March 23, 2018

In a Time of Winter Comes a New Winter's Tale

The Dresser would like to say that the Folger Theatre's offering The Winter's Tale, a late hard-to-categorize play by William Shakespeare, belongs successfully to Director Aaron Posner for his pleasing re-imagining that brings a cast of musician-actors, puppetry, and beautiful well-crafted costumes on stage. However, Posner's directorial notes thanks everyone, including the audience, for coming together to make this dark story of a king gone mad who ruins his family a joyful turnabout. Posner says this production of The Winter's Tale is a collaboration that thoroughly focuses on how an audience "might respond to this or that moment... if this or that ancient or archaic word will be understandable and, often, how the show will all add up for you at the end."


On March 22, 2018, the Dresser arrived at the Folger having skimmed the unfamiliar five-act play which she had never seen in live production. Before she had completely settled into her seat with her bulky parka (yeah, Washington, DC, is experiencing a prolonged winter), unexpected music began playing from house left. Were they practicing? What music was this? And who were these musicians dressed in costumes not usual for a music ensemble? As it turns out, this production has original music composed and written by Liz Filios (Cleomenes, Mopsa and others) in collaboration with Eric Hissom (Storyteller, Camillo, Antigonus and others), Emily Kaye Lynn (Dion, Dorcas and others), Daven Ralston (Mamillius, Perdita and others), Joshua Thomas (Archidamus, Young Shepherd and others) and the cast of The Winter's Tale. Furthermore, these actors are versatile musicians playing keyboard, cello, guitar, banjo, dulcimer, ukulele, squeezebox, drums and probably something else the Dresser missed.

Was the music entertaining? Yes and apropos, it drew lines like "Love makes beggars of us all" from the text of the play. Instead of a Greek chorus named Time, this production features a song about time where the entire cast joins in. As music director, Liz Filios does a great job transitioning into musical numbers. As Storyteller, Eric Hissom plays a part created specifically for this production.

Written in five acts and divided into two parts by a 15-minute intermission, this two-and-half-hour production presents the story of Sicilian King Leontes (Michael Tisdale) causing the deaths of his young son Mamillius and then his wife Hermione (Katie deBuys) while having banished his infant daughter to a distant country. This happens because Leontes urges Hermione to persuade his friend Polixenes, King of Bohemia, to extend his stay in Sicilia at the court of Leontes. When she does this, Leontes flips and accuses them of adultery. He orders his pregnant wife imprisoned. Polixenes (Aldo Billingslea) is warned by Camillo (Eric Hissom), a counsellor of Leontes, to flee. In prison, Hermione gives birth and Paulina (Grace Gonglewski), an influential and outspoken lady of the court brings the infant to Leontes to show the king that the baby looks like her father even down to same dimple. Gonglewski's performance is a tour de force. Leontes rages that the child is not his and orders it brutally killed. His couriers beg him to reconsider and thus he orders Paulina's husband Antigonus (Eric Hissom) to take the child to some desert place and abandon it.

Relenting, Leontes calls for a judgment from the Oracle of Delphi. Hermione is brought into the court to hear the verdict. The Oracle exonerates everyone except Leontes and he erupts, tearing up the written pronouncement. Thunder cracks and a nursemaid rushes into court to say the King's son is dead, his gentle soul worn down by the separation from his mother. Cleverly, Mamillius has been cast as a child-sized puppet, expertly handled by Daven Ralston. Costume designer Kelsey Hunt dresses Ralston and the puppet in the same eye-catching royal blue suits with cranberry red caps. Hearing that her son is dead, Hermione swoons in a dead faint.

Puppet Son.jpg

In the final scene before intermission, Antigonus who has been haunted by visions abandons the baby whom he has named Perdita. To reinforce his visions, a white scrim is hung for shadow puppetry that includes Hermione speaking to Antigonus and a sighting of the bear who will kill and eat him.

The remaining two acts take place 16 years later when Perdita (Daven Ralston) has come of age as the daughter of a shepherd. Florizell, the Prince of Bohemia (Drew Drake) has fallen in love with Perdita but not with his father's blessing. Drake gives a charming contemporary nod to his character allowing Florizell to utter current day slang "my bad." Camillo, who has spent the life time of Perdito in Polixenes' court after saving this king from the other king's jealous wrath, sees an opportunity to return home to Sicilia and he offers to help the young couple escape from Florizell's father. Except for a few hiccups, order and happiness are restored to both kings as Perdita is established as Leontes lost daughter. The magical surprise is that Hermione lives.


Everything about this production of The Winter's Tale is worthy of one's time and attention, even down to the way the Storyteller's plaid pants were buttoned in a snug cuff above his shoes. And so, this excellent production passes from Winter to Spring, a good metaphoric exit.

Kurt Olsson's poem "How Many Angels" while holding close the angelic son King Leones lost, reverberates with the joy that returns to the court of Sicilia when both his banished daughter and his wife return to him.


And afterwards where do they go
spilling from the pin's head like wildflowers
dried and forgotten in an unread book?

And what happens to their music?
Does it stop or do the notes still jig and echo
like tin horns in the cities of the damned?

What comes of the slippers and the tambours,
pan flutes and lyres, all the instruments
of their useless dancing?

