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November 2007 Archives

November 18, 2007

The Maids Cleaned Up Are Still Women

Welcome to the maids’ world—women struggling for power, women playacting power, women redefining power. The Dresser isn’t talking American politics here, though maybe she should, but rather Washington, DC’s Scena Theatre’s production of Jean Genet’s earliest play The Maids.

The maids in Genet’s play are sisters and Claire, the younger of the two, has taken responsibility (though Genet makes the audience think it could be either of the sisters or their employer) for a letter written to the police that has gotten their mistress’ husband arrested. Claire is fixated on Madame. She wants to be Madame. When Madame is not home, the sisters wear her clothes and role-play Madame and maid. What goes on is far more complicated than the Dresser plans to recount.


When the play opened at Scena Theatre on November 12, 2007, Jenifer Deal as Claire-as-Madame emerged from a bathtub filled with flowers. She sang Edith PIaf’s signature song “La vie en rose.” The Dresser thinks director Gabriele Jakobi has selected great details that put Genet front and center of this production.

Like Piaf, Genet was the illegitimate child of a mother who abandoned him. The Madame’s bathtub serving as Claire’s launching vessel into the play begs comparison with the womb. Also Jakobi’s Claire coming out of the tub of flowers brings to mind Genet’s first novel entitled Notre Dame des Fleurs (Our Lady of Flowers). In this sexually outrageous but poetic novel about one man’s journey through the underworld of Paris and based on details from Genet’s life, are such characters as the drag queen Divine, the pimp Darling Daintyfoot, and the young hoodlum and murderer Our Lady of Flowers. As Jenifer Deal/ Claire-as-Madame emerged from the tub and led with one outstretched pointed foot, she commanded Solange (Madame’s other maid and Claire’s sister) to help her strap on Madame’s beautiful shoe.

The Dresser does not want to murder her reader with obvious points of connection, but she thinks she must say for those who have never seen a production of The Maids that the two sisters throughout the play plot Madame’s death. So let’s agree, Dear Reader, that the Dresser has taken care of how Claire connects to Daintyfoot and Lady of Flowers. What’s a little more tenuous, and possibly out on the edge of theater politics, is how the Dresser connects Claire to the drag queen Divine. First the Dresser says humbly that she had never seen a production nor read the script of Les Bonnes (The Maids) before attending Scena’s production and, quite frankly, had not spent time with Genet’s other works, but what she has learned since seeing Scene’s production of The Maids is that Genet had a proclivity for sexual perversion and it threads through much of his work. As Claire-as-Madame emerges from the tub of flowers, the Dresser kept expecting confirmation that the actor was in drag. Claireindrag.jpg
Photo by Ian C. Armstrong

Having arrived at the theater on the late side, the Dresser had not focused on who the actors were. Ms. Deal is a tall, large-boned person. She is physically beautiful, but then there are men who are also as beautiful as any woman could be. So the Dresser kept waiting for that shoe to drop. And as it turns out, so did the Dresser’s seatmate poet Martha Sanchez Lowery who spent her early years growing up attended by family maids in Bolivia.


Wiry and shorter Nanna Ingvarsson as Solange, the older and dominant sister, could have easily been made up as a king, the counterpoint to the better-known drag queen. However, director Jakobi did not go there. Ingvarsson as Solange plays a woman who is sometimes weak as feminine stereotypes are presented in Western culture and other times ferociously aggressive as men are allowed and often expected to be in our culture. Given that Madame treats her maids like they are animals, telling them they stink, but occasionally tossing them bones of reward for their loyalty, the Dresser did not feel frustrated that Jakobi’s Claire and Solange never came out in gender-bending revelations. Jakobi steadily anchors the interpretation of Genet’s characters to a woman’s world centered on clothing that occasionally allows glimpses of men who rock the power structure between women. Costume designer Alisa Mandel creates a good balance between what the Dresser calls the maids communist pajama uniforms and Madame's elegant gowns.


Genet has the flesh-and-blood Madame (played by Danielle Davy, looking and speaking a lot like the original baby-voiced blond bombshell Jean Harlow) showing up in the second half of this one-act work. Madame.jpg
Photo by Ian C. Armstrong

Madame’s presence alters the reality of Genet’s play because she stops Claire and Solange from their playacting. Jakobi ratchets up reality by having Solange, who is ordered by Madame to get her taxi, not only open a door that leads from the interior of the Warehouse Theatre where Scena is housed to a sidewalk on Seventh Street in northwest Washington, DC, but also exit through that door and leave it opened.

