Sunday, July 31, 2016

With an Indiana bicentennial stamp upon it, Dance Kaleidoscope's "Cole!" returns to the stage

The flippancy, fluency, and observant wit of Cole Porter, always fused in music and words from the same fertile mind, gave David Hochoy a running start when a Dance Kaleidoscope patron suggested long ago that he choreograph some Porter songs for the troupe.

The result was "Cole!," revived now and then since its 1997 premiere — I last saw it at Carmel's Tarkington in 2014. It's a two-part piece that centers its tribute to Porter's popularity first on his songs' appeal when they were new ("Ol' King Cole"), then on their adaptability in terms closer to today ("Cole Soul").
A madcap bit of comic relief: "Miss Otis Regrets"

A lift of infatuation, or perhaps love, in "It's All Right With Me"
Porter's characteristic stance on the malleability of romantic love had a lot to do with the huge impression he made in the early-middle decades of 20th-century America.  Social mores got a little looser, and young people were more mobile and, with their schooling behind them, ready to meet contemporaries their parents and other relatives hadn't introduced them to.

The invitation of "Let's Fall in Love" (1928) was notable not for its logic (is love ever logical?), but for its cumulative zest. If the whole animal kingdom and foreigners of every clime and culture hook up, why should any couple feeling mutual attraction resist the urge, especially with prosperity lubricating the engine? The song makes an irresistible dance number, as movement and gesture can say so much about what goes on beyond words when people connect, especially when there's a sexual zing to it. We are self-evidently in Porter's milieu in Hochoy's setting, which opens the show.

There were two performances at Butler University's Schrott Center of the reprised, tour-ready "Cole!" buoyed by an Indiana Masterpiece Grant Award from the Indiana Arts Commission. I saw Saturday's, and was immediately struck by how well the venue articulated Laura E. Glover's  lighting design, which was both painterly and sculptural. The clarity of the men's athletic movement to a pulse-pounding Artie Shaw band recording of "What Is This Thing Called Love" couldn't have been better. Dark at first, then suddenly shot through with glowing light, the selection had five DK men ceaselessly bouncing off the floor and, seemingly, off the air itself.

And of course, here's another Porter song that, had this been a vocal version, would have pointed up the writer's skepticism as much as his enthusiasm for the subject.  Whether the onset of love is superficial or embedded, it retains its mystery. In the embedded category, there is famously "I've Got You Under My Skin," here with Mariel Greenlee channeling the bilingual allure of Josephine Baker, a landmark in stage fashion (credit to Cheryl Sparks for especially evocative costuming) as well as performance.

Flirtatiousness is essential to the Porter view of love. He saluted a new world, not without misgivings, in which "Anything Goes," a number Hochoy has keyed to Brandon Comer's ineffable charm and vigor. If there's not the zest of temporary attraction to someone new, what are we here for? And where does that come from? It's got to be "Mother Nature, whispering low, 'Let yourself go!'" as "It's De-Lovely" has it. And Hochoy has once again put this successfully into three dimensions to showcase Caitlin Negron's nimbleness and insouciance in fast-moving dance liaisons with several DK men.

A devoted lover's tendency to overpraise takes over another cumulative Porter song, "You're the Top," with several couples displaying the joy of mutual uplift. Eventually, the song becomes a triumph of statuesque choreography, as if — naturally — being "the top" has to involve considerable distance from the ground and the assertion that gravity can be defied (and not by the wires of "Wicked").

It's all about the money in "Millionaire."
The second act demonstrated that more than musical tweaking can make Cole Porter songs seem pertinent to today. Deep irony runs through "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" in the sense that, despite the repeated answer "I don't!," grabbing for outsize currency and clutching fistfuls of the stuff while warding off threats never goes out of style. The slashing geometric diagonals in this act's costumes went particularly well with Hochoy's setting of the driving Thompson Twins version of the song.

Something memorably goofy is contributed to the show by "Miss Otis Regrets," in which Porter's droll, elegant narrative is discarded in favor of abstract street-people exuberance, keyed to Greenlee's trash-bag-wielding central figure, feisty and ever-smiling.

Still, the perils of love with commitment held in abeyance never seem far from the Porter aesthetic — and Hochoy's interpretation of it. This is showcased in two songs: "It's All Right With Me," danced with yearning and restraint by Comer and Timothy June, and in Greenlee's pitch-perfect solo to "Ev'ry Time We Say Goodbye," with its sudden hints of emotional and physical collapse held in check by the attempt not to see every regretted parting as a foreshadowing of long-term loss. Her phrasing left no doubt as to the difficulty the song portrays.

The native son of Peru, Ind., who became refined beyond ready attribution to Hoosierdom by Yale and then Paris, got so much out of not being able to make up his mind about love, then casting it in imperishable songs. This show nails that ambivalence and celebrates the art that resulted.

An illustration of the point can be found in the often neglected verses to "Just One of Those Things" and "Goodbye, Little Dream, Goodbye" (two songs not dealt with in "Cole!"). Each has an allusion to the iconic romance of Romeo and Juliet. In the first song, it's flippant; in the second, tragic. Porter speculates that the classic story may have been just one of those things, but also that it will always represent undying love cruelly cut short.

We can contemplate having  it both ways, "Cole!" seems to insist. It may be fun to try, but don't expect it to be easy.

[Photo credit: Crowe's Eye Photography]

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Once upon a time on the edge of folk wisdom: "Zirkus Grimm" rises again

By the time most of us outgrew the Disney version, life itself and further acquaintance with Grimm's
Energetic dancing is a key element of "Zirkus Grimm."
fairy tales diluted the sweetness we'd acquired a taste for.

You can't wish that away, but "Zirkus Grimm" puts something else in its place. The harshness of the originals comes through in Ben Asaykee's mordant, yet spectacular interpretation, a Q Artistry production playing through next weekend at Circle City Industrial Complex. To make up for the lost sweetness, the show presents tableaux of "life coaching," tough love for the 21st-century spirit in a dynamic expenditure of coordinated energy.

