Archive | January, 2011

Our Review of Stages’ ‘Oh, the Humanity’

29 Jan

By JOHN DeMERS

Have you ever gone to a play, sat in an audience that clearly enjoyed the evening – had a “good time” – and then found in the lobby that few people agreed on the meaning of what they’d just seen? That’s something like seeing the new Stages production of Will Eno’s Oh, the Humanity and other exclamations. In fact, that’s exactly like seeing it.

The New York-based Eno is, by popular acclimation, a dazzlingly gifted playwright. Such works as Thom Paine (based on nothing) and The Flu Season have found small but passionate audiences here in Houston, thanks to the more experimental theatrical fringe like Mildred’s Umbrella and Nova Arts Project. For works like these, setting up camp at Stages next door to pop entertainments like The Marvelous Wonderettes is a step toward the mainstream indeed. Yet the lobby comments established beyond doubt that, if the “mainstream” means a clear, basic meaning strung around an evening of fun, then Eno happily hasn’t gone there yet.

Humanity is quite dark in its vision of human life (words like “tragic” and even “depressing” were tossed around in the lobby, though I object to the second one), but so were words like “lively,” “funny” and even “hilarious.” There was disagreement about what comedy actually is, what “funny” actually means, plus one guy who maintained that all those people laughing in the audience weren’t really laughing. I assured him that I was, thinking all the while of my favorite description of Eno’s work: Samuel Beckett for the Jon Stewart generation. Apparently so.

The hour-and-a-quarter intermission-free production seems brief enough, but then you see it’s actually five even shorter plays joined by a towering white backdrop that keeps blowing out windows like old tires as the weather and ultimately the seasons change. Time seems to be involved somehow, but since the characters are different in each vignette, we don’t see anyone aging or evolving. We simply bump into them, scramble to figure out what they’re doing with their lives and why, and, best of all, listen to them talk.  People talking is Eno’s best thing.

Like a hipper, more contemporary Tom Stoppard, Eno is one of the few playwrights who still power their plays on incredibly rich language – more than plot (obviously, here), more than characterization as we typically understand it, and definitely more than action. In Oh, the Humanity’s five not-so-easy pieces, he gives us five sets of people in five mostly mundane circumstances – then arms them with a powerful vocabulary of longing, desire, hope, wistfulness and despair that continually breaks through our daily babble to form poetry on the air. I can’t count the dozens of times I wanted to stop and ponder a line in Humanity, only to be hustled on by the next line and the one after that. If this is intellectual entertainment, so be it. But it comes with a high degree of strong emotion and an even higher degree of grudging identification with these characters’ ultimately sad (or maybe tragic, but also totally normal) fates. 

Wonderfully directed by Alex Harvey, only three actors make all this stuff come to life – led by veteran Philip Lehl, who opens the show as a football coach holding a news conference to explain, or address, or maybe just react to yet another losing season. At every moment in this familiar media jockfest in front of microphones, you can’t tell if he’s talking about football, lost love or the entirety of human existence. Mikelle Johnson and Erik Hellman shine, with and without Lehl, in other vignettes – especially when they share the stage as two singles making videos about themselves for a dating service. Neither knows, or probably ever meets, the other; yet their time before the cameras is real, funny and touching – and yes, damn it, maybe a bit tragic. Much the same is true of the playette about the airline spokeswoman addressing families of crash victims and of the two photographers staging a photograph (of us, the audience) that mirrors a famous one of soldiers on San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.

By the time we reach the final piece, titled “Oh, the Humanity,” we see an attractive couple get dressed for work and then fail to make their car start. They discover, much to their dismay, that at least one of the reasons it won’t start is that it’s actually two chairs placed side-by-side on a theater stage. Huh? In real time, this is a lovely, question-spinning vignette. We’re forced to wonder how much of what we live as real life is simply part of a stage set, part of everything we believe in that’s not actually there. Yes. And even as we’re forced to ponder the relative reality of our lives, we realize along with two characters speaking of baptisms and funerals – and another speaking of “majesty” – that there’s a pretty severe case of brevity as well.

The audience laughs at this, recognizing themselves way too much for comfort. I, for one, thought it was mostly funny. But then again, we don’t know what funny even means.

Our Review of Opera in the Heights ‘Don Carlo’

28 Jan

By JOHN DeMERS

Despite one of Verdi’s most convoluted and machinery-clunky plots (boy, that’s saying a lot), and despite being his longest opera (the original in Paris was trimmed because people were missing the last train to the suburbs at midnight), go see Don Carlo by Opera in the Heights for the magnificent singing.