Continue reading "The Maids Cleaned Up Are Still Women" »

November 25, 2007

Is the Hoppera Popular Entertainment?
Should it be?

The Dresser applauds librettist Mark Campbell and composer John Musto for grounding Later the Same Evening: An opera inspired by five paintings of Edward Hopper in American subject matter and musical styling. This opera enjoyed its world premiere in four performances November 15-18, 2007, at the Clarisse Smith Performing Arts Center in College Park, Maryland, and will have one additional performance at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, on December 2. MG_Hopper_5343-Scene1.jpg
Maryland Opera Studio members Andrew Adelsberger, left, as Gus O'Neill and Claire Kuttler as Elaine O'Neill
Photo by Cory Weaver

While the Dresser knows that most American composers subscribe to Virgil Thomson’s definition that to write American music [or opera], one needs only to be an American, she believes that new operatic works that speak textually and musically from American sources build international and younger generation interest for American operas and their creators.


The question the Dresser thinks operatic collaborators should ask themselves before launching a new project is how will this opera distinguish itself from what has come before, especially 18th and 19th century European opera that continues to dominate opera productions in the United States? One important way is to offer views of American culture.

In the last ten years, operas highlighting American culture include such works as:
• Mark Adamo’s Little Women (1998),
• André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire (1998),
• William Bolcom, Arnold Weinstein and Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge
• Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking (2000),
• Libby Larsen and Bridget Carpenter’s Barnum's Bird (2002),
• Richard Danielpour and Toni Morrison’s Margaret Garner (2005),
• Scott Wheeler and Romulus Linney’s Democracy: An American Comedy (2005),
• John Adams and Peter Sellars’ Doctor Atomic (2005),
• Tobias Picker and Gene Scheer’s An American Tragedy (2005),
• Ned Rorem and J. D. McClatchy’s Our Town (2006),
• Lowell Liebermann and librettist J. D. McClatchy’s Miss Lonelyhearts (2006),
• Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie’s The Grapes of Wrath (2007),
• Adolphus Hailstork and David Gonzalez’s We Rise for Freedom: The John P. Parker Story (2007), and
• Robert Aldridge and Herschel Garfein’s Elmer Gantry (2007).

What’s interesting about this list of fourteen recent operas is that, except for Barnum's Bird, Doctor Atomic, and We Rise for Freedom, most of these new operas are based on well-known literature. Few composers want to take risks with their subject matter.


While it is true that the subject of the Hopper libretto was born from an opportunity that director Leon Major recognized for a co-sponsored project with the National Gallery of Art, the Dresser raises her hands again in applause for Campbell and Musto for creating an original libretto. There are so few of them and Later the Same Evening is a polished, interwoven set of stories about characters who jump off five of Edward Hopper’s paintings into full blown life with all its joys and agonies. The inspirational paintings, listed here in the order in which they appear in the opera and which can be seen at the National Gallery of Art through January 21, 2008, are Room in New York (1932), Hotel Window (1955), Hotel Room (1931), Two on the Aisle (1927), and Automat (1927).

The story, set in one act and seven scenes, takes place in New York City in 1932. There are eleven characters most of whom attend a Broadway musical in the fifth scene. Story threads include a man and wife (Gus and Elaine) who aren’t communicating well with each because he is stressed by his job, a widow who has a date with a flamboyant Portuguese man, a young woman from Indianapolis who has tried to break into the world of professional dance and the young man who plans to surprise her with an engagement ring, a bickering couple who love to fight with each other as the way they best get along, an Italian woman trying to understand what an American musical is all about, a poet/high school teacher from Lynchburg who gets Gus’s ticket gratis from Elaine, and an usher from the musical. Deftly and plausibly, Campbell makes room for these characters to cross paths and to come alive. The Dresser particularly liked Valentina, the Italian woman who, by singing in Italian with English surtitles, reminds the audience in a backhanded and comic way that we are experiencing an opera with an imbedded Broadway show.


