THE BALD SOPRANO: TREATS BUT NO WIGGLE
The Public Domain, through January 31
Running Time: 2 hrs
Think of the lovely Jell-O mold, a glistening mass full of tempting chunks of primary-colored fruit, quivering beneath your fork, waiting for you to plunge into its luscious center. Now think of the same Jell-O mold with cut-glass cocktails, cigarette butts, and Valium suspended in its red ridges and valleys. Welcome to the 1950s, my friend. Hope you brought your copy of Peyton Place to read with your dessert.
The Bald Soprano is no ordinary glimpse into an era. Instead it is an impression of absurdity, a Jell-O mold made by one of the fathers of the form. French writer Eugene Ionesco, who also penned The Chairs and Rhinoceros, was a contemporary of Albee and Beckett, two other masters of this style of performance that largely abstracts communication to its meager essentials while commenting on the superficiality of existence. Pretty heady stuff for a decade that spawned Tupperware, tranquilizers, and Marilyn Monroe.
The Public Domain's production of Ionesco'sThe Bald Soprano ensures that the audience fully appreciates the temporal roots of the play. Scenic designers Michael Arthur and Amanda Acklin with painter Christopher Montreuil provide a witty, Fiestaware-hued lobby display/ acting space that sets an intellectually campy tone for director Linda Miles' production.
And what a production it is. Complete with dancers, old Ozzie and Harriet episodes, and tap-dancing furniture, The Bald Soprano is, at times, a giddy whirlwind that would be right at home on The Ed Sullivan Show ó unless, of course, you start to listen to what the characters are actually saying to one another. Then it becomes another TV show entirely, one that defies description but one in which Albee's George and Martha would be right at home. Miles has assembled a brilliant and talented cast that knows its way around Ionesco's tight non sequiturs. John Byron Mayo and Claudia Langford shine as the Smiths, a married couple long on acquisitions but short on passion. Nicholas Keene and Lenore Perry become the Martins, the Smiths' dinner guests who are trapped in a marriage neither remembers having. Chris Cortez as the Fire Chief and Holly Brown as the Maid also give strong performances that have startlingly clear intents.
If theatre is to be viewed as nothing more than a series of collected events, The Bald Soprano is a smashing success. Most of the moments are as clear as cut glass and potent as a handful of Valium. Miles has structured the individual scenes with a strong, skillful hand, and the actors know exactly how to make the most of the humor and the slippery meaning in Ionesco's text. Keene and Perry's first meeting, in fact, called the "Coma Flirtations," as well as the last 15 minutes of this production, are magnetic creations that prove that red blood still flows through the veins of this 40-year-old script.
But if theatre is more than just the treats that float within it, The Bald Soprano never quite manages to gel. The use of a video framing device to set the play in the Nineties is clunky at best and seems to have little to do with this production. The transitions from one tasty moment to the next hover above the show's intent and never quite manage to connect, a problem that also plagues the show's overriding concept, leaving it sloppy and unable to support all the interesting little bits within it. While this show looks wonderful, it just never manages to attain that seductive, firm wiggle that would draw in even the most overstuffed diner. -- Adrienne Martini
TRISKELION: SHINY, SCARY WORLD
Planet Theatre, through January 31
Running Time: 2 hrs, 40 min
C. S. Lewis' The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, in which yet another batch of English schoolchildren falls into the magical land of Narnia and takes a trip on a boat to save the aforementioned magic land, has long been one of my favorite books. Nothing stirs my soul like a good coming-of-age tale, full of exotic locations and daunting obstacles to overcome. Good metaphor for life, I've always reckoned, though some locations are certainly more exotic than others. It's also one of those perpetual cycles of life that literature keeps tapping into because it is the simple, understated truth.
While the underlying metaphor may be familiar, three minutes into Triskelion, the third part of ethos' X and Y Trilogy, you know you're not in Narnia anymore. Instead of talking fauns and friendly lions, Triskelion whisks us into a dying world full of power-hungry demi-gods, malevolent spirit guides, and soullessmachines set to trance-inducing electronica and a light show that would make Pink Floyd jealous.
Despite these trappings, the underlying theme is the same. Pythax and Ophydon, a brother and sister team with royal blood and a small penchant for incest, are compelled to take a journey to reset the great cycle of this particular universe. The siblings leave the idyllic garden and are beset by a string of nasties, from a beast who locks them in a prison of nightmares to a lecherous goddess to a deluded prophetess, and all the while they endeavor to discover exactly who they are and where they fit in this shiny, scary world.
