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May 2008 Archives

May 3, 2008

The Angelic Voices of David and Jonathas

The Dresser hesitates to say any musical group could sound like angels (after all, doesn't one have to be dead to know this sound?) but because she now has a rudimentary understanding of baroque versus standard tuning thanks to her friend Janet Peachey, the Dresser will venture into deep waters to make this assertion.


On May 2, 2008, American Opera Theater, currently in residence at Georgetown University, presented the first fully staged North American production of David and Jonathas by Marc-Antoine Charpentier with libretto by Père François Bretonneau. The work, originally interwoven with a spoken drama in Latin entitled Saul by Père Etienne Chamillard and first performed in 1688 for the Jesuit Le College Louis-le-grand in Paris, tells the Biblical love story between David (slayer of Goliath and Bathsheba wife-stealer) and Jonathan, son of King Saul of Israel.
The driving force behind American Opera Theater, originally named Ignoti Dei Opera, is Timothy Nelson who is the AOT artistic director. Nelson's production cuts out the spoken drama to provide a sung-through work that is enlivened by appealing tableau vivant staging and semi-dance/body movement styling and heavenly musical interludes on period instruments.

Now, back to this deep-water assertion about the music of angels. Janet's theory, which she explained to me mathematically (starting with Pythagoras' two-to-one tuning theory that involves octaves), boils down to this: modern tuning is slightly flat, but eventually that flatness is compensated for in Pythagoras' math. [NOTE: See Janet Peachey's comment below. While modern tuning is slightly flat, baroque tuning adheres to what might be heard as pure intervals versus the modern tuning which offers tempered intervals of tone.] Baroque tuning achieves a perfection of sound by avoiding certain keys and therefore sounds more harmonious than standard tuning. However, music created by baroque "perfect pitch" tuning is much more limited than music played with the standard "relative pitch" tuning.

In addition to this specialized tuning, set on the key of A at 415 cycles per second (we talked to baroque violinist Andrew Fouts who confirmed this lower pitch tuning versus the A440 tuning used in most modern concert tunings), the 230-seat Gonda Theatre in the Davis Performing Arts Center at Georgetown University provided an intimacy that made the Dresser and her friend feel bathed in the music in a way that was energizing and what the Dresser would call healing. This was especially apparent at the end of the opera when the full chorus, divided in half, sang from both sides at the back of the auditorium.


To take one's breath away (even as it was restored by the perfect-pitch tuning and acoustically satisfying Gonda Theatre) was the singing of countertenor Brian Cummings as David and soprano Rebecca Duren as Jonathas. Nelson has emphasized the sensual and sexual side of this story, which may not have had this gay relationship interpretation when Charpentier and Bretonneau presented this piece for the Parisian Jesuits. Dare the Dresser mention that in Charpentier's day, countertenor roles were usually roles for castrati, which probably put another slant on male relationships that we don't think about today. For the Dresser as she watched the barefooted cast, the figures of Cummings (boyish, slim, and tall) and Duren (childishly androgynous and petite) in combination with their high-pitched voices provided a sexual sublimeness that transcended gender. In short, the Dresser didn't care if these were two male characters or a mix of male and females actors playing males. The love story moved above the who's-who body orientation.

The Dresser should also pause here to note that she has been swept up before in the heavenly sound of baroque opera such as hearing Ann Hoyt sing Venus in John Blow's Venus and Adonis with the Rebel Baroque Orchestra, but at that time she didn't have the benefit of Janet Peachey's tutorial about what makes baroque music, especially that music played by period instruments, so appealing. As it turns out, the Dresser engaged in conversation last night with John Moran, a Rebel viola da gamba musician, who attended David and Jonathas, to not only witness this fine production but to also hear his wife violinist Risa Browder. The world of early and baroque music is an awesome but small community.


Craig Lemming as the Philistine general Joabel delivered a notable singing and acting performance. Joabel's hatred against Saul, which David did not share, was palpably felt by Lemming's performance. Lemming as Joabel vented this hatred to David, practically spitting his venom. Particularly pleasing was the pastoral scene that turned love to violent capture and enslavement. The Petit Choeur of Bonnie McNaughton, Matthew Heil, Kristen Dubenion-Smith (she also gave an outstanding delivery of La Pythonisse, the witch of Endor who in the Prologue forecasts Saul's demise and the death of his son Jonathas) was led in the pastoral scene by Emily Noel and Colin Levin (he also played the menacing Ombre de Samuel--the ghost of Samuel, the Biblical storyteller responsible for the story of David and Jonathas). [NOTE: Correction was made here about who led the pastoral scene.] The Dresser also loved the Petit Choeur's skillful fight/dance scene done with red flags.

Continue reading "The Angelic Voices of David and Jonathas" »

May 7, 2008

Mad Breed: A View of a Teenaged John Wilkes Booth

On May 4, 2008, the Dresser ventured out to Mt Rainier, Maryland, to see Jacqueline Lawton's new play Mad Breed, commissioned, developed, and produced by Active Cultures Theatre in their Maryland Focus Initiative. The Dresser was lured by the subject matter which centers around the family of John Wilkes Booth when Booth was just turning thirteen (more on this interest later) and by the new play's able director Juanita Rockwell, who happens to be a good friend of this sassy critic (full disclosure here).


