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GLENN LONEY'S SHOW NOTES
By Glenn Loney, August 26, 2002
 Fringe Invades the Edinburgh Festival
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
 Sarandon & Robbins in 9/11 Drama
 Traverse/Berlin Premiere of Norwegian "Girl on the Sofa"
 Last Night of "Variety" Artistes
 "Scottish Play" Deeply in Dutch
 "Swan Lake" with Live Owl
 New Dance Movement: "Rimasto Orfano"
 Boris Charmatz Rediscovers Happenings in "Statuts"
 Six Forms of Indian Classical Dance
 Wagner & Britten Operas Sell Out
 Peter Stein's Salzburg/Edinburgh "Parsifal"
 Scottish Opera's New "Siegfried"
 Luc Bondy's Stark "Turn of the Screw"
 David Greig's "Outlying Islands"
 Rona Munro's "Iron"
 Catalyst Theatre's "Blue Orphan"
 Unlimited Theatre's "Safety"
 Sado-Maso Moments in "Stitching"
 Canada Forecast in "Weather"
 Radiants Must Be Killed in "Drowned World"
 Joe Chaikin Gets Some "Shuteye"
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Has the Festival Become Too Large for Edinburgh?These are two questions being posed currently at the Edinburgh Festival. And not only in the media.
Is the Fringe Influencing Major Programming?
The famous Festival Fringe, now beginning at least a week before the regular festival, has made almost the entire month of August a fest of fun, film, live performance, music, dance, and even avant-garde excesses.
This makes Scotland's capital city Tourist Heaven for hoteliers, restaurateurs, shop-keepers, and tour-operators. But it has proved to be a bit of a burden for ordinary Edinburghers. [Citizens of Glasgow are called Glaswegians. There are also Liverpuddlians and Mancunians. I really can't find out the proper term for inhabitants of the capital: Edinburgundians, perhaps?]
No matter what the complaints about the hordes of tourists—many of them young backpackers with a yen for excitement and shows—the Festival and Fringe, as well as the International Film Festival and the Book Festival, have put Edinburgh on the map culturally and even economically. So no one wants to see the Festival move off to London.
This summer, as in recent years as well, Fringe performance venues seem to have sprouted in some unlikely places. The Portobello Town Hall—some distance from Central Edinburgh—has been hosting a production of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas!
And young performers with young ideas can bring their shows to the Festival Fringe for rather little money. They will surely attract young audiences, but they often intrigue Festival regulars and important critics.
A fellow-critic from Warsaw—who was once a Visiting Prof of Theatre in my department at CUNY Grad Center—was overwhelmed by a trans-gender production of Taming of the Shrew, presented by Aces Wild, a San Francisco-East Bay ensemble!
The Fringe officially begins a week before the regular Festival, and it ends a week before the major fest closes. So I can report that well over 900,000 seats were sold for the thousands of performances of the hundreds of shows available in the scores of Fringe Festival venues. This meant the box-office take—13 percent more than last summer—was £7.1 million! Regular Festival figures were not yet available.
Outstanding continental theatre and opera productions—showcased in the mainstream Festival—often are able to use this exposure as a launch for international tours. A truly stunning music-theatre production or avant-garde drama staging may soon thereafter turn up at BAM. If it was not already a form of co-production…
Peter Stein's Salzburg Easter Festival production of Wagner's Parsifal was less expensive—but not by much—than it was in Salzburg. I wanted to see it, but there were no press-tickets left weeks before. And, not being paid for what I write here, I declined the purchase of a high-priced seat.
It would be dismissive to say that I Know How It All Comes Out, so I don't need to see another Parsifal. But that's no longer so in really innovative productions of this Masterwork.
Not that I knew how Peter Stein's version of the opera turns out. In some traditional productions, Kundry dies. In more gender-sensitive stagings of recent years, she helps Parsifal serve what seems to be the Mass of the Holy Grail.
Still, when a remarkable cast as been assembled, one should make the effort at least to hear them, if not to try to decode the stage-designs, lighting, gestures, and the blocking.
Edinburgh Festival Director Brian McMaster is well aware of the price-problem with Big Tickets, especially for the potential Youth Audiences. They throng the Fringe events, but generally avoid major Festival productions.
