Saturday, November 18, 2017

A plethora of Prokofiev: ISO opens weekend devoted to the Russian composer's piano concertos

Precocious and independent-minded, Sergei Prokofiev saw his mission as a composer from the keyboard outward. This perspective makes his piano concertos especially revealing of his personality. A restive student who took into adulthood a canny instinct for putting his best foot forward, he produced music that seems to admit no obstacles. In fact, he had to trim his sails upon his return to Stalinist Russia, but he proved able to do that too, despite feeling the regime's hot breath on his neck.

Of the five piano concertos he wrote, the three presented Friday night by the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra span 20 years on either side of the Revolution whose centenary is being observed this year. Crowning the set was No. 3 in C major, contemporaneous with the Bolshevik crucible out of which a new tyranny emerged from the old. Typically, the work, cobbled together between 1917 and 1921, goes its own glorious way without allusion to the great national struggle.

Local favorite Garrick Ohlsson returns for ISO's Prokofiev weekend.
As soloist for this durable masterpiece, the ISO could hardly have done better than Garrick Ohlsson. Now something of an elder statesman, Ohlsson has been in the forefront of American concert pianists since he won the Chopin International Competition in Warsaw in 1970. I first heard him the following year, playing an unusual recital in Ann Arbor that showed his adeptness in Baroque music as well as in early modern French and Spanish pieces.

His interpretation of the Prokofiev Third, smoothly coordinated with music director Krzysztof Urbanski's control of the orchestra, was quite well-knit. The piece itself is more consistently inspired than the other two concertos (Nos. 1 and 4)  presented Friday evening in Hilbert Circle Theatre. Ohlsson was scrupulously attuned to what was going on, or was about to happen, in the orchestra. Introducing the second theme of the first movement, for example, he used a very dry touch that almost seemed to promise: "You are about to hear castanets playing the same rhythm." And then you did. Furthermore, the way Ohlsson moved into the rapid passagework that climaxes the first movement had an uncommon blend of  grace and drive.

The variations of the second movement elaborated upon the memorable theme patiently, with a delicate rubato feeling between the piano and the accompaniment. The finale was rhythmically acute from all forces and featured some fine string tone in the lovely second theme. Its sudden interruption by the piano with "a quietly grotesque passage" — "locus classicus of Prokofiev's habit of 'stepping on the throat of his own song'" — here did not seem so drastic or bizarre as Alan Frank's description implies. Ohlsson treated its surprising quality tenderly, as if Prokofiev were simply stepping back from his wonderful melody to take stock before resuming the argument that brings the concerto to a spectacular conclusion.

Called back for an encore, Ohlsson apologized for not being able to offer anything else by Prokofiev except a piece that lasts 35 minutes (I wonder what that would be?), so he turned to Chopin: As he did four years ago in an ISO appearance, he offered an idiosyncratic interpretation of the Waltz in C-sharp minor, Op. 64, No. 2.  He filled the piece with many marvels, not all of which would be welcome to encounter many more times. It was certainly no cookie-cutter version, and he deserves credit for that.

Alon Goldstein presented the best possible case for two Prokofiev concertos
The concert's first half featured Alon Goldstein as soloist, starting with Concerto No 1 in D-flat major, op. 10.  Goldstein played like a Prokofiev specialist, which is not to say he might not be as satisfactory in other music. It's just that he seemed fully imbued with the Prokofiev spirit both here and in the Concerto No. 4 in B major, a work for the left hand alone that never found favor with the pianist who commissioned it, Paul Wittgenstein.

I love the succinctness with which Grove's Dictionary introduces its Prokofiev entry: "He established himself as a composer of heavily ironic, often wilful and unconventional music in the last years of tsarist Russia." Those qualities are amply evident in the 1912 D-flat major concerto. There is ample flair in the solo part, indicative of the composer's breezy self-confidence as a performer. The second movement opens with a gossamer clarinet solo and other nice touches, but turns into something too insistent, with a heavy climax. The finale includes a perky march, which might fit the description "heavily ironic."
Anna Vinnitskaya is the ISO's third featured piano soloist this weekend.

