in the blanks, as does some new, fade-into-the-woodwork dialogue. 

Karl Kenzler brings special life to hard-working father George Banks, well-matched by Megan Osterhaus as wife Winifred. George in particular gets more reality in the musical than in the film, his overwork at the bank tied to an evil nanny he had as a child – who actually gets to show up here.  On the other hand, the show’s creators give poor George one of the evening’s few utterly false notes, having him finally tell his bosses at the bank that from now on, “my family comes first.” To George Banks and virtually all men up until about, oh, April 17, 1968, working all day and all night meant his family came first. In lieu of beer and loose women. Or fishing. This is a discordantly contemporary phrase for a discordantly contemporary idea, one you won’t hear at the end of the film as George trundles wife and kids off to fly that metaphorical kite. In other words, kites fly much better before Dr. Phil gets ahold of them. 

The touring production at the Hobby Center is lovely to look at, thanks to scenic and costume design by Bob Crowley and lighting design by Howard Harrison. Matthew Bourne’s choreography takes up where the movie left off, doing amazing things with dance to replace the mix of live action and animation that was so amazing in pre-CGI 1964. And the now-mandatory special effects – Mary flying above the audience like a sedate Peter Pan, Bert dancing up one wall, across the ceiling and down the other – delight us no matter how much we notice the cables. 

In the end, there was nothing Mackintosh and Disney could do to make us forget the film. In fact, as they surely knew all along, the more we love the movie, the more we’ll love their practically perfect musical.

GRUESOME PLAYGROUND INJURIES

22 Oct

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Alley Theatre through Nov. 15 

By JOHN DeMERS 

This powerhouse, the first work to reach the stage via the Alley’s New Play Initiative, is a 90-minute, no-intermission tragedy with more belly laughs than all but the finest comedies. It may also be a piece of living literature. Living because it’s set before us by two fine young actors, rather than handed to us as words printed in a book. Literature because it achieves grace and power not primarily from action, costumes or sets but from its profoundly nuanced language. I’ve never been one to enjoy reading plays. For Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries, I might consider making an exception. 

Sensitively directed by Rebecca Taichman, Selma Blair and Brad Fleischer give us two characters seen at different moments between the ages of 8 and 38. Kayleen and Doug are certainly friends, though they may be alternately good or bad for each other. We never see them become lovers, yet it is clear that each is the love of the other’s life. Both are haunted by pain and loss, but in very different ways: Kayleen by the lifelong desire to hurt herself, Doug (to the audience’s delight) by the tendency to fall into some very creative accidents. There is nary a meaningful piece of Doug that won’t be broken, sliced up, poked out, gouged or crushed in the course of this play. And in the process, yes, hilarity nearly always ensues. 

One of the central tricks Joseph uses here is the jumbling up of chronology. Hollywood would surely make a neater, more predictable tale, no doubt leading to an ending full of hope. Joseph keeps showing us something that might be the end, then taking us to back to an earlier scene before transporting us to an even later one. No, this isn’t like life – for life is nothing if not chronological. It’s more like a dream – often a bad dream for Kayleen and Doug – but it’s mostly just the coolest way Joseph can think of to keep our interest while developing his story. 

Blair and Fleischer are incredible in their evocation of the characters’ fast-changing ages, easily playing 20-somethings and 30-somethings but also becoming convincing kids of 8 and 13. Fleischer makes good use of his significant stage experience, including work in an earlier Joseph drama called Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. Blair, making her live theater debut after plenty of film and TV work, seems as comfortable in the new zone as one of Shakespeare’s veteran players. 

The play never actually stops, each vignette ushered into the next by one or both of the actors putting away shoes, jackets and other props right in front of us to pull out what’s required next. This is accomplished within a beautifully spare set (by Riccardo Hernandez) that lines the four sides of a square floor with drawers that open and shut, each cabinet topped with a kind of glass channel full of water. For most of the early going, there is a bed at the center that, with changes of sheets, pillows and a handful of other things, acts as home to any number of developments. At times, the bed looks and feels more like an altar – but more on that in a moment.