The moralizing is tricked out in traveling-circus style, the large company garbed in schmattes, with steampunk and vintage-shop notes. There are touches of goth, mime, and commedia dell'arte in the stylish makeup. A glum makeshift tent is suspended over the playing area, strands of colored lights strung toward the center overhead.
Asaykwee's direction toys with fatigue and world-weariness, but almost manic pizazz rules the day. The original songs draw on power ballads, rock anthems, cabaret and music-hall numbers. (The Cinder Girl belted out her distress in a manner that reminded me of Grace Slick; I almost expected to hear "Feed your head!" -- an apropos directive to the world's endless supply of cinderellas.)

Familiar dilemma: Little Red Cap is enticed off-course by the Wolf.
These are real troupers, we are given to understand. Life on the road must be conquered in the same way the challenging situations in the tales are met with. The values of being clever, daring, strong, just, brave, and hopeful are upheld. Such useful qualities are specifically attached to selections from the Brothers Grimm collection. The troupe reinterprets them sometimes sketchily, sometimes in detail. The fairy-tale treatments are both tweaked and explicit, mocking and earnest.

Playing the Ringmaster, Asaykwee at first addresses the audience in German before Konig Klown (Matt Anderson) gently corrects him. Attention is fragmented in the life of the itinerant entertainer. It's like a sleep-derived arena rocker shouting "Hello, Indianapolis!" when the band is playing Minneapolis, or vice versa.

Appropriately, the company initially convenes for "Life Is a Circus," laying out a more head-spinning metaphor than a better-known musical's assertion that life is a cabaret. It's a pity the big ensembles, with their often frenetic choreography, come across as too tightly confined in the cozy playing area, surrounded closely by the audience. I found the effect to be like looking through a kaleidoscope while being in the kaleidoscope.

As seen Friday, there was some cutting out of the face mics and occasional sonic overload -- both of which tended to obscure the weighty lyrics. Some songs cut through intact, beautifully shaped, such as Asaykwee's love song in "To Be Brave — Faithful Johannes" and Noah Winston's tender ballad for one of the sorely beset Grimm heroines.

The most deep-delving tales in the Asaykwee view of Grimm seem to be "The Fisherman and His Wife" and "The Robber Bridegroom."  Both speak to the insatiability and simple blindness of human desire, the failure to be circumspect about whatever one wishes most. The scrupulous gusto with which those two tales are handled lends a tragic cast to "Zirkus Grimm."

Escape from the predicaments of fairy tales, when possible, seems to be a matter of dumb luck, with an admixture of those positive qualities mentioned earlier. There are Grimm stories in which shrewdness is a curse: I'd love to see the Asaykweean take on the weird "Clever Elsie" someday. Folk wisdom includes the warning that perhaps nothing avails us when we get in too deep.

As the most notable fabulist-minstrel of our time once put it: "There must be some way out of here, said the joker to the thief." Jokers and thieves may be well equipped to deal with life's confinements, but any escape is probably in someone else's hands. That's what I think we get from Grimm, a lesson entertainingly confirmed by "Zirkus Grimm," in large part because a glimmer of hope is held out.

[Photos by Raincliffs Photography]

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Cincinnati Opera's purposefully detailed 'Tosca' draws you in with great staging, singing

Cavaradossi interrupts work on his painting of Mary Magdalene to talk with the watchful Sacristan.
When Puccini's "Tosca" was just over 50 years old, the musicologist Joseph Kerman wrote a well-regarded book called "Opera as Drama," which is most often cited for one dismissive phrase about the opera. He called it a "shabby little shocker."

Those who overthink opera tend to find encouragement in the dismissal. But decades of audience acclaim have shown them to be off base. There's a little irony that a book with such a title disparages a composition that "as drama" needn't take a back seat to anything in the repertoire. That was evident in the enraptured reception opening night Saturday of a new Cincinnati Opera production.

"Tosca" succeeds as drama and as theater. Those are two different things. Its interplay of forces both political and romantic proceeds with an unparalleled efficiency and intensity. That's the dramatic side. The opera's excellence as theater has to do with the striking effect of its sensational tension, and the pacing of its vivid events musically in such a way to yield a succession of memorable scenes.

Stage director Jose Maria Condemi displays an extraordinary sensitivity to Puccini's variegated reinforcement of the drama his librettists delivered to him out of Victorien Sardou's expansive historical play. Still, their sure-handedness, focused on momentum and the central romance, resulted in some sketchiness about the political conflict that gripped Rome in June 1800.

The city's fate teetered between the promise of a republic held out by the advance of Napoleon's armies and continued domination by a Neapolitan queen ruthlessly defending monarchy. The fugitive Angelotti, anxious and exhausted in Evan Boyer's performance, scurries into view (to the nimble accompaniment of the orchestra under Christopher Allen's baton) and helps establish the mood of mortal peril that will eventually engulf him and the three main characters.

The exhaustive detail of this production's sets and costumes helps provide the sense of period and place that the opera itself signals in broad strokes. As a result, we know just enough to drive our sympathy of the danger the aristocratic rebel Cavaradossi places himself in. Consequently, the audience's high regard for his romance with the celebrated singer Floria Tosca develops after we first meet the couple in somewhat comical bickering spurred by her jealous temperament. More outright comedy was contributed with droll self-possession by Peter Strummer as the bustling, fussy Sacristan.

That first scene, fleshed out with magnificent architectural and decorative detail by Robert Perdziola, brings the worlds of religion, politics, and romance together in a gathering storm of intrigue and outsize emotion at the church of Sant' Andrea della Valle. On opening night, the rapport between Marcello Giordani as the lover and secret rebel and Evelina Dobraceva as the title character, a celebrity singer devoted to art, love, and religion, was fully achieved.

The timing of gesture and movement Condemi imparts to the show was evident in Tosca's pointed teasing of her lover as she suspects that his painting too closely resembles the Marchessa Attavanti, a visitor to the church (and Angelotti's sister) with the aristocratic privilege of worshiping in the nearby family chapel. The fine duet in which this takes place was sung with the requisite romantic lift and momentum and staged supportively and flowingly.

Tosca furtively palms a knife as Scarpia signs a safe-conduct.
Two other examples of exquisite timing will have to suffice. Building to a climax that both celebrates the reported victory over Napoleon and underlines the despotic control of the city by Baron Scarpia, the chief of police, the first act is crowned with a great crowd scene: a choral "Te Deum," harmonized with Scarpia's false piety and assertion of his godless, predatory values.