Yet Prokofiev's mood in the third-movement march strikes me as largely blithe and cheeky, typical of what the smartest kid in the class might turn out to show he could toss off a march as a way to set up a climax. His younger contemporary Dmitri Shostakovich, more under the thumb of the Soviet regime, indulged in more savage irony in his marches.

The left-hand concerto, with Prokofiev well-established internationally by 1931, seems more gratuitously exhibitionistic. Played with commendable flair and commitment by Goldstein, the performance survived rather loose coordination early in the first movement. Once it jelled, there was plenty of opportunity to note that the work shows Prokofiev as being more self-involved in his cleverness than usual: the passage in the piano's bass register underlined by the bass drum, for example. 

The lyricism of the second movement became pretty heavy. When he was less inspired, Prokofiev brought forth a lyrical manner that seems labored even when it is gentle. The third and fourth movements amounted to a fillip of virtuosity and panache in a work perhaps best appreciated by committed Prokofiev fans. 

The rest of this weekend's concerts bring back Goldstein for the Fourth,  Ohlsson for the Third and Fifth, and introduce Anna Vinnitskaya in two performances of the Second. Today's concert will be launched with Prokofiev's "Classical" Symphony. Exact schedules can be found on the symphony's website.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Brahms showcase: Two principals occupy the spotlight successfully in this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts

Cellist Austin Huntington: Makes debut as ISO member-soloist.
Featured soloists drawn from the orchestra usually don't have to do double duty. But when two principals of string sections are spotlighted in the same concerto, it's no wonder their services as section leaders are too valuable to do without, as is customary when they are featured soloists.

So it was in the first of this weekend's Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra concerts on Thursday morning, when concertmaster Zach De Pue and principal cellist Austin Huntington were on the Hilbert Circle Theatre stage throughout the Coffee Concert.

They led their respective sections in Joseph Haydn's Symphony No. 101 in D major ("The Clock"), then took up soloist positions to conductor Krzysztof Urbanski's left for Johannes Brahms' Concerto in A minor for Violin, Cello, and Orchestra. (For the remaining concerts keyed to the formidable Brahms "Double," the same composer's Variations on a Theme by Haydn will complete the program.)
ISO audiences have often heard Zach De Pue solo.

Huntington and De Pue had their work cut out for them in the concerto, a unique composition in the Romantic era. Once the solo concerto took root in the first half of the 19th century, bringing more than one soloist to the fore became rare.

Fortunately, the Brahms Double is both characteristic of the complex expressive nature of its composer and so well laid out that the soloists get to explore all sorts of interaction clearly.  There's considerable exchange of lyrical passages, some statement and counter-statement, and much wonderful digging in together, especially in the last movement.

The partnership Thursday was solid, much more than congenial. It seemed to reach beyond amity to register the grandest statement possible from two young masters — both of whom were hired for their positions while in their 20s (Huntington just barely out of his teens). The cello part, somewhat dominant overall, was always in good hands, from the opening recitative-like solo on.

Urbanski managed the accompaniment handsomely. The first tutti revealed some imprecision in the violins, but the material comes back frequently, and gradually it attained more unanimity Thursday. The wind colors in the second movement were bright yet unobtrusive. This movement also made evident the advantage of positioning the double basses on a higher platform along the back than I remember ever seeing them on. 

The finale may be Brahms' most imaginative use of the rondo form. The Gypsy vigor of the main theme is nicely set off against a variety of episodes, including some passages that, in this performance, helped lend suspense and heighten anticipation of the theme's return. More projection from the solo violin, perhaps a matter of acoustical variation around the hall, was the only thing lacking, especially toward the finale's climax, in a top-drawer exhibition of the strength the ISO enjoys in its first-chair first violins and cellos.

Urbanski opened the concert with one of Joseph Haydn's magisterial "London" symphonies. "The Clock," so named from the steady tick-tock of its Andante, was especially fetching in that movement. The episode in the minor made a startling entrance, creating an effective contrast with the measured propriety of the main theme. A measure of "grand pause" here was spoiled in its drolly dramatic effect by premature applause. Clapping between movements can be tolerated, but when the conductor is beating through just one measure where no one plays, and still applause intrudes, suspicions are stirred. 