If the temptation is to encounter Gruesome as some post-modern, post-Beckett really black comedy, it is (time and again) Joseph’s quietly poetic language that lifts the story and occasionally our hearts. It becomes clear, for instance, even as the timeframes jump backward, forward and back again, that something meaningful happened between Kayleen and Doug on the night of her father’s wake. That moment, when we finally are allowed to enter into it, is indeed a bloodletting in more ways than one. But it also may be the most touching (if most bizarre) declaration of love in the history of the world. 

Joseph’s language – while struck through with natural profanities between two adults who love, hate and repeatedly injure each other, as well as with childhood traditionals like “stupid,” “retarded” and “gross” – trembles with an additional layer of meaning drawn from what might seem the least likely source. 

It’s no accident that our earliest encounter with Kayleen and Doug is at their Catholic elementary school, and indeed the rich language of Catholic liturgy deepens the action, whether audience members notice or not. There is talk of healing, even the laying on of hands. There is water, as in baptism into new life, as in washing away sins. There are clothes, folded and unfolded like vestments through the church year. There are angels mentioned repeatedly, even the way two people may (or may not) be each other’s guardian angels. And there are near-constant references, verbal and ultimately visual, to blood – linking the painful Way of the Cross we’re forced to watch to the sacrifice and sacrament believers find in the Mass. 

Unlike the Mass, however, Rajiv Joseph’s Gruesome Playground Injuries offers us no perfectly rounded, perfectly glorious story arc that invites us all to “go in peace.” There is no peace for Kayleen and Doug, not then and not now, presumably not ever. But for us, there is the catharsis of having traveled their deeply felt and brilliantly evoked Via Dolorosa right alongside them.

Photo by Kevin Berne: Selma Blair and Brad Fleischer in the Alley’s Gruesome Playground Injuries.

QUIRKY WORKS TEXAS

19 Oct

Houston Met Dance

Blending an athletic and technically virtuosic mix of ballet, jazz, modern and contemporary dance as their signature style of movement,  Houston Metropolitan Dance Company presents Quirky Works Texas at the Cullen Theater on Saturday November 14 at 8 p.m.  

The performance program features three works created for the company in 2009 including: Where Beauty Washes the Soul by Randall Flinn; Elevated by Salim Gauwloos; and History by Braham Logan Crane.   Guest companies Travesty Dance Group/Houston and CORE Performance Company each perform a work on the evening program.  Tickets for Quirky Works Texas are available for $10 to $35 on-line at the Houston Met Web site or by calling (713) 522-6375. 

Flinn’s work for Houston Met Dance features the music of Yo Yo Ma and Ennio Morricone.  Flinn describes his new work as “truly pure movement, not contrived or worked, but simply experienced and given in return.” Elevated examines Gauwloos’ interest in an after life of “perfect balance and harmony” informed his work, set on 11 dancers this past June.  Gauwloos created a work of quiet reverence that builds to an exuberant conclusion. 

Braham Logan Crane re-set his seven section dance theater piece, History on the 13-member company this month.  The 32-minute piece includes music; multi-media projections and precise movement that informs a narrative that celebrates life. 

Travesty Dance Group/Houston reprises their 2008 work, Raw Silk, choreographed by Karen Stokes, which is inspired by the cool hypnotic jazz sounds of Bill Ryan, combined with intricate gestures melded with explosive athleticism to mezmerizing effect. CORE Performance Company will perform Alicia Sánchez’s work Tus Pasos Encontrados (Your Found Steps) which brings to life poignant, frantic characters in a surreal landscape of solitude, desperation, and humor. 