Back in June when the Dresser was invited to a press conference for Later the Same Evening, she learned that composer, librettist and director all agreed that their goal for this work, affectionately called the Hoppera, was to make popular entertainment. In American culture today, popular theatrical entertainment is often equated to Broadway shows. What Musto has done is added the pop sound of an invented Broadway musical to Minimalist styling and dissonance within a tonal framework.

Musical variety in both Musto’s operas Later the Same Evening and Volpone makes the Dresser think that the European composer Alfred Schnittke, whose use of past and present musical styles has been called polystylism, may have influenced Musto. Schnittke also stated, "The goal of my life is to unify serious music and light music, even if I break my neck in doing so." Necks withstanding, the Dresser thinks Musto has done a good job in blending modern classical music with a more accessible popular sound. She still thinks, however, that what Musto has created musically is much more complex than a popular entertainment. The Dresser plans to hear this opera again because one sitting is not enough to fully understand the overall work. Musto particularly excels when he is writing for multiple voices. The rain number in Scene 6 is an exciting standout ensemble. (Kudos to Movement Consultant Virginia Freeman for the synchronized way the singers move in this act. The visual on this not pleases but energizes.)
Photo by Cory Weaver

Continue reading "Is the Hoppera Popular Entertainment?
Should it be?" »

November 30, 2007

Avenue Q—Not for Little Monsters

After seeing the touring show of Avenue Q on November 27 at Washington, DC’s National Theatre, the Dresser wonders if all fathers called their children little monsters? The Dresser’s dad did and it was affectionate despite incidents such as her sister Nancy hitting their brother Jammy over the head with a sharp hoe because he was teasing her. Too bad that when they were four and seven, the ages of that hoedown, there was no Monstersorri school for them like the one Kate Monster dreamed of building and gets on Avenue Q. The Dresser imagines Kate’s Monstersorri with its backing by her on-and-off boyfriend Princeton would instill P-U-R-P-O-S-E in its little monsters.
Princeton, Robert McClure, Kate Monster, Kelli Sawyer
Photo by Carol Rosegg


The Dresser’s son Ivan grew up watching the popular kid’s television show Sesame Street, which was the satirical impetus of Avenue Q. Momma Dresser loved Sesame’s Cookie Monster for both his ruffian and huggable ways. On Avenue Q, Cookie Monster is represented by Trekkie Monster.
Minglie Chen, Trekkie Monster, Christian Anderson
Photo by Carol Rosegg

Trekkie Monster’s name is misleading though. He is not a fan of Gene Roddenberry’s popular science fiction universe known as Star Trek (including the t.v. series and many films). Trekkie Monster is an Internet geek hooked on pornography.

While no parent has to worry that Trekkie’s interests extend to child porn, Avenue Q is not family entertainment. So, Parents, leave your little monsters at home. You don’t want them getting any bad ideas from such cleverly written and humable songs as “Everybody’s a Little Racist,” “The Internet Is for Porn,” or “Schadenfreude.” Even harmless songs like “It Sucks to be Me” or “I'm Not Wearing Underwear Today” are bound to get on parental nerves. For extra punch, just in case you parents are not yet convinced, Robert Lopez (original conception, music & lyrics), Jeff Marx (original conception, music & lyrics) and Jeff Whitty (book), the originating collaborators of Q, have created two small puppets named the Bad Idea Bears who bedevil Princeton with their infectious squealing laughter urging the young man, fresh out of college and jobless, to buy beer when he was down in the dumps. When he says no, get lost to their string of progressively worse ideas, they bring him a noose and say, try this.


Throughout Q, there is something primitive at work on the viewer’s emotions. The way the puppeteer moves his or her puppet and the way the puppeteer moves with the puppet is mesmerizing, charming, and endearing. The Dresser must be a sap, but she loved the way the puppets tilted their heads back and forth. All of the puppeteers—Robert McClure (Princeton and Rod), Kelli Sawyer (Kate Monster and Lucy T. Slut), David Benoit (Trekkie Monster and Bear), and Minglie Chen (Mrs. T. and Bear)—expertly handled more than one puppet with different voices for each.

Continue reading "Avenue Q—Not for Little Monsters" »

About November 2007

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in November 2007. They are listed from oldest to newest.

October 2007 is the previous archive.

December 2007 is the next archive.

Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.