Condemi has the magnificently costumed congregation of worshipers, choir, and clergy assemble gradually as Scarpia proclaims, in Gordon Hawkins' commanding performance, his desire for Tosca and joy in the prerogatives of corrupt power. This production's sheer spectacle at the climax was overwhelming.

The pacing is superb, as it is in the intimate scene that ends the second act. Productions often follow Tosca's quasi-ritualistic placing of candles to either side of the assassinated Scarpia, with a crucifix on his chest. Condemi uses the wholly instrumental music ending the act — whose tortures, threats of rape, and payback killing are surely what Kerman most had in mind with his "shocker'" label — to have Tosca pause and re-enter the scene. She is appalled by the horror of her deed, despite her conviction that Scarpia's barbarity deserved it. The candles remain extinguished. The crucifix is taken from Scarpia's desk; Tosca has prayed imploringly in front of it moments before, in the great aria "Vissi d'arte." Now, with deeply mixed feelings, she knows the discovery of her hypocritical tormentor's body needs to be accompanied by such potent symbolism.

Cavaradossi, a condemned man, extols the beauty of Tosca's killing hands.
Dobraceva warmed to her role, having in the first act projected her character dramatically better than vocally. In the second and third acts, she was superb in both respects. The company debut of the Russian soprano with hardly any Italian opera in her background was a triumph overall. She paired well opposite the vastly more experienced Sicilian tenor. In particular, here was a couple who seemed truly passionate about their dangerous affair. And Giordani brought considerable heft and interpretive nuance to the role of Cavaradossi.

He had stunning reserves of power, but he was never merely loud. The outburst of "Vittoria! Vittoria!" in the second act, when news is brought of Napoleon's unexpected defeat, might have been heard outside the Aronoff Center on Walnut Street. In the finale, I admired the way Giordani emphasized the convulsive regret in "E lucevan le stelle," a brief statement often treated as a lyrical showcase. By roughing up his delivery somewhat, Giordani brought the aria's dramatic meaning to the fore. He saved his lyricism for the duet with Tosca that opens with Cavaradossi's solo "O dolci mani," praising the daring hands of his beloved. The vocal contrast freshly illuminated the scene on the platform of the Castel Sant'Angelo before the deliberately staged process of Cavaradossi's execution, wrongly supposed by the couple to be fake: it's Scarpia's last treachery.

In such a conscientious production, Tosca's leap off the parapet, fully anticipated by anyone familiar with the opera, managed to seem both regrettable and unavoidable. And as thundered out Saturday night, the orchestra's final measures put an embossed seal of rightness and dramatic truth on the inevitability of the heroine's fatal plunge.

Saturday, July 23, 2016

'A mind is a terrible thing not to waste': Phoenix Theatre bends ours with Tom Horan's "Acid Dolphin Experiment'

The universe of expanded consciousness, as rendered in "Acid Dolphin Experiment.".
Beaded and berobed, Timothy Leary strolled onstage at Hill Auditorium in Ann Arbor nearly 50 years ago, placed a mat close to the audience, sat down upon it cross-legged, and proceeded to lecture freely on his invariable theme: Turn on, tune in, drop out.

He had barely started when a friendly shout came from the balcony: "Dr. Leary, please move back a few feet, We can't see you from up here." The apostle of LSD enlightenment readily complied. The choice was automatic: Sacrifice a little intimacy with those in good seats in order to accommodate all 4,000 favorably disposed attendees.

When you're in the business of marketing personal transformation, no corner of the market should be snubbed. Like (I'm guessing) nearly everyone in that audience, I had no intention of following the Leary path. In a cultural milieu thick with gurus, the eccentric professor registered as good Sixties entertainment. Contemplating the thrill of throwing everything over was part of the allure.

Leary's involvement with expanded consciousness thus had a political component that Dr. John C. Lilly's experiments lacked. The subject of Tom Horan's new play at the Phoenix Theatre shared an experimental path with Leary that took Lilly deeper and deeper within, where his battered grip on reality finally loosened irretrievably. Before then, when his evangelism was at its purest, it avoided Leary's celebrity posturing.

Dr. Lilly's visions carry both enlightenment and torment.
If you go to "Acid Dolphin Experiment" sometime over the next four weekends, informative illustrated panels mounted in the lobby are highly recommended for orientation to Lilly's life and his outré adventures in neuroscience. Lilly (no relation to the Indianapolis pharmaceutical dynasty) worked with dolphins, LSD, and isolation tanks in his quest to understand how the mind works.

These rich materials are colorfully exploited by Horan, Phoenix's playwright-in-residence and author of another recent premiere rhapsodizing darkly on a historical figure, "Typhoid Mary." The new play, which opened Thursday, is a spectacular introduction to Lilly's phantasmagoria.

Directed by Bill Simmons, the production stays afloat in large part on the work of the production team: technical direction by Jeffery Martin and Zac Hunter, lighting by Laura Glover, costumes and props by Emily McGee, and sound by Horan. Multisensory stimulation threads its way amid Horan's words. His treatment of scientific and historical reality deftly eschews didacticism. As seen Friday, "Acid Dolphin Experiment" immersed the audience in the ambiguity of Lilly's world, replicating in sight and sound the blurring of interior and exterior reality, erasing the lines between the "me" and the "not-me" as well as between verbal information and interpretation on the one hand and direct, unmediated experience on the other.

Like the Zen ephebe getting conked with a rice bowl when he dares to call the moon "moon" instead of silently pointing to Earth's natural satellite, the audience is instructed in the breakthroughs that letting go of words may provide. Or not. In any case, the lessons are often quite funny, because Horan cavorts on the jungle gym of words, too.

Messengers from beyond, or within, guide the dogged experimenter.
Three actresses in the ensemble, besides playing women in Lilly's "real" life, function as fragments of his consciousness and a girl group of backup intelligences. Twenty feet from intellectual stardom, often poking their heads through portholes like the old "Laugh-In" gang, they interrupt each other, moving words and phrases quickly into place like mosaic tiles.