This is primarily because of the prices. But it's also often because they have had no experience of classical music, opera, ballet, modern dance, or Masterworks of the Drama. Other than being forced to read the latter for their A-Levels…
To combat this artistic innocence—if not downright ignorance—McMaster has introduced Royal Bank £5 Nights. Every ticket costs just five pounds for classical and ethnic musical concerts that start at 10:30 pm in Usher Hall.
This past summer, the price-policy proved so successful—with many young people experiencing major orchestras and symphonic music live for the first time—that it was carried over to main Festival music events. Twenty minutes before curtain, all remaining unsold tickets went to young people for just £5. "Young" means under 26.
The most successful of the late-night concerts was Bach's Goldberg Variations. It packed Usher Hall with 2,332 enthusiastic listeners!
This is now part of a developing strategy by the Festival, BBC Radio, and leading Scottish musical ensembles. Initially, such concerts and similar low-priced cultural events could be "tasters," in weekends leading up to the main offerings of the Edinburgh Festival.
But Brian McMaster has a much larger vision—even if Scottish officials haven't yet seen the Whole Picture. "The crucial thing is the follow-up. We don't want these people to have to wait 49 weeks to hear the best music again."
The day after I wrote the section above, local newspapers headlined the Festival's decision to axe the £5 late-night classical concerts at the end of August. The reason given was that the concerts cost too much to present, considering the box-office take.
That, of course, sounds ridiculous. Festival planners and the Royal Bank knew very well what their concert artists and orchestras would cost—as well as the cost of using the venue itself.
The original intent was neither to make money nor to break even. It was to win new young audiences for classical music—at an all-time low of interest in classical music performances and CDs among younger people.
An Edinburgh colleague clued me in: "This is just a ploy to get a special grant for the concerts to continue. These splendid programs have been so successful and so widely admired, they daren't give them up."
One hopes this will prove to be so.
After all, Brian McMaster's Master Plan not only includes low-priced concerts. He has observed that Edinburgh has more performance-venues than any other city of its size. He believes the city could be in a festival-mode in other months than August.
Why can't there be mini-festivals all year round, at least on weekends? It would certainly extend the tourist-season, with benefits for all!
[If you have ever been in Edinburgh in Winter, you would certainly welcome some Festival Spirit. The traditional New Year's Hogmanay party doesn't quite do it. And it is also in financial difficulties, although broadcast worldwide on TV.]
Edinburgh might well take a leaf from the production-book of Festival Sister City Salzburg—with whom it shared production of the Peter Stein/Claudio Abbado Parsifal.
The Salzburg Festival initiative has already effectively expanded into the Autumn Kultur Tage, and the Easter and Pentecost Festivals. It is also becoming a major International Conference Center.
Edinburgh has created an impressive Post-Modernist Conference Center in the past few years, so the year-round festival of culture seems a natural as well.
The same issue of The Scotsman which focused on McMaster's plans included a report and an editorial on a recent scientific experiment involving Mice and Music.
Mice injected with amphetamines and subjected to loud music by Prodigy died horribly. The control-group—injected with a saline-solution—merely fell asleep.
Unfortunately for lovers of classical music—who are also usually haters of any kind of Pop—the music of Johann Sebastian Bach had exactly the same effect on the poor mice!
The experiments of course were denounced by Animal Rights Activists, as well as all Right-Thinking People…
Sarandon & Robbins with The Guys:Although the Scottish capital's historic Lyceum Theatre is a premier Edinburgh Festival Venue, this summer it virtually opened the annual fest with a Festival Fringe production from New York. The boundary-lines seem to be more blurred each season.
"Smug & Sanctimonious" at the Lyceum—
The Manhattan-generated theatre-piece is titled The Guys. It is a form of tribute to the courage and sacrifice of New York firemen who gave their lives on 9/11 in the Twin Towers Holocaust.
Unfortunately for all the good intentions of playwright Anne Nelson and the show's two stars, Susan Sarandon and husband Tim Robbins, British critics were generally unkind—both about the script and its performance. Some reviewers were downright sarcastic.