And what of the angel,
last numbered, one metaphysical foot lifted
for his first and forever final dance step?

by Kurt Olsson
from Burning Down Disneyland

Photo Credits: Teresa Wood

December 15, 2017

An American in Paris: Love with Wings

In this time of upsetting world and national events, Washington, DC's Kennedy Center Opera House is blessed to be running performances of the multi-award-winning ballet musical An American in Paris. The Dresser saw the December 14, 2017 performance and declares with gusto that every element of this two-and-a-half-hour show with music by brothers George and Ira Gershwin and book by Craig Lucas is smartly uplifting and without gratuitous schmaltz.


This story set in post-WWII Paris features an American soldier who lingers in Paris to pursue his art career and is swept off his feet by a French girl who is hiding something about her past. Quickly a wealthy American woman with a lot of money latches on to him romantically and brings his friends and this girl together in a ballet she bankrolls.


The dancing, particularly by McGee Maddox (in the role of Jerry Mulligan) and Allison Walsh (in the role of Lise Dassin) is winged with exuberance and seemingly effortless skill. Many of the numbers, particularly those with the impressive projections (projection designer: 59 Productions) along a walkway on the Seine River, capture what we film aficionados adore about the dancing of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. This musical, inspired by the film of the same name, won three Fred and Adele Astaire Awards as well as four Tony Awards, four Drama Desk Awards, four Outer Critics Circle Awards and many other honors.

The accomplished team of performers are flawless in their ability to act, sing, and dance. The creative team includes Tony Award-winners Bob Crowley (set and costume designer) and Natasha Katz (lighting designer). The Dresser cannot say enough about the combined elements of set components with projections--they are rich and worth the price of admission on their own. The Gershwin music, such as "I Got Rhythm" and "But Not for Me" soar under the baton of David Andrews Rogers who at intermission was talking to audience members peering into the orchestra pit to see if the show was making them happy.


While all the numbers were deeply satisfying perhaps the most unique was the dancing with chairs to "Fidgety Feet" in the second and final act. Hats off to Sam Davis and his dance arrangements and Dontee Kiehn associate director and associate choreographer.

In Mike White's poem "Love," a love-struck person is literally so much up in the air that he/she sees the beloved from outer space. Still this person is not unaware of the darkness that surrounds us here on earth. An American in Paris also acknowledges the darkness and we see in opening scenes a Nazi banner turning into the French flag as a group of onlookers out a woman deemed a collaborator. This is the landscape of the love story with thorns.


You mean the world to me, meaning
the only way to see you
is from outer space.
As you know
I have little aptitude
for space travel.
Like the monkey
they launched into orbit
I tend to push buttons at random
and eat too much people food.
Where am I going with this thing? I know
the dark is all around us, love.
I'm out here waving to you, only to you
round and green and blue.

by Mike White
from">Addendum to a Miracle

Photo Credits: Matthew Murphy

October 17, 2017

The Fierce Love of Antony and Cleopatra

Robert Richmond has created a compelling and engaging production of Antony and Cleopatra for Washington, DC's Folger Theatre. The Dresser saw the October 15, 2017 performance.


Richmond has chosen a theater-in-the-round presentation which makes the small Folger setting even more intimate. His costume Designer Mariah Hale dresses up the scenes with vibrant costumes both for the women and the men. The alluring Cleopatra (Shirine Babb) wears eye-catching, form-fitting blue and violet negligees with gold trim. Her women attendants wear gently clinging blue ankle-length gowns while her eunuch wears complementing pajamas both in color and fabric. The soldiers, including Antony (Cody Nickell), wear lots of leather and heavy laced up boots. Antony's vest has tiered layers of leather that move down his upper arm. He wears leather pants and he, like the other soldiers, wears a type of leather apron that has thick straps with metal studs. The apron is to protect the soldier's manhood and, in this production, this costume element emphasizes the sexual component and how Antony is controlled by his attraction to an extraordinarily powerful woman.


If there was only one selling point allowed for this production, that would be the choreographed, foot-stomping dances of the soldiers and Antony. These spectacular scenes of movement are infused with high-octane testosterone. Since there is no choreographer listed in the credits, the Dresser assumes the movement design is strictly Richmond's.

916_Dance around bride.jpg

History buffs can tell you how complex the story is between these two world leaders during the time of the Roman Empire of which Mark Antony is one of the three despotic rulers and Cleopatra is just a satellite. What is essential to know is that the action of this Shakespeare play unfolds the fierce love story between Cleopatra and Antony as well as the power struggle between Antony and Octavius Caesar (Dylan Paul). Layered on top of this is Antony's sex life--he is married to a warring woman named Fulvia (she is his third wife) who dies during his extended visit to Cleopatra and when he goes back to Rome to take care of business, he marries Octavius's half-sister Octavia (Nicole King) as a peace-making political gesture. Additionally, though not prominent in Shakespeare's play is the specter of Cleopatra's late lover Julius Caesar by whom she had a son.

The prevailing climate is all about survival but survival under certain terms. Therefore, when Antony proves to be weak in battle, something he blames on Cleopatra who initially stands and fights with him but then flees, Cleopatra is wily enough to bargain with Octavius through his emissary. Antony explodes with anger and vows he will kill Cleopatra who takes shelter in her mausoleum, telling her servants to spread the word that she is dead. Hearing the news of her death, Antony asks his friend Eros (Anthony Michael Martinez) to kill him but Eros can't do it and kills himself. Antony is then forced to fall on his sword without help. Antony is wounded only and then hears Cleopatra's servant spreading the news that she is alive. He ends by dying in her arms. She, not wishing to be paraded through the streets of Rome by Octavius, commits suicide with poisonous snakes and allows herself to be bitten.