Lilly thinks of them as both aliens and angels --- messengers who are not necessarily benign. They seem both controlling and haphazard, pretty much like the intersection of personality and the scientific process. Their varied duties are carried out winsomely, with a few virtuoso turns (including dolphin puppetry), by Lauren Briggeman, Jolene Mentink Moffatt, and Chelsey Stauffer.

A fourth emanation, one usually more menacing and sometimes provocatively masked, is played by Michael Hosp, drawing on stereotypes of authority figures, from Lilly's disapproving father to the suspicious, ungenerous U.S. government, interested mainly in military applications of Lilly's experiments.

I've saved for last the delectable performance of Joshua Coomer as Lilly. His face conveyed the anxiety and curiosity that motivate Lilly's obsession with the frontiers of neuroscience. Every gesture and vocal tone danced on the edge dividing responsible research from burgeoning mania. The natural resonance of his speaking voice carries, even in Lilly's descent into schizophrenia, poignant echoes of a brilliant scientist who simply wants to know more. When Lilly's final monologue settles down onto a hypnotic plateau, Coomer almost persuades you to pitch your tent there.

Turn on, tune in, drop out happens to be a six-word summary of John C. Lilly's career. The tragedy is that the way of psychotropic drugs removes the voluntary control that the mantra implies. Dr. Leary's sermonizing was based on an illusion. And recent brain research has shown that our minds, even free of toxic influences, make decisions a few seconds before we are conscious of them. Who's in charge here anyway? John C. Lilly never found out, and maybe we'll never know. In the meantime, "Acid Dolphin Experiment" will play hob with your perceptions, delivering fun and (probably) no damage.

[Photos by Joe Konz]

Friday, July 22, 2016

'The Winter's Tale' lights up a few summer nights at White River State Park

You don't need stage realism to evoke emotions that are joltingly real, and though Shakespeare  anticipated realism, we can dependably return to many of his plays and see how implausible situations requiring a drastic suspension of disbelief can still awaken our most fundamental sense of reality.

Before the storm breaks: The happy royal couple implore a king to extend his visit.
"The Winter's Tale," whether read silently or seen performed, never fails to move me when Leontes' wronged wife Hermione, unbelievably hidden away for 16 years from her husband and self-deluded accuser, turns from the likeness in which the loyal Paulina artfully presents her into a living queen ready for reconciliation with her contrite husband. All of a sudden, any sense that this is a far-fetched device becomes irrelevant.

How often it's true that ill-founded, unreasoned judgments, particularly around the issue of sexual fidelity, really destroy relationships! And how crucial it is that such misjudgments be corrected before it is too late, as it very nearly is in "The Winter's Tale," this year's Heartland Actors' Repertory Theatre production!

To this show, directed by Robert Neal, Ryan Artzberger brings ferocity and remorse in due succession to the role of Leontes, King of Sicilia, who sacrifices both his marriage and lifelong friendship with Polixenes, king of Bohemia, on a rickety altar of jealousy and paranoia. Seen on opening night Thursday, Artzberger's voice — quavering, rasping, disdainful, strident — remained clear. No local actor better sustains the impression of breaking down totally while in fact exerting firm control.

Mara Lefler as Hermione bears her unjust treatment with less stoicism than one often sees in this role, but she solidly displayed sturdy patience underneath the queen's indignation, which flared up touchingly in her heartfelt self-defense at trial.

Paulina (Constance Macy) presents the infant Perdita at court.
Ben Tebbe plays Polixenes with steadiness and wounded pride. Charles Goad is the loyal Sicilian courtier Camillo, forced to turn against Leontes and go over to Polixenes. He was powerful standing up to Leontes — an underling needing to muster every ounce of courage to counter his sovereign's madness. The other chief lord, Antigonus, also resistant to the Sicilian king, displayed less rebelliousness but a suitable liveliness of conscience in Scott Russell's portrayal.

Paulina's command of the dire situation has to seem absolute from the start. In her presentation of his newborn daughter to Leontes, she exhibits no trace of faintheartedness when the raging king orders her removal from court. When Constance Macy warns, "Let him that makes but trifles of his eyes / First hand me," you feel everyone freeze in place, as though you'd better not move, either.

The naturalness and poise of Macy's verse-speaking were exemplary.  "The Winter's Tale" has a pretty sharp division between the prose of the low-born characters and the poetry of those higher up on the social scale. Actors in Shakespeare need to make both prose and poetry retain their integrity, while suiting their characters. The formality of Paulina's iambic-pentameter lines in the recognition/reconciliation scene was there in Macy's performance, but you could also believe a real person was saying them. She approached the gold standard, enunciated long ago by Samuel Johnson in his "Preface to Shakespeare" (allowances must be made for the customary male pronoun): "Shakespeare has no heroes; his scenes are occupied only by men, who act and speak as the reader thinks that he should himself have spoken or acted on the same occasion."

The young lovers whose sylvan romance turns out happily had their idyll somewhat dominated by the comic business going on all around them. I missed the haze of lyricism that ought to surround them. Still, Ryan Claus as Florizel and Phebe Taylor as Perdita lent their roles pastoral naturalness and determined ardor. In costumes and lighting, the right atmosphere was conjured.

The dramatic seesaw first tips toward comedy at the point of the most amusing stage direction in the canon:"Exit pursued by a bear." Leontes' courtier Antigonus is charged with taking the infant girl Hermione has birthed into the wilds to survive or not.  Completing his duty, the apprehensive lord fails to outrun the bear, and from behind the stage the fur and bits of clothing fly amid stentorian roars, mixed with the audience's laughter.

Rob Johansen plays the show's master of deceit and of revels.
Antigonus' death throws sudden widowhood upon the heroic Paulina, who has resisted Leontes' delusions and tyrannical behavior and engineered Hemione's long-term seclusion. So it's a little disconcerting to process Antigonus' demise as comic. Yet this ushers in heightened importance for Autolycus, the rogue who dominates the second half of the play.

Rob Johansen inhabits the role at the summit of energy, physical matching verbal. He is draped in a bearskin when needed, and also contributes Time's monologue, an awkward narrative device designed to bridge the play's two time levels. Such multitasking gives the down-to-earth trickster a slightly supernatural edge, which shows up occasionally throughout the second act. He even closes the action at the end with an incantation and gestural magic. Being an actor who not only gives life to whatever he plays but also presents characters as though they were Life itself, Johansen turns Autolycus into a bargain-basement Prospero, one gifted with a sense of humor the magus of "The Tempest" lacks.

