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April 1, 2008

The Intimacy of Dido & Aeneas

Opera Alterna, a spanking new opera company, opened Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas on March 28, 2008, as it's first production. Using the intimate Callan Theatre of Catholic University of America's Hartke Theatre building, this professional opera theater company is presenting young talent predominately associated with CUA, but also Maryland Opera Studio of the University of Maryland. The goal of Artistic Director Jay D. Brock
Brock.jpg is to "bring provocative and intimate opera to new audiences." Bravo, shouts the Dresser.

LINING UP FOR OPERA

Imagine her delight, laced with a little frisson of fear, when she arrived at the Callan to see a line of people, some of whom were being told to wait because they were not sure there were enough seats for everyone. Yes, indeed this theater is intimate--only 60 seats. The Dresser is sure that among her readership who attend operas by small companies that all will agree that a respectable showing is twenty-five to thirty people.

To sum up quickly, the story of Dido and Aeneas follows these events. Aeneas arrives in Carthage and courts Dido. She falls for him, but he abandons her to fulfill his destiny in Italy. Heartbroken, she commits suicide. Purcell modeled his opera on John Blow's masque (also called a semi-opera) Venus and Adonis.

What's different about Brock's approach to opera is that he comes from a theater background. That was apparent in how the cast moved and communicated with each other and from what vantage point the players performed. While Purcell's opera has dance numbers, opera aficionados expect Dido and Aeneas to be a static work in which the singers stand and sing but do not do much moving.

UPPING THE EMOTIONAL RESPONSE

Perhaps some of the standard audience expectation regarding this first English opera that premiered in 1689 has to do with Nahum Tate's libretto for Dido and Aeneas. Tate based his libretto on Book Four of Virgil's The Aeneid. Critics complain that Tate and Purcell concentrated too much on making the libretto short and thereby lost important emotional content by the main characters. The key scene from Brock's production that will forever be etched in the Dresser's memory is Dido (as sung by Sarah Phillipa) chasing Aeneas (Michael Weinberg) with her suicide knife.
DidoKnife.jpg
Talk about up close and personal. The Dresser scooted to the edge of her seat as Phillipa-cum-Dido breezed by as she backed Weinberg-cum-Aeneas into the black curtains at one end of the staging area. For a split second, the Dresser believed an intervention was needed against a diva out of control. What played oddly against the Dresser's adrenalin rush was seeing Dido "slash" her wrist and from her wrist fell a ribbon of red paper representing blood. So in that succession of actions, the audience experienced real-time danger (Dido threatening to knife Aeneas in the gut) and theatrical bloodletting that smacked of another era, maybe as old as the opera itself.

LoveScene.jpgOther theatrically inventive scenes included the "shadow puppet" lovemaking of Dido and Aeneas (the couple interact behind a curtain with back-lighting making them appear as shadows on the curtains) and the witches' dance auguring trouble for the lovers. Brock placed a circle on the floor not far from the feet of audience members including the Dresser. The witches annotated the magic circle by chalking it with various symbols. The lead witch used a stick to inscribe the circumference of the circle and to beat an incantation alive. The witches were wild and primal in bare feet. What the Dresser understands is that while Blow's Venus and Adonis had gods manipulating their fate, Purcell's Dido and Aeneas had witches and that witches are an English preference over gods.

Continue reading "The Intimacy of Dido & Aeneas" »

April 21, 2008

Camus' The Plague as Coffin Ballet

In the Chinese Year of the Rat, Scena Theatre has premiered on April 14, 2008, Otho Eskin's adaptation of Albert Camus' most popular novel The Plague. While the Dresser does not wish to negate the generally shared idea that the plague-ridden rats of Scena's current offering in their Nouvelle Vague 20th Anniversary Season are horrifically bad, she will say that a Rat Year is a time of hard work and renewal and that this play adaptation speaks admirably to both hard work and renewal.

How so?

RATS AND THE HUMAN CONDITION

Before the Dresser can talk about what the playwright and co-directors Elle Wilhite (Ms. Wilhite is also an actor and she played Inez in Scena's recent production of No Exit) and Robert McNamara have done to develop this work for the stage, some background information is necessary. Despite the agreement among fans of Camus that La Peste (The Plague) is his most accessible novel, this existential classic about the Algerian town of Oran under lockdown after a plethora rats turn up dead everywhere and then people start dying offers multiple interpretations.
theplague099s.jpg
Kim Curtis (Monsieur Othon), Karen O'Conell, Michael Vitaly Sazonaov (Dr. Rieux)





It is a grim allegory about the human condition--who's morally good or bad, who's physically weak or strong, who's civically helpful or destructive. In keeping with the time during which Camus wrote this work (World War II and the German occupation), the novel, published in 1947, has been read as a metaphorical statement of the French resistance to the Nazi occupation. On top of these layers, which seem straightforward by comparison, is the philosophic edge of the absurd dealing with things over which we have no control (death and pestilence, for example).

And two more things about the location of this story and the characters. Camus' Oran is a town where nothing happens, nothing grows like trees or flowers. Just a dusty town where "even love is banal." This is important to know because how people change under the siege of bubonic plague is what Camus was interested in studying. Also and unlike most small theater productions, there are fourteen actors in the cast and some play multiple roles.

Considering the complexity of the work and its large role call of characters, this is not what the Dresser would call an easy novel to adapt to the stage.

So how has the adaptation been done?

OF RAT SYMPHONY AND COFFIN BALLET

Eskin has boiled the five-part novel (about 320 pages) down to an intermission-less one-and-half hour play. The Dresser believes the strategy of no intermission essential to building the tension of the play adaptation. The playwright has also reassigned some of the didactic dialogue from Doctor Rieux, who is the narrator of the story, to Jean Tarrou, a philosophic outsider who seems in many respects to mirror Albert Camus. As directors, Wilhite and McNamara have created what McNamara calls a "corps de ballet" having the cast effect stylized movements backed up by a sound track that McNamara calls the "rat symphony."
theplague124s.jpgThe cast interacts with telephone-booth-sized cubes. Does everyone know what a telephone booth looks like since the cell phone has rendered these edifices unnecessary? Segments of the cast climb into these cubes while others move the occupied structures around. Designed and built by set designer Leon Weibers, the cubes look like display cabinets or Sleeping Beauty's glass casket upended. Without the constant repositioning of the cubes filled with the stop action players (think of mannequins in a department store window), the Dresser thinks this play would not offer enough emotional variety to keep the audience engaged.

Why?

The news keeps getting worse. First there are the dead rats, then people start dying and no one wants to admit a plague is happening much less do anything to counteract it. Soon the officials wake up and the town is gated so no one can leave and no one else can enter. The town's preacher says the plague was brought on by the sins of the town and later after a child dies an agonizing death, the preacher recants and says this is a test of faith. A criminal who otherwise would have been arrested is now free to operate a service for people who want to leave the quarantined town. The only ray of hope is that Dr. Rieux's colleague Dr. Castel will find a serum to counteract the epidemic and that Joseph Grand, a quirky friend of Dr. Rieux's, will make progress and finish his novel.
theplague080s.jpg
Samantha Merrick and Joe Lewis (Joseph Grand)

When the story ends, the plague has ended, but Dr. Rieux knows and says that plague just goes into hiding.

Continue reading "Camus' The Plague as Coffin Ballet" »

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