The expansive minuet-and-trio movement was vigorously accented and retained its hold on the attention, though I didn't pick up on all the comical details that program host Doug Dillon told the audience to listen for. The controlled "driftiness" of the trio was slightly amusing, but I was mainly focused on the excellence of assistant principal flutist Rebecca Price Arrensen, sitting first chair at this concert.

The smooth-running finale brought out the best from the violins, who characterized its vigor about as well as they had in a much different atmosphere when leading the orchestra in the gently mysterious introduction to the first movement. In one of the episodes, the stirring Sturm und Drang recollection of an earlier Haydn period was most captivating, and the complex treatment of the main theme received scintillating treatment here. It was especially marvelous to notice Huntington's and De Pue's full-bore commitment to this busy music right before they were called upon to make glorious work of the Brahms Double.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

King's Singers put vocal treasure on display during their golden-anniversary tour stop at Clowes Hall

Everything was tinged with gold in the King's Singers concert Wednesday night at Clowes Hall. The male a cappella sextet is not long into a 14-month tour in
King's Singers: The current personnel of the nearly 50-year-old a cappella masters.
celebration of its founding in 1968 at King's College, Cambridge. And if many groups of its kind strike it rich from time to time, the King's Singers are Fort Knox.

Though what they offer is the result of discipline and musical insight, the six Englishmen seem to exhibit a kind of unfailing telepathy and spontaneous unanimity. Notes are attacked and released without the slightest blurring, and the sculpting of phrases has the flow and certainty of a master wood carver's. Dynamic variety is lent precisely without any blurting in the texture.

Whether the material  has a Renaissance pedigree or comes from its own lifetime, the King's Singers apparently won't rest without getting inside the right musical idiom for each piece and making a vibrant show of it. A brace of works from the far ends of its repertoire opened Wednesday's program to prove the point:
A setting of King's College founder Henry VI's prayer "Domine Jesu" was followed  by former ensemble member and brilliant arranger Bob Chilcott's "The Human Family," to a text by the revered American poet Maya Angelou. 

The latter work allowed the ensemble to exhibit a skill that was to return again and again: a knack for making the independence of each voice both stand out firmly and nestle comfortably within the texture. Accompaniment patterns almost invariably carry the same interest as the melody, which in any case tends to be passed around. Pitch security seemed unerring. 

The five voices of William Byrd's "Sing Joyfully" (a setting of Psalm 80) attained a special piquancy at the end, with crunchy dissonance at the final cadence. And, with all six men involved, a tricky arrangement of "Down by the Riverside" had them layering and rearranging the text skillfully and managing key changes without warping the blend.

Gentle humor as well as piety made for the King's Singers' most notable foray away from the Anglo-American orbit, in the four prayer settings of Francis Poulenc's "Salve Regina." The French composer's knack for fashioning plain-featured choral structures seems slightly exotic and whimsical came through particularly well in the third and fourth prayers.

The newest commission on the program, Nico Muhly's "The Door of This House," had that composer's slightly fey, idiosyncratic manner of flowering phrases subsiding into more closed, even inhibited patterns — all of it eventually making sense in a surprising way. That was a good place for intermission to occur, so that Muhly's  oddities could just hang in our heads for a while.

More conventional approaches to a cappella writing came in the second half with Richard Rodney Bennett's fervent setting of John Donne, "Sermons and Devotions," and John Rutter's fragrant interpretation of Caliban's enchanted speech about his island from Shakespeare's "Tempest."

Some putting away of the iPads and music stands allowed the sextet to move toward the end informally, in close formation to match its close harmonies. One of its hits, "You Are the New Day," made the expected good impression, and there was a pretty arrangement of "Scarborough Fair" to further charm the audience.

Even more fetching, and bringing into play some fun vocal techniques, was a wordless arrangement, with wah-wah mute imitations and other early-jazz novelties, of Duke Ellington's "Creole Love Call."  Finally, there was a spectacular, effusive rendition of Gershwin's "I Can't Sit Down," drawn from one of the few moments of collective happiness in the opera "Porgy and Bess." A bubbly South African encore  extended the collective happiness indelibly to the appreciative audience.

Each of the members acted as a genial spokesman from time to time. Prepared remarks with a few extemporaneous flourishes guided the audience and confirmed the gentlemen's charm, just as the music presented confirmed their skills. The golden-tour personnel is: Patrick Dunachie and Timothy Wayne-Wright, countertenors; Julian Gregory, tenor; Christopher Bruerton and Christopher Gabbitas, baritones, and Jonathan Howard, bass. 