Nelson is a Professor of Journalism who was asked by a Fire Department Captain to help him compose appropriate eulogies for the men he'd lost in the Towers. From this encounter, she has fashioned a play which has already been shown in a tiny theatre near Ground Zero.
If you missed this production—or the one in Edinburgh, which only was played three nights, with the Star-Power working from scripts—not to worry. It has already been filmed with Sigourney Weaver and Anthony LaPaglia.
Weaver may even appear in the show in London's West End this winter. But from the various negative comments of both London and Scots critics in Edinburgh, the text is simply not challenging nor probing enough to spark much audience-interest.
One of the most devastating reviews was filed by Charles Spencer, of the Daily Telegraph. He opened with searing cynicism:
"Hollywood's caring couple, Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon, have parachuted themselves into the Edinburgh fringe for three nights to show us just how compassionate they are…"
"After a meal at one of Edinburgh's swankiest restaurants, the golden duo of American liberalism took to the stage, wearing expressions of grave concern, to pay tribute to the 'ordinary' heroes of September 11…"
"But there was something about this whole event that made me queasy. An air of showy sanctimony prevailed, as a ghastly human tragedy was glibly, and prematurely, packaged for public entertainment…"
"Sarandon, however, exudes a smug self-regard which I found deeply irritating, and none of her character's reflections on September 11 seem either fresh or profound."
"I feel uneasy about trashing a play which is probably well-meant, but both Nelson's self-regarding script and Jim Simpson's static production fail to do anything like justice to this traumatic subject matter."
Traverse World Premiere at the Lyceum:
SISTERS MAKE UP--Leah Muller & Abby Ford in Jon Fosse's "The Girl on the Sofa." Photo: ©Douglas Robertson/2002.
Jon Fosse's The Girl on the Sofa—Edinburgh's adventurous—and often avant-garde—Traverse Theatre is one of the principal pilgrimage points of the Fringe Festival. It has long been an admired theatrical fixture in the Scots capital.
A Dysfunctional Family Drama
Made Unnecessarily Disjunctive
But, unlike the nearby Lyceum Theatre—which has a repertory ensemble and is in effect the major drama theatre of Edinburgh—it has two small performance chambers, each with three-quarters-surround tiered-seating.
This makes seeing any Traverse staging more like a visit to LaMaMa in New York's East Village, than an evening in proper seats in a proscenium-arched auditorium venue.
So it was rather surprising that a Traverse-commissioned drama—by Norway's new wonder-boy playwright, Jon Fosse—was premiered, not in either of the Traverse's theatre-boxes, but on the Lyceum's venerable stage.
Not to worry! The Girl on the Sofa looked like it could have been imported direct from the Salzburg Festival, where EuroTrash productions are celebrated.
The Traverse's sense of experiment and theatrical-adventure was sustained by this distinctively Middle European production. It was staged by Germany's Thomas Ostermeier—as a co-production with Berlin's Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz—in a deliberately shoddy performance-environment devised by Rufus Diswiszus.
The stage of the Lyceum could have been the recently flooded Dresdner Schauspielhaus! On a raked central platform, a young girl sat or squirmed on an upstage sofa, as her older self tried to paint her younger self on a drawing-board.
Flanking this central acting-arena were transparent walls, though which the actions and reactions of the other characters in the drama were glimpsed in oddly shuffling movements. Including a girl who climbed up the walls to sing now and again.
Simply told, the girl's father was a seaman off on long voyages, presumably with a girl in every port. Her mother, desperate for affection, had taken up with her absent husband's lustful, opportunistic brother.
The girl's older sister was already the town slut, even encouraging her sister to try on some of her Frederick's of Hollywood undies.
During an unpremeditated bout of mother & brother-in-law lust on the floor, the single upstage door suddenly opened to silhouette the unexpectedly returned seaman-husband.
Without a word, he looked and left forever.
Well—as devotees of Soap Opera will surely understand—this event left The Girl unable to form lasting relationships. Or even to develop into a passable painter.
Nonetheless, the cast performed with a dedication that suggested they had discovered depths in the essentially nameless characters that certainly did not surface in their banal lines.