The OH chorus is as wonderful as ever and, moved here and there by gifted stage director Brian Byrnes, spends less time than usual being moved here and there. And the leads, in opening night’s Emerald Cast, are some of the most incredible we’ve heard at OH in years. Verdi, to his credit, did fill Don Carlo with orchestral interludes that (as conducted here by Enrique Carreon-Robledo) become their own lush, lyrical chamber concerts, plus his typical assault of stirring arias, duets, trios and quartets. The guy definitely never met a singing voice he didn’t know how to do something with. And take heart as you sneak a glance at your watch: OH spares us the ballet that used to be performed in the middle.

Oddly, the completely unbelievable storyline is that thing modern Hollywood loves best: Based on a True Story. There really was a Don Carlo, who lost his betrothed to his very own father as part of a peace treaty between two powerful dynasties. Verdi doesn’t even change most of the names, though the fact that much of the action seems to concern the politics of Spain and Flanders is enough to give any American education pause. There’s mostly Spain in the 16th century, complete with a Grand Inquisitor you have to beware of and plenty of monks making the sign of the cross. Happily, it’s mostly a love story. Sadly, even though there are tons of swords brandished throughout Don Carlo’s four acts, steel never once clanks against steal. This must be a testament to Byrnes’ reserve, since he stages the swordplay for almost every theater company in town.

A lot of the vocal fireworks are supplied by soprano Emily Newton. Originally from south of us in Lake Jackson, she is now signed to cover (understudy) a major role at the Met in New York City – an immense vote of confidence in her abilities, whether she ever gets to sing a note. She sings quite a few of them in this Don Carlo, and her performance, at every level, is as smooth, as lovely to listen to and, yes, as confident as many on that New York stage she soon hopes to call her own. Newton’s voice is well-matched to that of tenor Neil Darling as Carlo, who gets to recall their brief moments of love whenever he’s not committing his sword and life to making a better Flanders.

And it just wouldn’t be Don Carlo without the male-bonding between the hero and his friend/co-conspirator Rodrigo. Daniel Lickteig brings his powerful baritone to the party, as does Alexander Scopino with his ringing yet also emotive bass in the role of King Philip II, who gets to marry his son’s best girl. Two other standouts are Eric Kroncke, who devotes his unrelenting bass to making the Grand Inquisitor actually frightening, and lovely soprano Rachael Ross, who spends the whole evening in trousers as Tebaldo. Mezzo soprano Jennifer Kosharsky is flawless as the jealous princess sharing a name with a dangerous virus, Eboli. You have to give her full credit, even though the role is so poorly drawn in dramatic terms that we hear her sing vaguely about what she’s going to do and then, at least as vaguely, about what she has done. We never actually see her do anything. But she sings really well.

The impressively minimalist production – scenic design by Mark Kobak, prop design by Kevin Holden, costumes by Dena Scheh – is everything an OH opera should aspire to be: simple, probably not wildly expensive, and completely supportive of the drama. And did I mention: quick and easy to change between scenes, usually by chorus members themselves? My only personal quibble is the dresses, if that’s what they are, hung on the main female leads. The ladies are made to resemble Tom Cruise as a samurai: all odd solid outcroppings and mysterious angles. Knowing that costumers are historical accuracy fetishists, I trust there’s some basis for these dresses. But they are so distorting and unflattering to the female form that I can see why Hollywood never put them on any movie stars in its epics.

Don Carlo, weekends through February 5. www.operaintheheights.org.

Photos by Gwen Turner Juarez: (top) Neil Darling and Emily; (middle) Darling with the monks.

Our Review of HGO’S ‘Dead Man Walking’

23 Jan

By JOHN DeMERS

Of all the murderers I covered as a young UPI reporter on their way to Louisiana’s electric chair, and even for the one whose execution I witnessed as a representative of the state, there was only one I thought deserved to be killed: a smirking, hateful, unrepentant monster named Robert Lee Willie. And sometime before each of those many deaths, I put in the mandatory call to Sister Helen Prejean, the voice for all those who believed the state was doing wrong.

I certainly never for one moment suspected that with Dead Man Walking – Sister Helen’s book that became an Oscar-winning movie and even an opera now on display at the Wortham Center – the woman I called for that rather predictable quote would argue for the humanity of the only man I ever wished to see dead.

Watching Houston Grand Opera’s production of the Jake Heggie/Terrence McNally collaboration is a harrowing experience. You will feel utterly drained when the final notes are sung a cappella and the character of Joseph De Rocher (a composite of Willie and a couple other Louisiana killers) lies dead on that cruciform gurney, killed by lethal injection rather than by the chair known as “Gruesome Gertie” that had been his actual fate. To Sister Helen’s credit, and especially to the credit of McNally’s no-holds-barred libretto, we are spared nothing: not the horrific nature of the rape and double murder itself, and certainly not (as is often alleged in pro-death penalty circles) the suffering of the victims or of the loved ones they leave behind.

The brilliance of Dead Man Walking is that it grants us all that, and then challenges us to find any way the most brutal killer on this earth isn’t also a child of God. There is no way, we understand from the moving strains of Heggie’s music. And there is no way, we understand from Sister Helen’s insistence that the last face Joseph sees in this world be hers, because it will be for him the face of a loving Christ.  Beyond that truth, death penalty politics will have to wait until tomorrow.

Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, an alum of HGO’s Studio, dazzles quietly as Sister Helen, weaving in the proper amounts of self-doubt and some agonies of her own. And she is given the perfect foil in baritone Philip Cutlip, who plays De Rocher with every ounce of bravado he can muster until his final breakdown, in which he and Sister Helen face the unvarnished truth of what he did. Movies are a different medium from opera, and certainly Sean Penn deserved every award he got for his film performance – and for looking way too much like Robert Lee Willie, if you ask me. But Cutlip manages to deliver much the same intensity while singing all his lines – while also, at the start of Act II, doing pushups in his Death Row cell.

Frederica von Stade, an international opera star for more than four decades, is appearing in her friend Heggie’s HGO production as her farewell to the art form. Regulars will recall her tour de force performance in the composer’s Three Decembers in 2008. And they’ll understand at least one of the reasons she supports his work so passionately. Her two big moments as the killer’s mother (a role she’s been handling since the opera’s premiere in San Francisco 10 years ago) – her pleading before Louisiana’s Pardon Board and her final face-to-face goodbye to her son – are withering. She is, we come to see more clearly than we wish, yet another victim of his murders.

As in Broadway’s Les Miserables, the set of Dead Man Walking becomes the cruelest character of all. Designed by Michael McGarty and lit by Brian Nason, the huge, moving, mechanical monster of prison bars, stairs and catwalks becomes, in the end, exactly what De Rocher calls it: the Death Machine that will, with stunning premeditation, take his life.    

Photos be Felix Sanchez: (top) Joyce DiDonato and Philip Cutlip take the last walk; (bottom) Frederica von Stade pleads for her son’s life.

Our Review of ‘God of Carnage’ at the Alley

20 Jan

By JOHN DeMERS 

Somewhere back in the mists of my childhood, I remember seeing something about an experiment involving lab mice. It was probably on black-and-white television, where so much of my childhood took place, and it (if I recall) placed several small dark mice in a sanitized, all-white environment and then started doing mean things to them. If we administer electric shock, what will the mice do? If we apply loud noise, what will they do? If we start filling the environment with water, what will they do? 

This, of course, was before computer models would make the mice themselves unnecessary, though without actual mice at some point, we probably wouldn’t have had any computer models. And it certainly was before animal rights groups would have been protesting loudly outside. The whole idea was that if we watched what mice did under different kinds of pressure, we might learn something about what we would do. Times were simpler then. 

I don’t know if French playwright Yasmina Reza ever saw the same experiment on television that I saw, or at least saw the computer models that surely grew out of it. But her huge Broadway hit God of Carnage, originally driven by an all-star cast from TV and the movies, shows every sign of similar inspiration. She takes four people – two married couples, though you wouldn’t guess it from the way they act sometimes – and sets them down in a sanitized, all-white environment, and then lets various pressures “make” them tear each other apart. Oh, and yes, she makes us in the audience laugh wildly through the whole thing. 

Audiences members with any life experience will probably see some of themselves in each and every one of the four, though never for very long. That’s the brilliance of the play. Two civilized couples agree to meet and discuss a situation: one of their sons has hit the other with a stick and knocked out a couple teeth. We’re smart, we’re reasonable, we’re civilized – and absolutely, we are all so adult. We can simply chat over coffee and decide on a fair course of action. Well, as it turns out, no. Not only does this coffee talk disintegrate into cursing, screaming, and way too-much-information, but when the coffee is replaced by 10-year-old rum from Antigua, it’s something like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf performed by the Marx Brothers. 

Sadly for the stargazers among us, the production of Carnage currently on display at the Alley does not feature James Gandolfini, Jeff Daniels, Hope Davis and/or Marcia Gay Harden (who, it now turns out, are all returning to their Broadway roles for a high-profile limited run this spring). What the production does have is a quartet of fine actors who’ve performed the play together already, at Seattle Repertory Theatre. 

Denis Arndt shines as the high-powered phamaceutical lawyer who can’t keep his cell phone off his ear, no matter how intense the in-person discussion, with Bhama Roget almost stealing the show as his wife with a tendency to drink rum until she throws up, not necessarily in that order. Hans Altwies and Amy Thone (who are married to each other in real life) try their best to stay civil as a happy, well-adjusted couple with all the right amounts of “caring” – except when they spend more time ripping into each other than into the couple whose son “disfigured” theirs. 

God of Carnage at the Alley is a wild ride. And though you’ll come away with no easy answers to the questions it raises about the savagery we all carry within, you should feel relieved that you didn’t have to be the lab mice.

Photos by Chris Bennion: (top) Hans Altwies, Denis Arndt and Bhama Roget; (bottom) Amy Thone, Arndt and Altwies.