They are certainly worthy successors to the ensemble I've cherished for many years on the 1975 LP "Courtly Pleasures." The pleasures offered by the King's Singers seem not to fade whether in or out of court. They are golden without tarnish.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Red Priest weaves its early-music spell with 21st-century charm at the Tarkington in Carmel

Red Priest is not your great-great-great-grandfather's early music group.
Enough mystery surrounds the life and career of Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741) that his nickname, the Red Priest, is a natural fit for an unconventional ensemble specializing on music of his era and before.

So Red Priest, a British quartet that became known to Indianapolis in the last decade through several appearances under the auspices of the Festival Music Society, returned Saturday night in a more mainstream milieu, the Classical Series of concerts presented this season by the Center for the Performing Arts.

"Gypsy Fever," as the group's presentation in the Tarkington was titled, emphasized the allure of Gypsy music for the high and low art of Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries. Red Priest does not shy away from doubling down on the cross-pollination. The last two pieces on the program, as the quartet interpreted two composers at the summit of its repertoire — Handel and Vivaldi — freely luxuriated in a harmonious blend of Gypsy and High Baroque styles.

Retitled "Concerto for the Imaginary Gypsies," Red Priest's adaptation of Vivaldi's Violin Concerto in A minor, RV 356 was a fitting choice for such a climactic exhibition of the blurred line, in terms of energy and figuration, between the High Baroque and the more demotic musical idiom of the Gypsies. They became an influential yet marginalized people who first introduced themselves to European culture in 14th-century Hungary. The finale of the original lent itself particularly well to transformation as a vehicle for Piers Adams, the recorder player,  and Adam Summerhayes, the violinist, to mount Gypsy-oriented fantasies upon the original.

Vivaldi's life involved some wandering toward the end, but his service to a school for orphan girls in Venice produced the bulk of the repertoire by which he's known today. Handel had wanderlust in his younger years, and gained a lot in Rome absorbing Italian aesthetics and opera technique, before he moved to England and built an adoring public. His aria, "Lascia ch'io piange," formed the basis for Red Priest's next-to-last number. The group imported the Gypsy-linked Hungarian czardas into the aria's melody; Handel himself used the tune in several different places in his output. For Red Priest, the result became "Lascia chi'o Czardas." The adaptability of Baroque composers clearly is part of Red Priest's brand, and it's no more to be scorned than its eccentric, individualized garb — bright colors, bold patterns, and the sheen of leather.

G.P. Telemann ventured east to Poland to acquaint himself with what to a North German would have seemed the essence of exoticism. Red Priest's concert opened with his  Gypsy Sonata in A minor, a vivid enough piece, full of Gypsy flourishes. That seemed tame in retrospect once the quartet launched into a Heinrich Biber sonata, full of bird calls and a high level of fluttering and flamboyance. Telemann, more cosmopolitan than his contemporary J.S. Bach, was further represented, to end the first half, with two movements of a Concerto in E minor. The Presto was to every extent a "Gypsy whirligig," as a Red Priest member described it from the stage. It featured the utmost in high-speed virtuosity from both Adams and Summerhayes.

Most of the music was memorized, a considerable achievement given the note-spinning the recorder player and the violinist are assigned. Cellist Angela East shouldered a lot of the burden as well. She executed highly decorated recitative passages with the same aplomb she brought to her basso continuo responsibilities.

Harpsichordist David Wright worked from the scores so as to anchor the ensemble harmonically and rhythmically. Red Priest arrangements tend not to permit any of the ensemble members much of a chance to settle down with one type of playing or a limited function within the ensemble. Adams made use of virtually the whole family of recorders, and Summerhayes played guitar and several other instruments, too.

Especially charming in this program as a relief from the most intense music were several short pieces from Uhrovska, a town in Slovakia where Red Priest discovered some dance tunes from about 1730.  These had a salt-of-the-earth simplicity of idiom. The music was obviously designed to be catchy and get villagers on their feet or singing along. 