Miki Mathioudakis as the Old Shepherd.
The concept is unsettling, as is the fortunately infrequent interpolation of words not in Shakespeare (I remember hearing an "OK"). The ad libs come both from Johansen and from Scot Greenwell, identified in the "dramatis personae" as a Clown, the Old Shepherd's son. Greenwell reveled in the clownish part, partnering well with Miki Mathiodakis as the rustic geezer who discovers Perdita, the abandoned royal daughter. The play's antic picture of rural life was interpreted as a cue for hijinks, performed all out. The sheep-shearing festival took on some of the faux-ethnic gusto of Monty Python's Fish Slapping Dance.

By this point, we know that the jealous Leontes has been turned from his insane suspicions by the Delphic Oracle's unfavorable response to his inquiry — stunningly staged here — and the immediate death of his beloved son Mamillius. Earlier, as the happy family is needlessly torn part, Dalyn Stewart's performance well above the juvenile norm rent our hearts, too.

A play that achieves its own unity out of unlikely materials, "The Winter Tale" should be approached with an adventurous spirit. Dr. Johnson may have been thinking of it in particular when he wrote: "Shakespeare has united the powers of exciting laughter and sorrow not only in one mind, but in one composition...divided between serious and ludicrous characters, and ...sometimes [producing] seriousness and sorrow, and sometimes levity and laughter."

See it and weep. Then laugh. Then weep again.

[Photos by Julie Curry]

Monday, July 18, 2016

'Pence in Vain': A song drawing upon Robert Johnson and Mick Jagger in response to the rigid Indiana governor's alliance with loose cannon Donald Trump

As the world tries to get used to Mike Pence as running mate for Donald Trump — and get past that "T" penetrating that "P" on the original logo — this song imagines what unsettled thoughts may have been going through the Indiana governor's mind.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Bonerama at the Jazz Kitchen: Carrying forward the New Orleans brass-band tradition with a trombone troika

Bonerama digs into the funky side of the brass-band sound with a three-horn frontline.
Other sparks of jazz genesis have been detected well outside New Orleans, but that fabled, troubled, foundationally multicultural city still has a sturdy claim on being the place where the music burst into flame.

And a group like Bonerama, founded in the Crescent City more than 15 years ago, is a reminder that the essence of jazz in its youth and adolescence was collaborative. The great soloists stem from an N.O. native son, Louis Armstrong, and it's with mixed feelings that jazz fans tend to focus on individual giants rather than ensembles. Shared energy powered outward gave the new vernacular its currency a century ago, and remains crucial to its authentic spirit.

Bonerama, making its Indianapolis debut Saturday night at the Jazz Kitchen, is a sextet that keeps alive the legacy of bands of yore moving through the streets or playing in outdoor pavilions, always emphasizing their internal rapport in order to deliver external pleasures.

Heard in its first set here, the sextet charged through about 10 tunes in mid- to up-tempo arrangements allowing for a heady blend of group improvisation, short solos, and pre-set ensemble passages. An ex-trombonist, I got a kick out of savoring a low-brass emphasis in the brass-band subgenre, with sousaphonist Matt Perrine supplementing the sliphorn front line of Mark Mullins, Craig Klein, and Greg Hicks.  Guitarist Bert Cotton and drummer AJ Hall complete the ensemble.

A piece with a meaty low-register melody line played in unison by the three trombones featured the set's only guitar solo; normally, Cotton contributed a nimble, twangy flavor to the arrangements, with crisp figures enhancing Hall's driving, controlled detonations. 

Perrine picked up the electric bass a couple of times during the set, notably on the easygoing "Let the Four Winds Blow," featuring Klein's singing nicely backed up vocally by the other two trombonists. For the most part, he lent butter-smooth figuration on sousaphone behind the trombones. His solos took happy flight into the wraparound tuba's upper register. quoting "That Old Devil Moon" cheekily during an original, "And I Know."

An elaborate introduction by sousaphone with minimal percussion accompaniment took on a full-ensemble Afro-Cuban vibe that set up a buoyant performance of "What a Wonderful World." That's a sappy song it's easy to grow tired of, but it seemed to find new life for me in this version. A fast-moving original, "Bayou Betty," concluded the rapturously received set.

At the risk of offending players of saxophone and trumpet, I'll confess it was a relief to hear an hour-plus performance by a jazz band without either of those instruments. Trumpeters and saxophonists have a tendency to preen.  Well, Bonerama does a bit of that, too, but it's a welcome novelty to hear this sort of thing from trombonists — particularly three of them so well-schooled and exuberant.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Horse attitudes: Casey Ross Productions mounts a searing, level-headed 'Equus'

Alan re-enacts his night rides for the psychiatrist working on his case.
Sir Peter Shaffer just passed into the dramatists' Valhalla. As if to mark his passing, Indianapolis audiences have the opportunity to steel themselves for an enthralling new production of "Equus," a 1973 play that examines questions of identity and divine justice in a totally different manner from Shaffer's other big hit, "Amadeus."

Casey Ross Productions (recently renamed Catalyst Rep)  moved into the second of three weekends with the show Friday night at Grove Haus in Fountain Square. Shaffer built a weighty dramatic edifice on the foundation of a horrific news item involving an English stableboy's blinding of six horses under his care. The play has attracted much attention over its four-decade history.

For this production, the venue's background as a church, an origin still very much evident architecturally, turns the religious fantasy explaining the boy's crime into something especially eerie.

As director, Casey Ross moves the cast around the small playing area with a nice sense of formality that never inhibits the action. The audience sits on three sides. The raised area (the former chancel) is mainly devoted to the usually seated "horse chorus," four actors representing the animals as both icons and equine reality, heads and hoofs designed with totemic sobriety by Dianna Mosedale.

A play as thoroughly examined and thought about as "Equus" doesn't merit much exposition here, and probably not much commentary, either. I can only imagine the reams of interpretive prose it has inspired, none of which I've read. I will focus rather on what I learned from this production.