Another juicy morsel in Richmond's bag of directorial tricks is that he casts the same excellent actor in the roles of Eros and Soothsayer. Martinez, as the Soothsay, has memorable separate scenes with Antony and with Cleopatra. With Antony, Soothsayer literally shakes the warrior-lover to the bone, telling him to give wide berth to Octavius, a man who will beat Antony at any game. Cleopatra, however, beats up Soothsayer who ends up prostrate and quaking before the angry queen in a scene that is darkly comic.


Antony and Cleopatra is a rich tapestry in the hands of such a creative and smart director as Robert Richmond. The Dresser bows to Shakespeare's sonnet 150 as a final word on love and power which can be read from either Antony's or Cleopatra's perspective.


O, from what power hast thou this powerful might
With insufficiency my heart to sway?
To make me give the lie to my true sight,
And swear that brightness doth not grace the day?
Whence hast thou this becoming of things ill,
That in the very refuse of thy deeds
There is such strength and warrantise of skill
That, in my mind, thy worst all best exceeds?
Who taught thee how to make me love thee more,
The more I hear and see just cause of hate?
O, though I love what others do abhor,
With others thou shouldst not abhor my state.
If thy unworthiness raised love in me,
More worthy I to be beloved of thee.

by William Shakespeare

Photo Credits: Teresa Wood

October 15, 2017

The Fires of Shining Brow

Fire dominates UrbanArias' 90-minute production of composer Daron Aric Hagen and librettist Paul Muldoon's Shining Brow, an opera about architect Frank Lloyd Wright and an illicit love affair. Upon entering the Sprenger Theatre of Washington, DC's Atlas Performing Arts Center on October 14, 2017, the Dresser was immersed in smoke. Director Grant Preisser uses smoke to emphasize the murky world of Wright's memory after a fire had been set at the Taliesin estate in the house Wright designed and built for his mistress Mamah Cheney. Shining brow is the literal translation of the welsh word Taliesin. As operagoers, we learned Mamah died during that fire but as students of Wright's biography, we know that a deranged cook working in the house set the fire and then proceeded to kill with an axe Mamah and six others, including her two young children as they tried to escape the conflagration.

Outlaw.jpgSo there is the house fire which the audience experiences as a set of piled up chairs perched over a slit in the stage floor with smoke pouring out there and from several other trap doors. But also there is the fire of passion between Wright (baritone Sidney Outlaw) and his mistress (soprano Miriam Khalil). Additionally, there is the friction of explosive dimension between Wright and his wife Catherine (mezzo-soprano Rebecca Ringle). Even Louis Sullivan (tenor Robert Baker) Wright's mentor turns up the heat with a disturbing argument. The singers including bass-baritone Ben Wager (as the husband of Mamah) are first class. Miriam Khalil's singing and acting performance nail Mameh's sexual magnetism which Wright cannot resist.


The mostly hidden orchestral ensemble under the agile baton of UrbanArias founding director Robert Wood produced the polytonal score in a flow of pleasing music. The Dresser's personal favorite composition was a syncopated number that featured the words Sodom & Gomorrah.

Poet Paul Muldoon's libretto was unquestionably overwritten. Instead of the libretto, the program booklet featured about four pages of glossary detailing plants, birds, mythological characters, literary allusions, native American tribes, and more. This is one of those operas in English that could have used English surtitles or fewer and simpler words.

While overall, the Dresser enjoyed Shining Brow, she thinks that the 90-minute version is confusing and suggests it would be beneficial to see the entire opera which premiered by the Madison Opera in 1993. She also found some of Director Grant Preisser's touches adding to this confusion, such as the mouth to mouth kiss Louis Sullivan plants on Wright (there was no indication either were homosexual) and the ghoulish makeup used particularly on Edwin Cheney's eyes. Later in a talk back, Preisser said he wanted to indicate with the makeup that Wright was remembering various people and that they were not in real time.

In Judith McCombs' poem "The Habit of Fire," a hiker travels alone at sunset while the entire landscape begins "talking." The hiker is a stranger in the natural world and as long as this person does not light a fire, he or she can partake and "see" what is there. Frank Lloyd Wright was known for creating buildings in harmony with the natural world. However, he made himself a persona non grata and therefore a stranger in his community (among his family and colleagues) by allowing a fire to ignite between him and a woman who came with her husband to employ Wright as a builder of their dream house. Instead he kindles the flames of passion, builds a dream house for this woman who becomes his mistress, and while he is away, someone who works for him burns down the house and kills everyone in it.


