Fringe Festivals are typically over the top, bawdy, and raw--as in unfinished and more like a workshop than a polished production. On July 21, 2012, at the Mount Vernon United Methodist Church auditorium, the Dresser had the pleasure of seeing and hearing Andrew E. Simpson's "operatic entertainment" (as noted in the program handout) The Outcasts of Poker Flat, based loosely on a short story of the same name by Bret Harte. While not a full-blown stage production relative to instrumentation, sets, and lighting, Simpson's production (he is composer, librettist and music director) is mightily polished for a Capital Fringe Festival entry.
Over the top as in exceeding normal bounds? Yes, this is what the operatic form aims for in terms of charged emotional stories and, in this case, Outcasts lets the melodramatic rule and that's not a negative. Bawdy, as in humorously coarse and vulgar? Short of nudity, Outcasts sports its share of swearing, drunkenness, and off-color humor.
The story involves a group of men and women kicked out of the town Poker Flats. The women--Cassie and Lorelei (Lori)--are whores. John Oakhurst is a gambler. Uncle Billy is a drunkard who makes the plight of the other three hopeless when he steals their horses and leaves them stranded as they wake to a major snowstorm. Just before Billy's thieving departure, the lives of the three remaining outcasts are forever altered by the appearance of a young couple on their way to get married in Poker Flats. The young man Tom has encountered Oakhurst before. Tom lost all his money to the gambler, but Oakhurst handed every cent back to the boy. Tom and his bride Piney insist that they will camp with the outcasts and then move on the next morning to Poker Flats. Oakhurst urges them to proceed to Poker Flats, but Tom and Piney have some food that they want to share. This is a story of sacrifice and redemption.
Andrew Simpson, who is a Catholic University of America professor heading the department of music theory and composition with an emphasis on stage music, practices what he teaches. His personal website lays out clearly that he is a "composer who explores how music interacts with other arts, in concert and on stage" and a "performer who specializes in silent film accompaniment and new chamber music." Simpson, as The Professor, arrived on stage first dressed in a bowler hat, white shirt, and dark trousers, looking very much the part of the piano player for a silent film.
The music for Outcasts is a stream of complex contemporary classical with accents of a folk sound intimating the pentatonic scales of Appalachian tunes. The opening number that included Cassie (soprano Rachel Evangeline Barham), Lori (mezzo-soprano Jessi Baden-Campbell), Oakhurst (baritone James Rogers), and Uncle Billy (base-baritone Mike Baden-Campbell) was an ambitious weave of four competing song lines in a mostly atonal mode. The number sets the bar high for the music that followed. Except for the closing duet, which ended abruptly and may be more a problem of stage and musical direction, the Dresser was impressed with what Simpson offered through his highly talented singers. A particular favorite song was a duet between Tom (tenor Noah Mlotek) and Piney (soprano Deborah Sternberg) about songbirds and in the style of the Appalachian folk tune. Jessi Baden-Campbell stands out not only for her singing in pieces like "The Wings of a Dove," but also for her acting. The Dresser could easily see Baden-Campbell in the role of Polly Peachum in Kurt Weill's The Threepenny Opera. In fact, all three women in Outcasts gave admirable performances and Simpson seemed to feature them together and alone. This is a show worth hearing more than once.
In Adam Vines' poem "The Motel Room," the narrator's mother is depicted as an outsider who crosses the line of acceptable good girl behavior, but she is learning classical literature. The poem glances off the characters of The Outcasts of Poker Flat who huddle together in a rustic cabin telling each other stories as a snowstorm strands them. Tom tries to tell the group about the Iliad but falls flat, while Cassie ventures into a version of her life as she sings about the Golden Cock Saloon. Poem and opera alike constantly skirt questions of propriety and moral behavior.
THE MOTEL ROOM
My mother had taken off the shirt-waist dress
she had to wear to classes and slipped on bellbottoms
to walk from the Baptist college to town.
It could've been the ride he offered her to the drugstore
in his shark-finned '58 Impala. It could've been the date
he claimed to have later that night with a woman
whose black hair fell to her waist, or it could've been
the stiff cowboy hat she'd seen only on television.
It was the Fourth of July in Alabama, and most of the students
had gone home. It could've been because he didn't know
about Ovid's "Echo and Narcissus,"
or because he didn't go on his date with the racy woman;
it could've been because he waited instead on his porch
until after dark she passed again with a sailor.
It couldn't be because two days later he took her
with a six-pack to a motel room for their first date,
or because her stepmother sent her down from Chicago
to Birmingham for her step-grandparents' wedding anniversary,
or because, while there, she had secretly enrolled in college,
or because she had no one left but my father to please.
by Adam Vines
from The Coal Life
Copyright © 2012 Adam Vines
Photo credit: Allison Fuentes