Typically, Red Priest's arrangements stick close to the spirit of such original material while playing freely with it so as to put an idiosyncratic stamp upon it. The upshot was exhilarating from first to last.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Butler University launches a new musical-theater initiative with "The Threepenny Opera"

Buddies across the legal divide: Macheath (Isaiah Moore) and Tiger Brown (Reily Crouse)
A famous piece explicitly formed by adaptation is properly subject to further adaptation. Thus, the modifications that audiences at Butler University's production of "The Threepenny Opera" encounter don't fall into the category of "director's opera," in which stipulated settings for the works of Verdi and Wagner, for instance, are sometimes radically altered.

In one sense, then, the famous collaboration of Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill is always a director's opera whenever it is staged. And so William Fisher's stamp on this production is necessarily embedded in its presentation of the translation by Robert Macdonald (with lyrics spunkily rendered in English by Jeremy Sams).

Despite that excellence, I was reminded mainly through James Caraher's conducting of the Indianapolis Opera production of four years ago how pungent and essential Kurt Weill's music is. Caraher's animating presence for the Butler production imparts extra vivacity and dependable  support to the singers from the mostly student band.

With such vivid renditions of Weill's music as this one, it's probably true that John Gay's "Beggar's Opera," the 18th-century progenitor of the Brecht-Weill classic, lives today primarily through productions of the 1928 work of Brecht, Weill, and German-language adapter Elisabeth Hauptmann. Theater historians tell us, however, that Gay's original has held its own to a degree (George Washington, no less, was a fan), and "The Threepenny Opera" has often been disdained in comparison.

The Schrott Center for the Performing Arts is a fine place for such a production, with stage dimensions suitable to the Brecht manner of presentation: non-realistic, wedded to a vaudeville-style rendering of song and dialogue. The onstage band, behind Rob Koharchik's dark, iron-framed set of stairways and platforms (with a jail cell on the lower level present as needed), takes cues from the actors. The troupe, with stage-manager assistance, reorients the set as needed between scenes.

Fisher's direction emphasizes mugging and gestures directed toward the audience — a reminder of the "alienation effect" that Brecht pursued in order to blur the line between art and propaganda. The movement goes into and out of what is usually regarded as theater's "fourth wall."  We aren't to take these characters and their circumstances as separate from our world, in particular its inequality and unmet social needs.  Accordingly, the coronation in the background of the original here becomes a presidential inauguration, probably the most recent one.

That change is among several that is awkward at least in part, for the teeming metropolis in which this "Threepenny Opera" takes place is New York, not Washington, D.C. A gang of homeless street people on Manhattan streets on Inauguration Day, as threatened by the "beggar king" Peachum, would pose no embarrassment to the powerful in the nation's capital. Similarly, much of the lyrics and dialogue is Americanized, with a few ghosts of the English setting, such as references to the King, to men being "randy," and to an unwanted baby being disposed of "in the loo."

This potpourri of references aside, the production is assuredly better off not needing a dialect coach, an amenity that seemed to be lacking in the 2013 Indianapolis production. The urban underworld has a certain universality, after all, though no one cites it whenever "the brotherhood of man" is extolled. As a Communist, Brecht thought that point was particularly worth emphasizing.

With Glenn Williams as the slinky narrator guiding the story, the cast enacts the conflicts among the low-lifes, with the establishment represented by top cop "Tiger" Brown, played with a zesty ambiguity between "bromance" and bi-curiosity by Reily Crouse as a corrupt policeman thoroughly compromised by his affection for Macheath. The protagonist was played and sung by Isaiah Moore with a wealth of outsized expressions, especially in the songs. Though his ferocity with members of his gang was hard to believe at first, the character's manipulative selfishness and improvised suavity came through in a big way. Facing death near the end, this Macheath is both frightened and contemptuous before his delightfully staged and deliberately improbable rescue.

I must also cite the well-displayed venality and desperate self-centeredness of the Peachum family: As the paterfamilias and proprietor of a beggar-outfitting shop, Mike McClellan thundered his critique of the world he strives to succeed in in song after song, his diction and projection first-rate. "The Cannon Song," the scabrous duet with Macheath recalling their old army days, was riveting. His duets with Natalie Fischer as the sly, resentful Mrs. Peachum were among the show's highlights. When they sing slightingly of the romantic effect of "the moon over Soho," the reference neatly applies to both the London and the New York settings ("SoHo" being the decades-old designation of the Manhattan artist area "south of Houston Street").