By the wilderness lake I settle my haunches
in a nest of stones, lean back on a deadfall
carcass of pine, the only shelter,
cold but not wet. Behind me thickets
waiting for nightfall; no openings my size,
no one's been here. The sun slides down
over the green-black cones of the mountains
rimming the lake; the sky flares up
like a mirror, pearl on the water, glaring
and greying. Suddenly thinned air, like water,
wraiths of cold swimming towards me;
too late to wash up. grey fire stones and kindling
readied before me, unlit; deadfall
enough for hours.
............................Black mountains, black sky;
stone shapes changing. I see through a face net
my personal aura of insects close in,
signaled by warmth. Things crackling and listening
behind me; the sky goes Whooee, Whooee,
no one I know.
.......................Smell of horses
from somewhere, then gone; no horses out here,
anything that big is probably bear.
New prints today on the logging road,
in the place where I backtracked for water, bear crossing
over the prints of my Vibram soles,
full-grown. While I yawn, the road I will follow
leans downhill, gullies, lets go; stones topple;
thickets I broke are healing behind me.
I don't want to know how the blackness spreads
under my ribs.
.......................If I died out here
it would be my doing, not theirs; I smell
of textiles and fire; even dead they'd avoid me.
I couldn't live here.
..............................In the blackness a lapping
of water or muzzle; the air says something,
gibberish or warning, and quits when I move,
matches in hand, to strike open the fire
that stops me from seeing.

by Judith McCombs
from The Habit of Fire

"The Habit of Fire" copyright © 2005 by Judith McCombs

August 19, 2017

Disturbing the Gates Of Reason--A New Look at Othello


Static opening scenes give way to overzealous action in Shakespeare Theatre Company's Free For All Othello directed by Ron Daniels, known best for his direction of contemporary operas. Daniels has cast Faran Tahir, a Pakistani-American actor from television and film, as the Moor Othello. The Dresser finds this casting reasonable except when Tahir is pushed to emotional excess and then what he says does not pass for understandable English. When he speaks normally, one hears that he does not enunciate and therefore final consonants float way from his delivery. In another play where words do not hold the weight of Shakespeare's carefully conceived text where so many lines resonant with stunning wisdom, the sound that Tahir produces in high-speed word spills would add to who the character is--a foreigner.

Jay Whittaker plays a commanding Iago, the ensign to Othello who brings down the successful general by whittling away Othello's belief in and love for his new bride Desdemona. Whittaker has the capacity to incite an audience member to leap out of his seat and onto to the stage to strangle Iago. How could this character be so evil? How could Whittaker be so tuned in to Iago's dark spirit? He's an excellent actor.
Somewhat disturbing is how brashly Madeleine Rogers plays Desdemona. Given that Director Daniels has constructed a modern-day timeframe where the costumes of the men look like World War II military uniforms--maybe Nazi uniforms, Desdemona's behavior seems aggressive and more the way a woman of the 21st century would behave. However, her white costumes that cover more than reveal suggest the purity expected of this well-known Shakespearean character. Her costumes in Cypress also hint at Muslim dress as if she were trying to fit in there and with her formerly Muslim husband.

Cassio (played by Patrick Vaill), whom Iago turns into his pawn, seems like a crybaby. So that when he anguishes, "Reputation, reputation, reputation! Oh, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial." (Act Ii, Scene 3) The Dresser merely perked up her ears at these famous lines and felt nothing but disgust for Cassio who brought on Othello's wrath by drinking and brawling. Never mind that Iago lured Cassio into the situation that Cassio knew initially to refuse.

Shakespeare uses the word honest 52 times in this play and many times Iago is referred to as an honest man. In Act III, Scene 3, Iago and Othello have an extended conversation about whether Cassio is an honest man. The Dresser was taken aback at how much the audience laughed at this conversation which was condemning not only Cassio but Othello's wife. Under the 45th president of the United States, truth and authenticity have been shredded into unrecognizable pieces by the constant use of lies and innuendo. The Dresser supposes that the laughter, which seemed to increase as the word honest was overused and emphasized, acquired a life of its own and perhaps that is the mark of a director tuned into his time.

The favorite scenes of Daniels' production of Othello were those of soldiers singing, dancing, and fighting. Kudos to choreographer Robb Hunter, Cliff Williams III, and fight captain Robbie Gay. The least favorite element was lighting design by Christopher Akerlind. Often the lights were in the audience eyes.
Fred Marchant's "Call to Prayer" addresses loss of faith and that strikes at the heart of what happens to Othello. By taking on the faith of the people he lives among and worse by believing a man like Iago, Othello allows himself to lose faith in his wife who loves and trusts him. By giving his production of Othello a hint of Muslim trappings (how his wife and her attendant dressed and Othello using a special cloth to pray on), Ron Daniels has managed to shift a very complex psychological tragedy to a current day enigma. The Dresser suggests that Shakespeare's brainwashed protagonist in Daniels' production makes one think of the murderous terrorists brainwashed by Al-Qaeda and ISIS.


It begins in what one imagines as desert but is nothing empty.
For a second or two the air hints at the night it has risen from.

Then the call passes from voice to voice, saying this is yours,
take it on the next, as if these words were waves in a storm,

each gaining on the other, growing stronger when the touch,
the song overtaking dawn at the rim of the valley just before

the words enter the old city by the gates of reason, finding
the byways piled high with what no one believes anymore.

Stray cats, arching their backs when they hear it, cry out in pain.
We throw open the green metal shutters, and try to listen again.

by Fred Marchant
from Said Not Said

"Call to Prayer" copyright © 2017 by Fred Marchant

Photo Credits: Jennifer Reiley

August 3, 2017

An Octoroon--[Box] Meets <Diamond>

Breaking the Fourth Wall, play within a play, actors playing dual roles, contemporary and antiquated timeframes as one reality, and a surreal character are all elements of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins remarkable An Octoroon, a play about race in America. Jacobs-Jenkins bases his contemporary speaking play on the 1859 melodrama entitled The Octoroon by Dion Boucicault.