Quirky Works was created by Michelle Smith, executive director of Houston Metropolitan Dance Company in 2003 to showcase the company and offer it the opportunity to travel and present its work nationally.  Over the past seven years, Houston Met Dance has shared the performance bill with Altered Modalities, California; Eisenhower Dance Ensemble, Michigan; Chrysalis Dance Company, FLY Dance Company, Michele Brangwen Dance Ensemble, all of Houston; and Tapestry Dance Company of Austin.

ADVENTURES OF ZOMBIE GIRL

19 Oct

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Aurora Picture Show presents a screening of Zombie Girl: The Movie, along with a special talk by the Zombie girl herself, Emily Hagins, this coming Saturday and Sunday. The Saturday screening will take place at 8 p.m. at DiverseWorks Art Space, with filmmaker Erik Mauck in attendance. On Sunday, a video salon with Ms. Hagins will follow at the Aurora Video Library, 1524 Sul Ross, at 1 p.m. 

Zombie Girl: The Movie is a documentary by Austin filmmakers Mauck,  Justin Johnson and Aaron Marshall that chronicles the creative passion of Emily Hagins, an extraordinary pre-teen girl following her dreams for two heartbreaking years as she makes a feature length zombie film. With the help of her mother as agent, crew, and biggest fan, Emily launches an epic adventure in genre filmmaking, battling everything from budget shortfalls to self-doubt, all while coming of age as a teenager. Emily has the vision and her mom has the driver’s license. Together, their journey is an enlightening look at a growing world of young moviemakers and the bloodiest mother/daughter story you’ve ever seen. 

An avid film lover, Emily had written several screenplays before her tenth birthday. But it was not until she turned 11 that she saw her very first zombie movie (UNDEAD), which inspired her to make her first feature length movie. Not only did Hagins write the screenplay for the zombie feature, but she also directed, raised funds (and was awarded money from the Austin Film Society grant), did the camera work, co-produced, and edited the movie. Hagins will show clips from her film, Pathogen, and discuss her experience as a filmmaker at Sunday’s salon discussion. 

Admission to the Saturday screening of Zombie Girl: The Movie is $7 for non-members and free for Aurora Picture Show members. The Sunday afternoon video salon with Emily Hagins is free and open to the public. RSVPs are requested at aurora@aurorapictureshow.org.

GREAT COLLABORATORS – A Review

18 Oct

firebird DWDT

Dominic Walsh Revisits Ballets Russes

By JOHN DeMERS 

The much-anticipated Dominic Walsh tribute to Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes on that company’s 100th birthday – with three out of the four pieces being world premieres – has come and gone, and it must be accorded a success by any means of measurement. The Saturday night audience alone, swelled to sellout status by playing centerpiece to a black-tie fundraiser, included Walsh’s former Houston Ballet mentor Ben Stevenson and several dancers from his years with that company. All turned out to show their support, of course, and also to see Walsh’s sure-to-be personal take on some of the most iconic ballet moments of the entire 20th century. 

There was considerable variation in style among the three pieces rolled out before intermission, so preference for one over the others tended toward the subjective. For my money, L’Apres-midi d’un Faun – originally associated with Nijinsky but also performed to acclaim by Nureyev late in his career – was by far the strongest thing in Act I. La Mort du Cygne (the showy performance piece known in English as The Dying Swan) remained the evening’s weakest.  And the single creation that was not a world premiere, another Nijinsky signature called Le Spectre de la Rose, fell somewhere in between.      

Afternoon of a Faun, featuring the typical shiveringly beautiful music of Debussy, made for a stageful of lithe, slender young bodies, male and female, all involved in a kind of graceful romp through the perfection of nature. With Walsh himself as The Creator, the Faun (beautifully danced by Ty Parmenter) and the so-called Orefaun (strikingly embodied by the almost unnaturally tall, thin Randolph Ward) found new and  beautiful ways to use their bodies while, particularly in the case of the Faun, evoking the handful of Japanese-influenced silhouette poses made part of our culture by early photographs of Nijinsky. Wisely, Walsh saved Afternoon to send audiences out to intermission impressed indeed. 