Emma Summers struggled to project her voice at times, but her characterization of Polly triumphed in dialogue and song alike. Elizabeth Duis played her bitter rival Lucy Brown, and their interaction in duet and dialogue was scintillating, though the fast pace of the "Jealousy Duet" nearly threw them off-course. Mary Hensel as the prostitute ringleader Jenny made a particularly strong impression with her gory portrait-indictment of Macheath in the show's best-known number, the much-covered song known as "Mack the Knife." American pop singers have turned it into a celebration, but in context, the song resonates  alarmingly well in its implied challenge to  every modern society's chosen narrative of success and virtue.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Sean Imboden Big Band delivers on its promise as it settles in at the Jazz Kitchen

I first heard the Sean Imboden Big Band at the Jazz Kitchen in July. and its performance was most
Sean Imboden (left) leads his big band with somewhat different personnel earlier this year.
as a harbinger of excellence to come. With some of the same material and most of the same top-flight personnel, the 17-piece ensemble returned there Wednesday night.

A generously proportioned first set showed a firmer architectural approach to writing for a large group than I remembered from last summer. There were some thrilling moments, with trumpets summiting at the right places, but not too often. 

I was particularly impressed with the structure of Imboden's "Certified Organic," despite its woolly start. There the leader took one of his rare solos on tenor sax, running a few allusions to "Fascinating Rhythm" before guitarist Joel Tucker picked up a couple of his final phrases to launch his mellifluous solo. When the band returned, the ascent to a majestic ending seemed quite justified by what had gone before. 

Imboden's colleague, Matt Riggen, displayed similar formal integrity in his "Silent Aspect," which had bracing variety in the way Rob Dixon's intense soprano-sax solo yielded to Nick Tucker's low-key statement on the bass. That contrast was mirrored in the nicely balanced full-band diminuendo just before the end.

Some of the arrangements indicated how much rehearsal time for this band is at a premium. Imboden's oblique take on "Stella by Starlight" blossomed a little thickly. By the end, it was difficult to conclude whether the arrangement could use some pruning or a complex but well-integrated chart just needed more thorough preparation. 

Nonetheless, much of the music that posed difficulties as to balance and blending came off well. Imboden's ballad "Someone to Watch Over Us" featured a kind of concertino group, playing at first without the full rhythm section, of two flutes, bass clarinet, soprano sax, and arco bass. They forged a genuine unity — they were clearly listening to one another — and the piece included one of the set's several instances of smart placing of the accompaniment behind the soloist, this time for Amanda Gardier's fervent alto sax. A similar example was the way the band entered and coalesced behind the guitar solo in "Balcony."

There was no sign of uncertainty or wandering in any of the solos, probably because their contexts were always made so clear by the arrangements. The sturdiness of outings by trombonist Ernest Stuart and trumpeter John Raymond during Imboden's "Horizon" were complemented by the independent, mutually supportive writing for the band's sections.

The set ended with an arrangement of Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge" that was just as much fun as when I heard it in July.  This time, spirited exchanges between Dixon on tenor sax and LaMont Webb on alto were featured after a pungent Raymond solo.

Besides composer-conductors Imboden and Riggen, here's the complete personnel list as of this appearance by an excellent band that deserves a devoted following:

Reeds: LaMont Webb, Amanda Gardier, Rob Dixon, Matt Pivec, Evan Drybread
Trumpets: Lexie Signor, Jen Siukola, Kent Hickey, John Raymond
Trombones: Freddie Mendoza, Ernest Stuart, Ryan Fraley, Tucker Woerner
Rhythm section: Joel Tucker guitar; Shawn McGowan, piano; Nick Tucker, bass; Sam Bryson, drums

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Staging interventions: Phoenix Theatre's 'Barbecue' seesaws on race, dependency, and ambition

There's an unusual cast list in Phoenix Theatre's program for "Barbecue," a trenchant comedy by Robert O'Hara that opened this weekend: Character names are omitted, as if we were about to witness a revue, where roles are fleeting, multiple or necessarily
First scene: White siblings in a troubled family.
unattached to names. We come to find out that the roles refer to people who are playing roles; thus, names are unreliable indicators of the reality behind the play.