What the Dresser hadn't been prepared for was that Joe's Movement Emporium, the venue of the play, is only a few blocks around the corner from Thomas Stone Elementary School, where the Dresser attended part of third and all fourth grades. She hadn't been on that section of 34th Street since she was a little girl and wow, that long, hilly street of charming little bungalows looked waay smaller now versus when she walked it at ages eight and nine from Rhode Island Avenue to the school. The Dresser wonders if critics are influenced by these personal encounters on the way to review a new production. If so, the Dresser walked into Joe's feeling like she belonged in the neighborhood.

Another aspect of what the Dresser liked about this play is that it was encouraged by the Active Cultures Theatre artistic director Mary Resing to explore an historic subject that plays into the politics about how people of diverse backgrounds and cultures get along today. Mad Breed is about Maryland's racial past. The story focuses on John Wilkes' (or Wilkes as he preferred to be called) brother Edwin who falls in love with the black woman Adah Francois. The character of Francois is based on the legendary actor and poet Adah Isaacs Menken. Although Menken knew Edwin Booth as a fellow Thespian, the love story is Lawton's invention.

Still, that doesn't subtract from how unconventional the family of Wilkes was in real life and the play reflects this. Junius Brutus Booth, the renowned actor and patriarch whom we do not see on stage in Mad Breed but hear a lot about, is about to marry the mother of their ten children. (Wilkes is their ninth child.) This marriage is occurring 25 years after Junius eloped with Mary Ann Holmes to Maryland and abandoned his first wife and their only child in London. In Bel Air, MD, Junius and Mary Ann raised their brood on an organic farm, eating vegetarian meals, refusing to allow animals to be killed, and inviting their slaves to their dinner table. The Dresser hadn't known all this about the family of Lincoln's assassin and was left wondering how could such a well-raised son in a family who didn't believe in killing or slavery murder a president upholding the tenets of freedom and equality for all men?

In the middle of writing this review, the Dresser met in Annapolis with some poets who are long time pals of hers to celebrate her birthday and that of Jim Beall's. In the course of swapping stories about what each of us were doing lately, the subject of the Booth family arose. Jim Beall said, "Have you heard my story about my distant relative John Beall who was executed for being a Confederate spy?" "Well, no," said the Dresser, "tell me more." It turns out that John Wilkes Booth and John Beall were fast friends ever since they attended the hanging of the militant Abolitionist John Brown, that Booth pleaded with Lincoln to pardon his friend Beall, believed that Lincoln was going to grant that pardon and when he didn't, Booth carried out the assassination. Of course the story is more complicated than this, but this aspect of why Booth killed Lincoln has received considerable press in recent times.


What Mad Breed does is raise questions about who John Wilkes Booth was and how he could be such a misfit in his family that was not like any others of that time. To be fair though, the Dresser needs to reiterate that the play centers on Edwin Booth and his deep love for a black woman playwright and actor. Furthermore, Wilkes is just turning thirteen and he is full of himself, having just joined a secret society. Oops, the Dresser is still wandering into that will-the-real-John-Wilkes-Booth-please-stand-up grind.

Without much trouble to substantiate this, one could say Mad Breed is really the story of Adah Francois. Anastasia (Stacey) Wilson cuts a commanding figure as Adah. As the play opens, the stage divides between Edwin (Danny Gavigan) and Adah who occupy separate times and places. Edwin implores Adah in a letter to come to him in his hour of need. He is about to play Shakespeare's Hamlet, a role he has long coveted, and he is beside himself given what his brother has done. Adah, who has long ago fled the United States for England, is well established and respected, something she could never hope for in the U.S. When the next scene occurs, we see Adah being booted out of the minstrel show she has been the playwright for as well as an actor. More interestingly she had been doing this as a man, but her colleague (played by Lee Liebeskind) has outed her accidentally and the show is in danger of being closed down by the authorities since women were prohibited from engaging in such activities. So Adah has to run and decides to take a train to New York. However, she has missed the last train and this is how she meets Edwin who takes her home to his father's farm, promising he will take this stranger whom he believes is a man back to the train the next day. Almost immediately the chemistry occurs between Edwin and this stranger and when he finds out she is a woman, he is forever hooked.

The tension of this play revolves around this forbidden white-black relationship for numerous reasons. Edwin's sister Asia (Amanda Thickpenny) has a frivolous friend named Blanche (Kristen Egermeier) who has marked Edwin for marriage though he knows nothing about this. Asia, although being pursued by Edwin's friend John Sleeper Clarke (also played by Lee Liebeskind), takes an immediate romantic liking to the stranger and, of course, is upset to find out that he is a she. Wilkes is vindictively angry with Edwin for falling for a "darkey" and later he apologizes for that disparaging label, but only because Asia insists and because Wilkes at heart is a gentleman doing what is politic. What redeems Adah for everyone is that she creates a minstrel show entertainment for the wedding of the senior Booths but then in seeing it rehearsed realizes she is disparaging "Negroes" and herself.
Here the Dresser will pause to say that the stick-in-memory minstrel show performance reminded the Dresser of Spike Lee's film Bamboozled and was not surprised to see later in the program notes that Lee's film was one of the resources that inspired Mad Breed.

Continue reading "Mad Breed: A View of a Teenaged John Wilkes Booth" »

About May 2008

This page contains all entries posted to THE DRESSING in May 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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