Local Arts Reviews


Motherbone: Reap the Aural Whirlwind

The Off Center, through Nov. 23

Running time: 2 hrs, 10 min

During his curtain speech for Motherbone, Salvage Vanguard Theater Artistic Director Jason Neulander, who also directed the production, stresses how new this urban opera is: The overture for the first act was finished two days before opening night, and the overture for the second act was finished the day before the premiere. Like all things just come into the world, Motherbone is a bit awkward around the edges, but it's an enthralling work at its heart.

Motherbone is an operatic adaptation of a classic Russian folk tale, "Vasilissa the Beautiful." In this contemporary telling by Karen Hartman, Val (a young girl whose mother dies and whose father abandons her) is bent on revenge and seeks the fire (read: power) of Motherbone, a legendary witch who lives across the canal. But in Salvage Vanguard's version, the story is only half of it. The other half is Graham Reynolds' score, which keeps you on the edge of your seat. Trying to do musical math on this lush, idiosyncratic sonic landscape -- as in, it's Tom Waits plus Igor Stravinsky plus Angelo Badalamenti -- would be a discredit to Reynolds. The music of Motherbone is a forceful -- savage even -- employment of provocative rhythms in an aural whirlwind. Through the performance, you can make out the composer's lanky figure bowing and flexing over the piano or pointedly directing the orchestra. No doubt, the music is all Graham Reynolds, the quiet and the bang and the catchy, and beautifully so.

Of course, there couldn't be much of a story if not for the characters. The 14 actors may range in experience and age, but they claim the deep chasmlike stage with gusto, filling it with superb song and fantastic emotion. Jenny Larson plays Val to the hilt, moving with stoic, tight-fisted awkwardness; she is the epitome of an angry young girl. Her singing is wonderfully controlled, with equal parts emotion and fervor. Kristine Olson's Motherbone is a page out of the Brothers Grimm, with a swagger and a formidable presence. And her soprano voice is both exquisitely brutal and sweet ("Daughterbone," in which Motherbone speaks of her past, is especially chilling). The seven young actors (Kids/Bonehouses) are energetic, providing strong singing and shiny personas, all the while putting a macabre spin on the show.

Motherbone's two major sets add plenty of atmosphere to the Off Center's warehouse space: Val's hometown is represented as a black-and-white cityscape painted with stylized-swoosh brush strokes, while the other side of the canal, Motherbone's territory, comes complete with a creeping boat spewing crawling fingers of dry ice along the ground. A second playing area, made of the space where the 10 musicians and their instruments sit just above the Off Center's dressing rooms, is just far enough back to be seen, but far enough not to distract from the stage goings-on.

For all the glowing praise I can offer about this show, there are also several dim spots. Along with technical snafus on the night I saw it, the direction fails to take advantage of a deep playing space so that at times the rich characters are lost. These spots make for an odd view of this work, odd because the brilliant talent and inherent effort are apparent but at times elusive.

Make no bones about it, Motherbone is a heartfelt show with breathtaking energy. Overall, the dynamic intensity onstage is dizzying. And while this opera may have rough edges, it sure is one helluva showcase for the musical passion of Graham Reynolds as well as Salvage Vanguard's pluck and determination. At the end, it's an amazing show. Warts and all.

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Motherbone, Salvage Vanguard Theater, Jason Neulander, Karen Hartman, Graham Reynolds, Jenny Larson, Christine Olson

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