Impressive were Ruth Lass, Abby Ford, Leah Muller, Liz Kettle, and especially Julie Legrand, as the lovelorn mother.
British critics had a field-day mocking the pretentiousness of both the play and its production. Noting that none of the characters in Fosse's drama had actual names, critic Benedict Nightingale lamented the lack of baptismal fonts in Norway.
The Girl on the Sofa is no Lady from the Sea. Ibsen's reputation as a Norwegian dramatist is secure.
Fosse's is more questionable, despite the serious admiration he wins in Mittel-Europa.
Where Ibsen's characters and conflicts are specific—but still riveting and relevant in Western Culture—Fosse's seem only stereotypes trapped in banal stereotypical situations and lives.
Nonetheless, this is a new play—adapted into English by Scots playwright David Harrower—which is sure to be soon seen in New York. It is exactly the kind of script which could win the attention of the New York Theatre Workshop.
Certainly its militantly European production-style would look right at home on the end-stage of the NYTW on East Fourth Street.
If you don't have the opportunity see a production of The Girl on the Sofa, the very amusing critical comments on the Edinburgh Festival premiere will soon be reproduced in Ian Herbert's invaluable London Theatre Record. In fact, Ian and I sat next to each other during the performance of Fosse's semi-soap-opera.
SMILE! WE CLOSE TONIGHT FOREVER--Movies destroy Music Hall in Douglas Maxwell's "Variety." Photo: ©Douglas Robertson/2002.
Grid Iron Theatre World PremiereYou may remember Sir Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer? He performed John Osborne's bitter portrait of a second-rate Music Hall artiste both on stage and on film.
Of Variety Staged at the King's Theatre
The subtext of both play and performance suggested that the death of provincial and suburban British Music Halls wasn't solely the fault of movies taking over the Variety Theatres.
Even one of the skits in that Edinburgh Festival Fringe classic, Beyond the Fringe, has an old stage-door porter recalling the Greats, such as Marie Lloyd and Harry Lauder: "Knew 'em all. They were rotten!"
In Noël Coward's satiric one-act, Red Peppers, the Master showed what could be achieved in depicting the sparring of a husband and wife, touring in their second-rate variety act.
Douglas Maxwell's new play, Variety, focuses on the final performance of some really third-rate Scottish variety artists. Unfortunately for them, the man Western Electric has dispatched to convert the theatre into a cinema is mistaken for a talent-scout.
This is of course hardly a new subject, as theatre does so like to inspect its own navel periodically. The Death of Vaudeville in the United States and Canada has also had its share of plays and films.
As was to be expected, Maxwell's characters are routine non-entities, with performance-skills that border on the embarrassing. But their private lives backstage are even more pathetic.
Even though they all seem to be at the end of a collective rope—which was already badly frayed—Maxwell closes his play with one of those post-film text-scrolls which details what happened to them after their last show.
Unfortunately, one doesn't really care.
Coarse Acting—or downright bad acting—is very difficult to play if one is a really talented and well-trained performer. Olivier was splendid at this.
The premier cast was rather less effective, but Maxwell's imagined lives and actual lines had something to do with that. He proves that you can make a Sow's Purse out of a Silk Ear.
Nonetheless, John Kazek—as flop-sweat comic Jack Salt—did suggest a bit of the "business" of that Variety Great, Max Wall. One wonders, however, if backstage in 1929, "fuckin'" would be almost every other word out of his mouth? That usage sounds rather too modern…
Younger writers often overlook changes in conversational styles over the years. Or they may imagine we always talked that way?
The production itself was unusual and imaginative. Separate scenes were played in boxes on rollers. These opened up as dressing-rooms or backstage areas. Scenes concluded, the box-doors were closed and actor and environment were scooted offstage.
Despite the acting-challenges—another way of saying problems—in the characters as conceived and the material as written, I was impressed with the work of most of the cast. Anne Marie Timoney as Betty and Rina Mahoney as Linda Singh had an especially effective encounter.
Paul Blair, as a working-class boy become stage-magician, was crushing in his contempt for the elegantly kilted Connor McNair [Douglas Rankine], whose specialty was old Scottish songs.