The Dresser, who saw the July 30, 2017 performance of the Woolly Mammoth production, has seen plenty of theater where the actors infiltrate the audience, maybe embarrass one or two innocent, bone fide audience members and then go back to the traditional play plan where the players interact with one another. Octoroon's breach of the Fourth Wall is different. The character BJJ who talks to the audience first is the stand-in for contemporary playwright Branden Jacobs-Jenkins. BJJ, played with exceptional plasticity by Jon Hudson Odom, appears on stage wearing nothing by his briefs.

He first interacts with an audience member whose cell phone rings (is this an audience plant? The Dresser doesn't think this matters) and then briefs his audience on the play via a session with his female shrink. Odom plays both roles--the nearly naked depressed BJJ and the sickeningly sunny analyst (the audience only hears her voice). BJJ makes it clear that he is a black playwright trying to talk about race in America but he can't get any white actors to take parts that implicate white Americans with slavery. The shrink helps him think through how to proceed, which results in the use of white, black. and red makeup to make a black actor a white man, a white actor a black man, and another white actor a red man (a Native American). So what Jacobs-Jenkins does is through BJJ's vulnerability (i.e. his nearly nakedness) is pull the audience through the Fourth Wall to make them intimates in the process of how this play is going to be enacted. As final touch to the opening scene, BJJ turns his back as he prepares to dress and play the white men roles (George, the good one, and M'Closkey, the bad one). With his back turned he pulls his briefs into his butt crack and essentially moons the audience. Whoa, does this playwright have attitude.


Just in case you are wondering, the melodrama involves trying to save a plantation in financial ruin and its inhabitants from the clutches of the evil M'Closkey. Among the people affected is a young woman named Zoe who is the daughter of the newly dead plantation master. Zoe's genetic makeup is 1/8 black. She is an octoroon whose status as a free person comes into question with the forced sale of the plantation.THEOCTOROON_AuctionBlock.jpg

What makes Jacobs-Jenkins' play compelling is the discussion throughout the acts about how this play is being made or how it was made. The playwright is thorough and never drops the thread about how An Octoroon is or has been constructed. Almost a legerdemain, Jacobs-Jenkins tacks on a coda after the true end of the play provides a sensational boat-on-fire scene. The coda features two black women who have been sold to the river boat captain Ratts (Jobari Parker-Namdar). The women (played by Erika Rose and Felicia Curry) are looking forward to a new life away from the plantation not knowing their new home has been incinerated. But then their conversation turns back on itself with what-if questions and this mostly comic team turns serious and philosophic as the two deconstruct the play. Interestingly they perform before a scenery flat positioned close to the front of the stage duplicating how the old melodrama might have presented this scene. Scenery flats were positioned close to the front of the stage because lighting was a problem. Before 1850, night time theater in American was lit mostly by candlelight; after 1850, theaters began modernizing with gas lamps. What the positioning of the scenery does, in the Dresser's mind, is create a sense of intimacy while also suggesting metaphorically that these characters are on stage to shine light on the situation.

There is a lot of meat on the bones of this play but the Dresser will add just these two additional things about a play with great acting, fluid directing (kudos to Director Nataki Garrett), and engaging sets and costumes--the fight scene between George and M'Closkey (remember: both roles are played by Jon Hudson Odom) revivals Cirque du Soleil contortionists. And what about the larger-than-life rabbit who walks through many of the scenes? The Dresser thinks the rabbit is Br'er Rabbit from the Uncle Remus tales--the trickster using his wit to thumb his nose at authority and to bend the rules as he sees fit. The rabbit is another stand-in for the playwright.


Henry Crawford's "When [Box] Met <Diamond>" is a poem within a poem and it touches on the issues of slavery and enlightenment allowing an opportunity for a dialectic with Jacobs-Jenkins' play An Octoroon. The Dresser presents Crawford's poem and then a playful interchange between Crawford's first poem of "When [Box] Met <Diamond>" and the Dresser's ascribed nervous thoughts about first entering into An Octoroon--would the Dresser as audience be manipulated by the playwright and forced to watch something that tries her patience?


[I hope this is not another free verse poem.]
Before there were war planes [Oh no!] there was
going down in flames [it is.] Before there was
[What, repetition?] Greek tragedy
[And another lame enjambment.] there was
Greek slavery [I'm a person too, you know.]
Before there were <hey you> courts
[I think I deserve a better poem than this.] there were
courtiers <you, in the box> Before there were cities
<i see you> there were rivers [You don't know how long]
Before there were rights [I've been trapped here.]
there were privileges <i know what it's like to feel trapped>
[Tell me before he starts again.] Before there were pistols
[Oh crap!] there were shots [He got it off.]
<i used to be a prisoner in a narrative poem>
Before there were lawyers there were [You?] laws
Before there was the big
[How did you leave?] there was the big bang
[I don't think this will work.]
Before there were knives <now, just take my hand>
[Oh, this won't work.] there was <just hold on>
[Yes, I can feel it.] cutting loose. Before
there was the Renaissance [Say it diamond!] there was
the Age of Enlightenment <we're outta here>
Before there were prisons, there were sentences.