Spectre is a much simpler story with a much smaller cast. A young woman falls asleep in a chair after returning from a ball, presumably her first. As she sleeps, the spirit of the rose she wore rises up, dances around her dramatically and eventually takes her out of the chair to dance with him. It is a striking call to full womanhood, to a romantic and clearly sexual awakening, danced knowingly but also with restraint and tenderness by DWDT’s Domenico Luciano as the Spectre and Felicia McBride as the Young Woman. The only false note was the piece’s ending – which involved the girl enjoying a kind of back-arching orgasm on the floor at the close of her dream. Ironically, in the original from the early 1900s, it was the Faun who got to enjoy a solitary orgasm in his then-scandalous final moments. In Walsh’s variation, it was as though the orgasm transferred itself from one ballet to the other. 

Really, not much needs to be said about The Dying Swan. Intended to forget the feathers and tell the story of a woman facing her mortality, it came off as little more than Noel Coward gone maudlin. We see a woman done up in 1930s elegance (her hair, makeup and costume provided by Houston’s own Ceron), smoking a cigarette and sipping a martini. Then, as though left alone to her thoughts, we watch her body go through a series of awkward spasms that only begin to make sense whenever they resemble a bird flapping its wings. Finally, just to drive the meaninglessness of all this home, the woman seems to return to herself and her martini. In truth, The Dying Swan was always a very slight excuse for some great ballerinas to show off their ability to be gracefully bird-like. Stripped by Walsh of that single illusion, there really wasn’t much left. 

The evening’s showpiece was the world premiere of Walsh’s Firebird, set to Stravinsky’s soul-stopping music and starring Marie-Agnes Gillot of the Paris Opera Ballet as The Woman and Luciano as Her Husband. These brief, noncommittal ID’s speak to the ambiguity that haunts this lengthy, physical and at times wildly acrobatic piece – and that in its best moments, makes it so haunting. The story is presented as a kind of flashback, showing a comfortably lifeless couple caught in middle age (except for their high level of dancing, that is). They are trapped in a long, drawn-out, silent recrimination over an affair the man suspects his wife once indulged in, perhaps many years earlier. The ballet relives their story, from first love to the affair to the very brink of violent revenge, many of the moves overtly sexual and, in the case of Gillot, most performed in black bra and panties. 

In taking what is traditionally an exotic story filled with bright, cascading red costumes from some ancient kingdom far away and turning it into a contemporary domestic drama, Walsh seems to be speaking to not only the secrets we all carry but the dark dramas that roil beneath our oh-so-calm surfaces. The ballet culminates with a courageous decision to come clean and seek absolution, and a mature vow to love one another older, wiser and perhaps truly for the first time. Strangely, if you tried to think of one scene from your own life that might merit the type of timpani-rolling, brass-crazed fanfares Stravinsky gives to these final moments, it would surely have to be a scene akin to this. 

Whatever else can be said about this Firebird as choreography, Gillot and Luciano were incredible in it. She in particular brought her long legs to wrap sensually around anything and everything in sight, and alternately to spread, stretch and rise up suggestively from floor, table, even more than once from Luciano’s back as she rolled across him. Sex was everywhere in this piece, breaking free of all repression. Considering the revolutionary work done by the choreographic, musical and design talent unleashed by the Ballets Russes on one unsuspecting new century, this sexuality seemed entirely apropos to an even newer one.

Photo: Luciano and Gillot in Walsh’s new Firebird.

NIGHT OF THE GIANT – A Review

11 Oct

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Mildred’s Umbrella Theater Company

www.mildredsumbrella.com 

By NANCY WOZNY 

Kafka was quoted as saying a good novel should be like a blow to the head. Then John Harvey’s new play, Night of the Giant, produced by Mildred’s Umbrella, is at least a blunt object to the frontal cortex. It’s not an easy ride, but one to ponder, wrestle with and puzzle through with all your literary faculties in the ready position. 