The professional style of Shaffer's character Dr. Martin Dysart is direct, inquisitive, and rational. Brian G. Hartz embodied it without flaw. When, at length, he nearly breaks down in the course of treating Alan Strang, the teenage stableboy, the cracks in Dysart's facade are sharply defined and made fully believable.

Alan Strang bonds over horses with co-worker Jill Mason.
The blend of provocation, resistance, ferocity, and sly wit in Taylor Cox's portrayal ruled the stage, yet without obscuring Alan's vulnerability and confusion. The latter qualities emerge not only through deep conflicts with his parents, played vividly by Ericka Barker and Doug Powers (though he could have used a little more work with a dialect coach), but also his involvement with Jill Mason, a flirtatious co-worker appealingly played by Sarah McGrath.

In "The Marriage of Heaven and Hell," William Blake wrote, "The tigers of wrath are wiser than the horses of instruction." Dysart's daunting job is to discover the wisdom that might lie deep within Alan's revolting act, especially as it burst out of his evident love for horses and his work with them. Wrath is a consequence of the instruction Alan believes he has received from the animals instruction in a private religion he has concocted, attempting to steer a course between his autocratic father's atheism and his submissive mother's Christian piety.

Not to get too high-flown with the quotes, I am reminded of Groucho Marx's quip: "I'd horsewhip you  — if I had a horse." A picture of Christ flagellated had occupied a hallowed space on the wall of Alan's bedroom before a striking horse image dominated by the creature's eyes replaced it. The sufferings of a Savior whom tradition invites us to know intimately turns out to drive Alan's mania and his violent attempt to drive away sexual guilt. Part of the attraction is sadomasochistic. His clandestine night rides on horses from the stable are summed up in an impressively staged scene that suggests both carnal and spiritual union with them.

Shaffer tosses out plenty of juicy intellectual gobbets for audiences to gnaw on. The pacing of this production gives every piece of red meat its own opportunity to be savored. We hang on every word of dialogue. Every line seems consequential.

I have no idea if the kind of therapy to which Dysart subjects Alan ever works, but on the stage the treatment's emphasis on enacting hidden memories couldn't be more enthralling  — or explicit. This is a courageous cast.

It also includes a simpatico performance by Allison Clark Reddick as a magistrate who has seen to it that Alan receive treatment rather than imprisonment, then nurtures Dysart's fluctuating commitment to his greatest professional challenge. Nan Macy plays the sort of stern, persuasive nurse who increases the likelihood that he will succeed through steady institutional support. As the stable owner, Tony Armstrong solidly represented the workaday world, a decent man mystified by the incomprehensible realm into which his disturbed employee has retreated.

It's a world that this production pries open with both deliberate patience and uncommon energy. For most of human history, until the last two centuries, most people never knew anything that moved faster on land than horses. It's not a matter of romanticizing them that lies behind "Equus." Deeper than romance or utility lies the fusion of flesh and spirit these creatures perpetually represent to us. A half-hearted production of the play would be insufferable; CRP goes all out, giving the symbolism free rein and driving the complex meaning of "Equus" home.

[Production photos: Casey Ross Productions]


Saturday, July 9, 2016

With soprano Shannon Mercer to help carry the theme, Les Delices focuses on the 'Folly of Youth' for Indianapolis Early Music Festival

The Baroque — its meaning rooted in a word designating a distorted pearl — has more comfortable
Shannon Mercer sand music of Handel, Lully, and LeMaire.
connotations today than perhaps it should. Etymology is not a complete guide to its musical meaning, but the idea of something precious and shapely that also involves unique imperfections is helpful.

The great Baroque composers combined these aspects in their lives and music, yet not in any conscious sense of "being Baroque." Creative artists of all eras have "baroque" elements in their personalities:  J.S. Bach was feisty and prolific of both scores and scions; the sometimes bumptious Handel once fought a duel. But to find an outsize example of what might be called the Baroque personality, you need look no further than Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687).

Transported from his native Florence as a teen to France as an Italian tutor, he eventually underwent career-boosting transformation at the court of King Louis XIV. He singlehandedly set the art of French music on an influential course there. Jealous of his royally sanctioned prerogatives, he was litigious, vain, theatrical, and competitive. The biographical part of the entry under Lully's name in the New Grove Dictionary of Music & Musicians provides a complex tale of intrigue worthy of an overplotted novel.

Debra Nagy leads the seven-person Les Delices.
Visiting the Indianapolis Early Music Festival Friday night on the last weekend of its 50th anniversary season, the ensemble Les Delices  played a program dominated by Handel and Lully.

The mythological grounding of works illustrating the "Folly of Youth" title were Phaeton, the willful son of the Sun God Apollo, and Icarus, impulsive offspring of the inventor Daedalus, whose primitive wax-and-wings flying machine he test-piloted too near the sun.

Les Delices director Debra Nagy has here designed an admirably cohesive program, so self-contained that no encore was performed — a wise decision, despite the Indiana History Center audience's enthusiastic reception.

The Canadian soprano Shannon Mercer was on hand to put to the forefront treatments of the two mythological inspirations in a Lully opera and cantatas by Handel and the early-18th-century Frenchman Louis LeMaire.

Bookends of "Folly of Youth" were instrumental selections from Lully's "Phaeton" (1683), opening with a suite of three movements and closing the concert with the Chaconne, in which the variety of instrumental textures over changes atop the four-note motif made for a stately, colorful conclusion. The ensemble had Nagy joined on oboe by Priscilla Herreid, violinists Julie Andrijeski and Scott Metcalfe, with Josh Lee, viola da gamba; Michael Sponseller, harpsichord, and Simon Martyn-Ellis, theorbo and guitar.

Without oboes, the ensemble accompanied Mercer in three vocal excerpts from the opera, in which the jilted lover Theone processes a wide range of emotions in dealing with Phaeton's abandonment of her in favor of Libye, daughter of the king of Egypt. Mercer displayed considerable polish while not burying the music's emotions, as in the vows of revenge checked by second thoughts in "Temoin de ma constance," Theone's third-act showcase. Her trills were in place but never sounded mechanical. Indignation flashed forth in such lines as (translated): "The Infidel Phaeton waited until he had made me feel the power of his ardor to quench the flames."