That's just the start of the potential confusions, which clear up fitfully in the second act. To find the experience of "Barbecue" satisfying, you have to be prepared to hold big questions about race, family, and identity in abeyance. Not to worry: There's a Hollywood ending, and though it's somewhat unsettling, it does what such endings have historically accomplished — provide a definite resolution that is either superficial or profound.

The first scene is jarring: a dysfunctional white family has gathered under a park pavilion, jawing at each other, cussing a blue streak. When I saw it Saturday, the dialogue appeared to be badly written: Who pronounces "goddamn" "gat-damn," and why is there something else odd about what appear to be Southern accents, namely subject-verb agreements that resemble black English: "he go," for example?

Why the piling on of multiple addictions among these close kin? We seem to be in the realm of white-trash caricatures, recalling recurring productions years ago at the neighboring Theatre on the Square. Reaching back even further, I thought of James Thurber's old parody of Erskine Caldwell's "Tobacco Road" and "God's Little Acre" — Southern Gothic turned particularly grotesque — in a piece called "Bateman Comes Home." There, the first character presented, Old Nate Birge, is pictured as "chewing on a splinter of wood and watching the moon come up lazily out of the old cemetery in which nine of his daughters were lying, only two of whom were dead."

"Barbecue" presents us with this sort of raucous humor in a contemporary setting, where human degradation in the big city can be met with planned interventions: scripted invitations, with teeth, for a particularly troubled family member to agree to elaborately designed rehabilitation far away. There's one such person in this scene, known as Zippity Boom, who is also so named and situated in the second scene, which features a black family with parallel identities.

Second scene: Black siblings wrestle with similar problems
It's racial specificity without racial interaction, then, by which O'Hara departs from the usual dramatic handling of race on American stages. The interaction is put off until the second act, when the two Zippity Booms, neither of whom is who she appeared to be in Act 1, encounter each other in the same park pavilion (Bernie Killian's evocative set design) and get to know far more about the other than either one — as well as the audience — could ever have suspected.

The "parallel identities" I've referred to allow the black family a somewhat more florid and intense confrontation with the
The Zippity Booms engage in wary dialogue.
family member judged to be most in need of intervention. I began to think their internal difficulties and the way the three sisters and a brother express their neediness and focus it on the fourth sister sounded more natural and more involving. What baroque ferocity, special pleading and finger-pointing flourish among the black family!

There are three possible explanations for this: Seeing the white family first enabled me to get used to the strain on family bonds nearly shattered by conflict in the wake of various addictions. As a result, the way the black siblings express their needs and frustrations sounded more bred in the bone and less cartoonish. And that second explanation led to the most uncomfortable one: As an elderly white man, I was inevitably more disposed to assign drug-dependent internal strains to a black family than to a white one.

The third explanation is the most disturbing, and it's clear O'Hara deliberately created similar situations affecting the two families in order to arouse audience responses that reflect racial discrepancies. At any rate, unsettling and puzzling perceptions set in place by intermission are thoroughly exploded in Act 2. That's where the truth of everything presented before is put into question, and new truths emerge.

The tense second-act negotiations between the women with the Zippity Boo personas effectuate a storybook epilogue that opens out a saga of family peril toward an indictment of America today.  O'Hara shows how the machinations of celebrity and the tendency of the public to be enthralled by tales of private chaos can serve each other on the most conspicuous level of mass entertainment.

The comic effect of that result has been planted in everything that precedes the final scene. Every touch of hyperbole in how the families treat each other is built upon a reality we're not allowed to understand until late in the action.

It remains here only to applaud the fascinating characterizations and high-stakes rapport among the ten actors under the direction of Bryan Fonseca. They are Joanna Bennett, LaKesha Lorene, Jeffery Martin, Brianna Milan, Abdul-Khaliq Murtadha, Angela R. Plank, Beverly Roche, Chelsey Stauffer, Dena Toler, and Jenni White.

They present bleak caricatures rewound painfully toward a reality that's then catapulted into the big-screen American mother of all caricatures. Hooray for Hollywood! Gat-damn!

[Photos by Zach Rosing]