by Henry Crawford
from American Software

"When [Box] Met <Diamond>" copyright © 2017 by Henry Crawford

[I hope this is not another free verse poem.]
[Oh no!]
[it is.]
[What, repetition?]
[And another lame enjambment.]
[I'm a person too, you know.]
<hey you>
[I think I deserve a better poem than this.]
<you, in the box>
<i see you> [You don't know how long]
[I've been trapped here.]
<i know what it's like to feel trapped>
[Tell me before he starts again.]
[Oh crap!] [He got it off.]
<i used to be a prisoner in a narrative poem>
<god yes, but I found a way out>
[How did you leave?]
<take my hand> [I don't think this will work.]
<now, just take my hand>
[Oh, this won't work.] <just hold on>
[Yes, I can feel it.]. <me too>
[Say it diamond!]
<we're outta here>

WHEN [BOX] MET <DIAMOND> {First Poem with comments from the Dresser}

[I hope this is not another free verse poem.]

The Dresser: I hope An Octoroon is not another self-conscious play that messes with the audience.

[Oh no!]
[it is.]
[What, repetition?]
[And another lame enjambment.]
[I'm a person too, you know.]
<hey you>
[I think I deserve a better poem than this.]

The Dresser: The audience deserves a better play than one messing with the audience.

<you, in the box>
<i see you> [You don't know how long]
[I've been trapped here.]
<i know what it's like to feel trapped>
[Tell me before he starts again.]
[Oh crap!] [He got it off.]

The Dresser: I have seen naked actors on stage but somehow a male character wearing briefs seemed more unsettling than a completely naked body. What was the meaning of this state of undress?

<i used to be a prisoner in a narrative poem>
<god yes, but I found a way out>
[How did you leave?]
<take my hand> [I don't think this will work.]
<now, just take my hand>
[Oh, this won't work.] <just hold on>
[Yes, I can feel it.]. <me too>
[Say it diamond!]
<we're outta here>

The Dresser: Quite frankly when BJJ began the exchange with his shrink, I thought I and the audience were in for a long and tedious night of theater. I was completely surprised that the shrink could lead the despairing black playwright out of his funk with grease paint.

Now, Dear Reader, the Dresser will step back and allow you to see the parallels of the second poem in "When [Box] Met <Diamond>."

June 5, 2017

Independence Eve: Ears on Baseball

In the United States now, everyone--in one way or another--is concerned with civil rights and racism. June 3, 2017, the Dresser saw UrbanArias, a small opera company producing short contemporary chamber operas, premiere Independence Eve by composer Sidney Marquez Boquiren and librettist Daniel Neer. It is a demanding new opera set in three scenes, all on July 3 but in past, present, and future years--1963, 2013, and 2063.


Scene 1 between two 47-year-old men who do not know each other concerns the issue of housing integration. The black man, who is the chief porter at a four-star hotel, has just moved into the neighborhood the white man, a police officer, has just left unhappily.

Scene 2 between two 27-year-old men who do know each other concerns the issue of profiling black men. The white man expresses sympathy about the black man being mistreated by law enforcement. Just talking about the incident tests their friendship.

Scene 3 between two ten-year-old boys concerns inequality between economic classes. However, the black kid has a father "working for the Federation," which means his family has money and clout. The white kid's family is poor and not connected.

All three scenes are static and just involve the two players and a bench.

All the characters are played by baritone Jorell Williams and Tenor Brandon Snook, who each do an outstanding job of singing and acting.

IndEve-Adelphi-e1430885577471-300x206.jpgThe music is dissonant and features flute and clarinet playing strident tones particularly in the first two scenes. The emotional pitch of the music and libretto in the first two scenes is stressfully high. Scene 3 is mellow and more lyric. The Dresser was impressed by Williams and Snook in their ability to effectively portray young boys. Even their facial expressions were convincingly boyish. The Dresser's favorite aria came from Snook (the poor white kid) as he told the wealthier black kid about his deaf mother.

Conductor Robert Wood professional as always provided strong direction to both the ensemble of musicians (violin, violoncello, clarinet, flute, piano) and the two singers. The Dresser commends UrbanArias for presenting contemporary operas that speak to current day issues.

In David Eye's poem "You Said Listen," two people struggle with a difference that is expressed in a song played on the radio. In Independence Eve, baseball, either broadcast on the radio or a game just completed by the characters is the lingua franca of how two men or boys communicate. The capacity to listen and to translate the information received into understanding is at the heart of Sidney Marquez Boquiren and Daniel Neer's opera. It's that complicated love-hate tug between any two people.


It was one of those songs--
shut us up at the turnoff,
kept us in the truck
that night, our dashboard
eyes on the radio dial--
Could you see it like me....

Now I see you hated it
here in the hills
unnerved by the night
but you never let on
and that --finally--
is a kind of love.

by David Eye
from Seed

"You Said Listen" copyright © 2017 by David Eye

April 2, 2017

The Lucy Opera--High Stakes Love

lucy baby.jpgUrbanArias, a small opera company producing short contemporary chamber operas has outdone itself with its production of Lucy, a 60-minute, one-man show dealing with human love misapplied. Kelley Rourke has written the libretto centered around a real-life family who decided in 1964 to raise a chimpanzee as their own child. For eleven years, the couple--Maurice Temerlin, a psychologist, and his wife Jane, a social worker--conducted a psychological experiment to see if nature or nurture would win out. John Glover has created a musical foundation that both supports the single player on stage as well as revealing the primal emotional payload of a human trying to love and train an animal to be human. Robert Wood as conductor provides passionate energy to an ensemble of seven that includes a toy piano.