In the Handel cantata "Tra le fiamme," the flames of love are a central metaphor. The young composer, who carried the hopefully respectful epithet "il Sassone" with him during his Italian sojourn, is clearly feeling his oats in this work. From the ensemble (with Lully's oboes replaced by recorders), we get fluttering moths singed by flame in the opening aria. The ensemble also contributed much to the characterization of a later aria, "Volti per l'aria," which displayed total fitness for its virtuoso demands from gambist Lee. The aria's lesson to those who would imitate Icarus is to "leave flying through the air to those who can" and advises man to pursue it only via his thoughts.

When it comes to insouciant throwing off any temptation to moralize, such admonitions were balanced by LeMaire's  cantatille "Hebe," focusing on advice to seize the moment and take full advantage of youth. Mercer sang elegantly yet seductively such lines as "Join, by the most charming banter, games and love."

Also on the program was a sonata by Francois Duval, spotlighting Les Delices violinist Andrijeski, and a wonderful, free-flowing sonata from the full enemble by Jean-Fery Rebel (after whom a previous Early Music Festival guest was named). The work is called "L'Apollon," a title forthrightly upholding the honor that the French Baroque, an artfully misshapen pearl of great price, frequently paid to the Sun King himself.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Cincinnati Opera's grim, heroic 'Fidelio' displays commitment to its musical and dramatic meaning

Florestan and Leonore celebrate their reunion in the nick of time.
Quite open to updating opera as I am, there is usually a sacrifice or two, where an anachronism in the libretto leaps out as not quite suitable to the usually more modern setting the stage director has chosen.

To make "Fidelio" "today-ish," as scenic designer Robert Dahlstrom carefully put it Thursday before opening night of the Cincinnati Opera production, does not offend me.  But one consequence of stage director Chris Alexander's concept involves a discrepancy that's hard to swallow, of which more later.

A modern prison — with surveillance cameras and occasionally roving searchlights, video monitors and guards in SWAT-style uniforms — conveys the grim side of the maximum security state.

This is the domain of Don Pizarro, the opera's villain, and the trappings fully illustrate his despotic control. The set has a couple of huge, gray iron doors at the back, modeled on airplane hangar doors, which part when the prisoners are let out for a bit of fresh air in Act 1.

A chain-link fence topped with barbed wire is the barrier to the free outside world, which has the downstage feature of a flower bed tended by Marzelline, the jailer Rocco's daughter, at one side. At the other, there's the prison command center, with the technological gear of contemporary incarceration; when needed, that's replaced by Pizarro's office, a wall of metal file cabinets behind him.

There are a few minor discrepancies, which call attention to Dahlstrom's "-ish" suffix in describing the time we should imagine ourselves in. Capping their trio, Rocco, Marzelline and "Fidelio" take iPhone selfies, which prompted me later to wonder why Pizarro keeps tabs on his domain with a bank of paper files in cabinets behind him. Wouldn't a "today-ish" prison governor (as he's styled in the libretto; we would call him a warden) have long since gone digital?

But the big difficulty, worth mentioning only to get it over with and go on to the singing, is the climactic trumpet call signaling the arrival of Pizarro's boss, the government minister Don Fernando, at the prison. That's the rescue avatar of this rescue opera, the musical and dramatic symbol of Leonore's hard-won success saving her unjustly imprisoned husband.

It's quite familiar to symphony concertgoers from the most dramatic of the four overtures Beethoven wrote for his only opera: "Leonore" No. 3. In this production's up-to-date world, it makes no sense for Pizarro to have ordered a trumpeter up to the prison ramparts to play a fanfare indicating Fernando's approach. Think of it: A computerized world in most respects, with a lone bugler appointed to sound a crucial warning that the interruption of Pizarro's murder plot is at hand.

Christine Goerke was a stupendous Fidelio/Leonore, with significant heft in all registers. Especially impressive was her showcase number, opening with "Abscheulicher, wo eilst du hin?" (addressing with a rhetorical question the departing Pizarro, whom she's overheard planning to do away with Florestan before Fernando comes to inspect the prison). Her radiance in the final scene linked both the vocal and dramatic sides of her role. Her thrilling soprano blended well with the soaring tenor of Russell Thomas as Florestan, whose appearance opening Act 2 had all the heroism and pathos one could want.

In supporting roles, Thomas Blondelle as Jaquino, Marzelline's importunate suitor, was amply expressive in gesture and expression, and sang pleasingly. Laura Tatulescu was a buoyant Marzelline, moving with ease, especially among the flowers she's tending as she sang charmingly of her devotion to Fidelio, whom she sees as a potential husband. In the first act, she often lagged a bit behind the orchestra in a performance conducted sensitively by Jun Märkl, with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the pit at Procter & Gamble Hall, Aronoff Center for the Arts.

As Rocco, baritone Nathan Stark was amusing, stalwart, humane and, in the second act, believably conscience-stricken. In stance, movement, and voice, he was perhaps a little too robust to make credible Rocco's protestations that he's no longer able to handle all the hard work of running the jail.

Nmon Ford was chilling as Pizarro, a brute in a snazzy suit.
Nmon Ford presented a handsome figure as Don Pizarro, aptly ferocious and menacing vocally, but severely challenged by the low-lying portions of his role. Daniel Sutin sounded commanding in his brief deus ex machina role, though his slick, white-suited presence as Don Fernando in the last scene disconcertingly brought to mind a banana-republic dictator more than a secular savior and good-government exemplar.

The choral numbers were unfailingly splendid. The staging of the Prisoners' Chorus was imaginative and moving, and the men's singing rang the rafters with joy in breathing fresh air, with the subdued passages reflecting the prisoners' habitual apprehensiveness. The mixed chorus at the end lent massive weight to the opera's moral message — hailing freedom first, then the value of devoted spouses willing to go to great lengths on their partners' behalf.

The crowd rejoices at the downfall of a brutal prison governor in the last scene of "Fidelio."
The singing men and women were supplemented by silent but (mostly) smiling children, indicating that a general prisoner release has been spurred by the arrest of the tyrannical Pizarro, and many families are enjoying happy reunions. One man waves a banner with the word "Freiheit," German for freedom. Joy and freedom are combined, as they were when Leonard Bernstein substituted "Freiheit" for "Freude" in the performance he conducted of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in celebration of the dismantling of the Berlin Wall.