The play opens with fraternal twins Barbara and Clare, who never quite got over causing their beautiful mother’s death in childbirth, holding their father hostage in their decaying living room.  Dad or “It,” bound and hooded, slithers about like a captive pet, while the sisters babble fantasies of their royal lineage. Like a pair of Mrs. Haversham’s distant cousins, they are determined to relive the past and remake the future in a kind of call and response banter. 

The two retell the tale of their deformed brother James, their father’s nasty habit of fashioning playmates for James through unspeakable acts, and their eventual choice to bag up James in a dumpster. They tell their tale like a nightly re-enactment ritual. Eventually, the truth comes out and it’s not pretty, but nor is it a garden variety of violence—more the stuff of nightmares and mythology. Think Brothers Grimm, but grimmer. 

The three-person cast completely understands Harvey’s idiosyncratic approach to language, which is both formal and detached. Jennifer Decker imbues Claire with a bewitching clarity and shrewd determination. Amy Warren gives Barbara, the softer sister, a wonderful loony edge. She is positively diabolical when she polishes a new light bulb, a hilarious choice considering her housekeeping skills. Decker and Warren’s chemistry provides stability in Harvey’s wildly meandering script. Walt Zipprian as Joe/Dad/It spends the entire play with a burlap sack over his head and still manages to command the space. 

Harvey directs with a disciplined hand, letting the more formal notes push to the center. There’s a musicality in his phrasing, which makes perfect sense as a small chamber orchestra sits slightly off to the side, making the setting all the more weird. According to Barbara, it’s a gift to dad who asked for music. What a gal. Elliot Cole’s original score adds a melancholic splendor—somber, nostalgic, and just beautiful enough to lure the listener into this sordid world. The fine orchestra included Melody Yenn (cello), Amanda Witt (clarinet), Lauren Winterbottom (oboe), Molly Marcuson (recorded harp) and Cole on harmonium. 

Wayne Barnhill creates a disturbingly squalid living room that feels just plopped down.  The play could be placed anywhere like a portable snow globe, largely due to Barnhill’s sense of no boundaries. In fact, Mildred’s Umbrella performed Night of the Giant in three venues. Ratty furniture, an empty bird cage with feathers strewn about and a side table crafted from what looks like old chicken bones conjure a world where something terrible just happened the moment before the lights went up.  It’s a fragile world, as if one exhale could turn this whole cosmos into ashes. Kelly Robertson cleverly costumes Claire in a soiled prom dress and Barbara in a 1940s suit complete with a dead animal fur stole. Kevin Taylor’s lighting design blurs the edges just enough to keep us squirming in our seats. 

So what do to with this material? You can go on a paradox scavenger hunt: there are gory details told in formal prose, a sense of claustrophobia with no clear container and an unsettling aftertaste soothed by haunting music. You can take the lit-wonk approach and mine influences of various creation myths and the seminal work of Pinter, Beckett and their gang. Harvey also mentions influences from Jose Donoso’s Obscene Bird of Night and Tom Wait’s Alice in his program note. The nod to Martin McDonagh’s work, specicially, The Pillowman, is ever present. That will keep you busy as Harvey operates with a considerable arsenal of references at his disposal. Or you can enjoy the play as a new chapter in Gothic theater, gruesome but strangely compelling and funny, if you allow yourself to see its glorious, absurd contours. 

I prefer to look at Harvey’s play in its broad strokes. Who could deny a certain timeliness in a looking at people who take every ounce of their energy to believe false truths in the “news as fiction” era that we have all grown so complacent with. A volatile world held together by a threadbare promise of two disillusioned characters seems a familiar scenario. Don’t societies bag up their crimes all the time? 

The lights go down as Barbara and Clare sew dear old dad in a bag, and in a final moment of unity, face each other with ultimate resolve to contain the truth as they know it. Night of the Giant isn’t exactly a play you would want to follow you home down the narrow, dimly lit back alley of your psyche, but chances are, it will anyway. 

Photo by Anthony Rathbun