Glover supported baritone Andrew Wilkowske by giving him necessary breaks from singing with musical interludes. For example, during one interlude, Wilkowske signs many of the words Lucy learned from her expert teacher primatologist Roger Fouts. On April 1, 2017, the Dresser saw Wilkowske, the outstanding singer who created the role for the world premiere in 2012 by Milwaukee Opera Theater, give an over-the-top performance which expressed the complex feelings that Temerlin had for Lucy. Through word repetition and syncopation, the music digs in deep to reveal something primal about Lucy's foster father. We hear that Lucy's love of unending repetitious play was exhausting to Maurice Temerlin as was her sporadic "accidents" that deposited feces throughout the Temerlin house. The loss of friends and family who would not visit and the people in their community who would shout and repeat "no pets allowed in this store" took its toll on the Temerlins.
Andrew Wilkowske.jpg
What convinced the Temerlins that Lucy could no longer live with them was a series of violent incidents. In the end, the foster father who called the adopted "daughter" precious darling sent Lucy to a rehabilitation center in Gambia. To ease the chimpanzee's transition into a wild habitat, Temerlin hired a graduate student to accompany Lucy. The Temerlins already knew that Lucy did not relate to other chimpanzees.LUCY mature.png

What gives the opera variety are video projections and oral recordings that put the wife and other figures, including Lucy, into the room. We see Lucy's tea set, her one-armed teddy bear (other arm torn off leaving a gaping hole), and her child-sized human bed on stage. Wilkowske immense emotional output carries the load for anyone else mentioned. It's easy to believe that Maurice Temerlin was thoroughly Lucy's father--that he cared for her beyond all logic as any parent would for his or her offspring.

In Bill Yarrow's poem "The Vig of Love," love is framed as a gambler's expensive bet. As a witness to the opera Lucy, the Dresser wonders what the real-life Maurice Temerlin was wagering regarding his inhumane experiment that affected not only an innocent animal but his family which included his wife and the unmentioned (in the opera) son Steve. The stakes were very high.


Love's expensive. Who can afford it?
So you borrow from the bad guys, lay
your body down for collateral,
but the vig's ridiculous. No choice
but to pay and pay. Every day it's
just a matter of interest. You'll
never even scratch the principal.
But love's a gamble, right? Sometimes it
comes up red. Other times, it comes up
black. Go ahead. Put down all you're worth.
Hope for the really really big score.

by Bill Yarrow
from The Vig of Love

"The Vig of Love" copyright © 2016 by Bill Yarrow

March 21, 2017

The Tonal Colors of Cathedral Choral Society & New York Polyphony

CathedralConcertsmall.jpgA friend invited the Dresser to the March 19, 2017, Cathedral Choral Society concert featuring New York Polyphony. She expected to be pleased and off duty regarding a review. However, this program known as "Amid a Crowd of Stars" was a world-class performance and should not go unnoted.

According to the guest conductor Michael McCarthy, who stepped in after the death of Cathedral Choral Conductor J. Reilly Lewis, the invitation to the four-man quartet known as New York Polyphony was initiated by Lewis before his death June 9, 2016. New York Polyphony comprised of countertenor Geoffrey Williams, tenor Steven Caldicott Wilson, baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert, and bass Craig Phillips, are known for their uncanny ability to deliver work ranging from Gregorian chant to cutting-edge contemporary compositions. Much of this mysterious ability has to do with wondrous and steady voice of the countertenor.

Several times McCarthy mentioned how this particular program of sacred music that seamlessly flowed from old music to new was selected particularly for the acoustic challenges of the Washington National Cathedral. This chorus, very attentive to McCarthy's direction, produced a multi-layered sea of sound. Here is a list of the music performed in the order it was played. Note how the contemporary music is woven in with the old music.

Part I
Dominus custodiet te (2015) Andrew Smith (b. 1970)
Pater noster (?) Adreian Willaert (c. 1490-1562)
Whispers (2002) Steven Stucky (1949-2016)
Ave Maria (1934/1949) Igor Stravinsky (1882-1972)
Rejoice, O Virgin (1915) Sergei Rachmaninoff (1873-1943)
Quae est ista/Surge propera (1555) Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599)
Levavi oculos meos (2015) Andrew Smith
Amid a crowd of stars (2015) Andrew Smith
Miserere mei, Deus (-1630s/1976) Gregorio Allegri (c. 1582-1621)

Part II
Conditor alme siderum (world premiere) Plainsong, 11th Century, arr. Michael McCarthy (b. 1966)
Loquebantur variis linguis (?) Thomas Tallis (c. 1505-1585)
Vespers Sequence (2016) Ivan Moody (b. 1964) (selections)
The Spheres (2008) Ola Gjeilo (b. 1978)
Lux aeterna (?) Antoine Brumel (c. 1460-c.1512)
A Hymn to the Mother of God (1985) John Taverner (1944-2013)
Super flumina Babylonis (2015) Andrew Smith
Lux aeterna (1899/1996) Edward Elgar (1857-1934) arr. John Cameron (b. 1944)

Of the 17 compositions performed, ten were written in the 20th or 21st Centuries. These pieces flowed as if they were meant to be heard in a single stream of sound. Most surprising was Stravinsky's "Ave Maria," which the Dresser heard but initially didn't register that it was by the ground-breaking composer who turned classical music on its head. Featured were four compositions by Andrew Smith. Some pieces, especially those done by New York Polyphony--and what a rare treat to hear the voice of the counter tenor in contrast to base, baritone and tenor voices--were done a cappella. Other pieces had accompaniment by a nine-piece string ensemble or an organ.
NY Polyphony small.jpg
In this troubled world complicated by the recent presidential election, this concert restored inner calm to the Dresser.