The production makes it clear that the governor had been running a facility with more than one unjustly confined inmate. The brutality of his rule was indicated along the way by guards' dragging and beating prisoners from time to time, and by a humiliating inspection used to accompany a march originally designed to herald Pizarro's initial appearance.

Thus, that trumpet, however hard it may be to explain in this production's setting, turns out to have announced a community milestone, "a new birth of freedom" (to use Lincoln's phrase), giving an extra boost to Beethoven's exhilarating music of rejoicing. The effect was so uplifting that the massive chorus' falling behind the orchestra in a few accelerated phrases amounted to a mere flyspeck of an annoyance.

[Photos by Philip Groshong]

Saturday, July 2, 2016

At the front lines of the political and personal: "Time Stands Still" looks at the perils of journalism at war

Mandy and Richard huddle over the injured Sarah's images as James focuses on his own woes.
The title of the Donald Margulies play just finishing its run at Theatre on the Square refers to a wartime photographer's moments of truth.

Each click of the camera has the potential to produce an image that, when published, may check the onrush of events, however temporarily, for millions who see it at a safe remove.

But "Time Stands Still" also seems to refer to the photographer's inability to advance personally beyond the tenuous authority that making striking, sometimes appalling, images confers. There's something of this feeling of being stuck in how Sarah Goodwin chooses to come out of her recuperation from serious injuries sustained in the Iraq conflict.

The playwright sketches the highlights of Sarah's recovery process through her relationship with James Dodd, a reporter also specializing in foreign conflicts who's trying to put behind him less visible mental trauma that has required his withdrawal from the same arena. In the drama's eight-month span, they work through unresolved difficulties in their personal and professional lives while sharing living quarters in Brooklyn. Sometimes this is in the uneasy presence of visitors Richard Erlich, photo editor of a glossy magazine in which serious journalism fights for space amid the high-end ads and frivolous features, and his latest girlfriend, the much younger Mandy Bloom, a bubbly event-planner.

Gari Williams directs the production, with Cindy Phillips as Sarah, Dave Ruark as James, Ronn Johnston as Richard, and Katherine Shelton as Mandy. From her first entrance, Phillips conveys achingly what Sarah has been through: She's cranky, hurting, and proud. She chafes at James' solicitousness, which is supported by a hidden agenda only gradually revealed to us. There's clearly a sense that their jobs might have blocked happiness for them in any environment away from the action they've temporarily escaped from.

As it is, they've both seen too much. Flashbacks and PTSD are part of their daily diet  — the force-fed part — as they try to move on. The storied tradition of foreign correspondence in words and pictures is both nourishing and somewhat toxic. Richard, played by Johnston as the kind of nice guy who survives in New York magazine journalism by knowing exactly when to get tough and not going there too often, has a get-well present for Sarah (exquisitely wrapped by Mandy). It's a book by Robert Capa, the legendary 20th-century photographer, whose images of war have iconic status.

Near me as I write is a copy of "Madness Visible: A Memoir of War" by Janine Di Giovanni, an account of the 1990s Balkan troubles, rich in atrocities. One of her epigraphs consists of these words by Robert Capa, written in 1941 during the London blitz: "While shaving I had a conversation with myself about the incompatibility of being a reporter and hanging on to a tender soul at the same time."

This conflict is central to Sarah's recovery, and her eventual choice goes in the opposite direction from James. By that point, the couple has managed to produce a book about Iraq, midwifed by Richard, but hanging on to their tender souls is deeply in question. Some of the questions are raised, surprisingly, by Mandy, whose outbursts are nicely calibrated in Shelton's performance. Her tender soul is intact, but in the context of Sarah's and James' experiences, she seems ditsy at the outset, stunned by the journalists' dogged embrace of the world's horrors and a little too effervescent about the social value of event planning.

Margulies has engineered a set-up for Mandy's ethical objections to wartime journalism by making her seem out of her depth at first. He has to hustle her off to the bathroom so James and Sarah can mock her, teasing the defensive Richard. It's not implausible that Mandy could need the bathroom for as long as she does here, but the playwright has saddled the director with managing lots of talk about her that she is not supposed to overhear. The dialogue would have to be conducted in stage whispers for us to believe someone using the bathroom a dozen feet away would not catch the drift of the conversation. Richard shushes everyone at one point, but this scene seems a case of playwright manipulation for whose doubtful credibiity the director (as well as the set designer) must be held blameless.

I also boggled at James' long second-act rant about plays that deal with upsetting topics and the audiences that congratulate themselves on attending them. Ruark manages this almost O'Neillian verbosity well, but I'm trying to figure out why the play needs it. I guess it's meant to be the reporter's way of distancing himself from his guilt about having had to leave a war zone for psychological reasons: If you make theatergoers' interest in awful events look self-congratulatory, you can dodge moral accounting for your own involvement in them.

One thing the playwright gets right is to layer Sarah's outburst of guilt at her work of recording suffering instead of relieving it upon its deep-seated rewards. Contrary to superficial opinion, these aren't a matter of thrill-seeking.They rest on two supports the general public often doesn't understand. One of them is the war correspondents' implicit message to well-off viewers and readers: The sun that rose today on you and your comfortable life also rises on your fellow human beings in peril and distress. This is your world, too. For anyone to do something about it, it's first necessary to take a look, to listen, to know.

The other foundational pillar for the work that has nearly killed Sarah and sidelined James was enunciated long ago by the dean of foreign correspondents, Vincent Sheean. At the end of his classic memoir "Personal History," Sheean defends his work reporting from a host of danger zones by saying he needed to recognize history's "urgency and find my place in relation to it, in the hope that whatever I did (if indeed I could do anything) would at last integrate the one existence I possess into the many in which it had been cast."

Most of us are content merely to touch the existence of other people, integrating our own with only a few others. Journalists in general, but war correspondents in particular, need to get as closely bound to other people's lives as they possibly can, even if only briefly. The more different from them those people are and the more extreme their circumstances, the better. For those capable of it, it must be the greatest existential high, and "integration" is not too strong a word for it. That's what Sarah knows better than James, and why "Time Stands Still" suggests she must continue to have it.

 [Photo by Zach Rosing]