But it is the trappings that give this archetypal tale an exciting life. Ann Marie Gordon's simple and dynamic set fits the stark mechanics of this world. Add to that Sergio R. Samayoa and Chad Salvata's video design that wonderfully adds texture and tone to Gordon's gray-on-gray walls. Jason Amato's supersaturated lights are well worth the price of admission and magically combine with the video to shift the exotic locations in as trippy a manner as possible. Andrea Lauer and Chad Salavata's costumes maintain the comic-book flavor of T'Cie Mancuso's work on the previous two installments, Panoptikon and The Black Blood.
Strong performances lurk beneath all of the technical achievements. Jo Beth Henderson as Pythax and Matthew Patterson as Ophydon devote all of their considerable skills to this journey with magnetic effect. While their brief costumes expose their vulnerable, innocent bellies throughout their stormy adolescence, Henderson and Patterson's performances show the strength and maturity that Pythax and Ophydon lack. Rembert Block's Opia, the power-drunk sage who keeps a den of acolytes drunk on her words, and Mick D'Arcy's Vyst, a king with no kingdom who strongly resembles a boiled pig, also add layers to their seemingly two-dimensional roles.
Perhaps it is an inherent two-dimensionality that takes away from this journey. While ethos' libretto here is more focused and skilled than in the previous installments, there is still a depth of character and setting that is missing. This script would be right at home on the pages of a futuristic graphic novel and, at times, you can almost see the lines dividing the panels, to a frustrating degree. A layer of information is absent and it may be this information that would make this an enduring tale like Lewis' classic. -- Adrienne Martini
CAVALLERIA/PAGLIACCI: PAIN ALL TOO EASY TO FEEL
Bass Concert Hall, January 9
Betrayal by a lover visits upon the heart pain unlike any other. Oh, it brings the suffering that comes with the close of any love affair: the pain of ending, that dull ache of failure mixed with the anguish of separation from the one who once was your life. But it compounds it with sharper tortures: the stabbing pang of rejection, the burning torment of humiliation, at being discarded for another and not thought worthy enough to be dealt with honestly. It is salt sown on scorched ground, something to keep tenderness from ever growing there, but seeding in its place resentment and revenge.
Austin Lyric Opera's pairing of these two short works was a piercing reminder of the unique and tragic pain wrought by infidelity. Both Pietro Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Ruggiero Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci turn on the sorrowful spectacle of a lover learning of the unfaithfulness of his or her beloved and, in the blinding agony of discovery, lashing out in such a way that leads to death. They may be modest in length and scope, but the feelings that they describe are as big and real and awe-inspiring as any in opera.
As summoned by ALO, those feelings were of a size and intensity both to spark wonder and be keenly felt in one's own breast. In Cavalleria, mezzo-soprano Eugenie Grunewald's Santuzza took the news of her lover Turiddu's affair with Lola as if it were delivered with a physical blow. She staggered, breathless, in need of support, something on which to lean. But when she sang, the sound came out of her as water from fountains, in gushes, forceful yet fluid, and her voice drenched us in showers of her character's shock and resentment and rage. In Pagliacci, tenor George Gray cut through the comfortably familiar image of the tragic clown with an edge of sullen bitterness that erupted in violent retribution. His wrenching response to his wife's adultery managed both to move and shock us.
Guest director Bruno Berger-Gorski and ALO principal conductor Cal Stewart Kellogg grounded these betrayals of love in solid, vivid worlds. Their Cavalleria began in an appealing rural village awhirl with Easter activity, with boys playing chase and young women teasing each other and farmers cooling their necks in the village square's fountain, which eventually gave way to more churchly activity and a choral piece sung that came across as clear and pure as an April dawn. Their Pagliacci surged with the energy of a community eager to be entertained by a troupe of itinerant clowns. Scenic designer Constantinos Kritikos' striking village square for Cavalleria and Jeff Ellinger's richly lit skyscapes further added to the productions' sense of substance. Here were places as solid and settled as the neighborhoods from which we'd come to see these works. In such places, emotion has weight and substance, too, enough to be felt, and in these villages, it was all too easy to feel inside the ache and throb and pang and burn of a heart betrayed in love. -- Robert Faires