In Nathalie Anderson's poem "Stain: Six Meditations on the Craft," the fourth meditation examines the process of creating stain glass with all its layers of color reminding the Dresser of the tonal colors working together in this outstanding concert. Anderson's poem fragment also points to suffering so often illuminated in sacred texts and certainly in the texts of this Cathedral Choral Society concert.


Or flash glass: a layer of hue--brilliant, pungent, thunderous--
laid down on a color less extreme, say white glass dipped in red;
or moss shadowed by yew; wine spilled over plum; wisteria
in smoke; peacocks at midnight; lapis over jade--so when scratched
away, the dark layer lightens, softens, cools, quiets, modulates,
and the pale layer--no longer coated, clouded, or benighted--dawns--
as here: flames clawing through the sooted flesh
behind the pyromaniac's back; or here:
the ligature of ligament, the tendon
torqued, the muscle clenched; or
here: the gartered fishnet tugged up, squirmed in, worn
over the bruise, the scab, the open vein; each skin
scraped and abraded, one pain
bolted over another.

by Nathalie Anderson
from Stain

"Stain: Six Meditations on the Craft" copyright © 2017 by Nathalie Anderson

March 4, 2017

Dead Man Walking and Talking

If asked to condense to one sentence the message of composer Jake Heggie's and librettist Terrence McNally's opera Dead Man Walking, the Dresser would say "the truth will set you free." In this political climate under the Trump administration where alternate facts and television reality shows keep changing the definition of truth, this opera about death row inmate Joseph De Rocher who claims innocence of two brutal murders and a rape weighs questions about social justice and personal responsibilities. De Rocher's foil is a young nun who agrees to be his spiritual advisor.Dead Man -Nun.jpg

Washington National Opera under the baton of maestro Michael Christie and direction of WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello have mounted WNO's premiere of Dead Man Walking, which the Dresser saw March 3, 2017. While not a perfect production, it is a strong one with baritone Michael Mayes admirably singing the role of Joseph De Rocher. Although the Dresser did not attend San Francisco Opera's world premiere of this work in 2000, she did see the second production created by seven American opera companies (executed by the Baltimore Opera) that included baritone John Packard as the original singer who developed the role of Joe De Rocher under the musical direction of the original developing conductor Patrick Summers. Zambello's production includes mezzo-soprano Susan Graham who originated the role of Sister Helen Prejean. However, in this 2017 production, Graham sings the more age-appropriate role of Mrs. De Rocher, the mother of the condemned man.
Dead Man Mom.jpg
Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey is certainly an admirable singer and actor. The Dresser loved Lindsey's impression of Elvis Presley during the one scene where something wonderfully humorous occurred. However, during much of the performance, Lindsey's voice was weak against the loudness of the orchestra. By contrast, Graham's voice showed better support and volume.

Dead Man.jpgThe musical palette of Dead Man is a mix of accessible and lyric dissonance coupled with traditional hymns and pop music some of which are original to Heggie, like the tunes played on the car radio of the teens who De Rocher and his brother brutalized and then killed. And yes, on stage is a big boat of a convertible car with top down and huge fins. Having seen this opera twice, the Dresser says Heggie's music works very well with the subject matter and Michael Christie has done a good job with the WNO orchestra.

Be certain this opera is not family entertainment. It treats deeply disturbing subjects that delve into the human psyche in various ways. In Elaine's Magarrell's poem "Good Girl," we learn about contradictions built into Western culture that prohibit a girl of good manners from telling the truth. Sister Helen is probed by her friend Sister Rose (sung by soprano Jacqueline Echols) to tell the truth about whether she has the spiritual fortitude to forgive De Rocher, who is clearly blaming the murders on his dead brother. This exegesis stands in contrast to De Rocher's mother who refuses to allow her criminal son to confess to her in his last minutes before execution that he has, in fact, murdered the teenage lovers. What Sister Helen must do is find her capacity to love Joe unconditionally so that he can tell her and then the grieving families that he committed the unspeakable crimes.


I know what a good girl is.
I have been a good girl,
flattered those who scorn me, 
listened hours to a bore.
I do anything to please.
I shut my mouth, 
feel guilty on demand.
I know what a good girl is.

I am such a good girl,
I dress up in a plain brown wrapper,
at parties I don't mix with men,
I would never kiss my doctor.
I know what a good girl is.

I will be a good girl,
smile until my mouth aches.
I will not tell the truth.
I will not tell the truth.

by Elaine Magarrell
from The Madness of Chefs

"Good Girl" copyright © 2017 by Elaine Magarrell

Photo Credits: Scott Suchmann


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