McNair's hopeless love for his dominating fellow-artist was made even more so by the fact that Dr. Chipo's mother was the cleaning-woman for McNair's upper-class family.
This class-divide is certainly a British staple. But hopeless homosexual affections—even backstage—have only fairly recently become SOPs in playwriting.
Ben Harrison directed effectively. Judith Doherty produced. And Claire Robb was General Manager.
Look Where It Comes Again!
MACBETH HUGS A VICTIM--Rotterdam's ro Theatre re-invents "The Scottish Play." Photo: ©Douglas Robertson/2002.
The "Scottish Play"Shakespeare's doom-laden, bad-luck "Scottish Play" is his shortest. But the ro theatre of Rotterdam—drawing out meaningless moments in stasis or in grotesque pantomime—made this Macbeth seem almost as long as Hamlet. Which, if they have not yet staged it, could well become known as the "Danish Play."
Deeply In Dutch at the Lyceum
On opening-night, there were only two witches. One was indisposed. This did not really matter, for only the Senior Witch spoke the lines.
She was, however—on the evening I witnessed this blustering melodrama—accompanied by two young girls who spoke not at all and did not seem remotely interested in sorcery or the proceedings on stage.
Alize Zandwijk's staging—which recalled the ro theatre's Lower Depths, shown previously at the Edinburgh Festival—broke new ground in Deconstructing Shakespeare.
It was even more bizarre than the modern-day trailer-trash Macbeth shown last season at the Salzburg Festival. Also by a company from the Low-Lands, as they are aptly called. My favorite image from that production: Ross strangling a slatternly Lady Macduff, ciggie hanging out of her slack mouth, with her own ironing-cord.
Ross—who swore a T-shirt with his name on it, spelled and pronounced "Rosse"—fatally bopped Macduff's heir with a large plastic Coke™ bottle and then drowned the girls in their plastic playpond.
There were also some water-sports in the Dutch Macbeth. At the victory feast—there are two, not one, banquet-scenes in this production—Lady Macbeth spurts water out of her mouth at various guests, to the immense amusement of all.
The Macbeths' bedroom seems to be an abandoned tiled gym-shower. Fortunately, no one turned on the faucets as they slept. But—like so much else in the show—it would have been good for a laugh.
The ro's acting-ensemble is definitely capable. It would be interesting to seem them in a straight play, simply staged.
But what they have been given to do by their director—and what they must have developed themselves in rehearsal—is often laughable, when it is not downright boring or stupid.
At the initial banquet, there is much loud hoo-hawing and general boisterous back-slapping mirth. King Duncan could just as well be drunk-in-charge at a West Country Irish pub.
Lady Macbeth and the witches wear strange costumes made of that hospital-green material one sees so often on TV surgeons and medical-op nurses. Can this be intended as a harbinger of the surgery Lady Macbeth performs on the grooms in Duncan's fatal bedroom?
Most of the great speeches go for nothing. When Macbeth is asking if it is a dagger he sees before him, he is obviously looking at nothing and thinking about nothing.
Curiously—although it has been translated into Dutch, and is played in Dutch—the play's supertitles are not drawn directly from Shakespeare. Instead, they seem to be rough summaries of the Dutch text, translated back into English. The results are often more amusing than impressive.
Zandwijk excised scenes and truncated others. This did not result in a shorter playing-time, however. Her stylistic trick of freezing scenes or drawing them out in silent pantomime did not make them more striking or significant. Rather, less so.
As the evening wore on, the witches' hands and legs were more and more smeared with what appeared to be dark gray mud.
This may have been intended as a visual metaphor for the consuming evil of the actions in hand.
Certainly, as the Macbeths—wearing their metaphoric paper crowns—became increasingly mired in their evil deeds, their faces and hands began to be smeared with black greasepaint.
At the close, Macbeth's face and crown were layered with black. He looked like a fugitive from the old Black-and-White Minstrel Show at the Victoria Palace.
This Minstrel Show image was not lost on several critics who objected to the equating of Black with Evil. One even suggested Rotterdam was not free of black and white racial conflicts, making this directorial choice even more offensive.
In fact, major critics had a field-day reviewing this show. Joyce McMillan, of The Scotsman, was right on target:
"…the idea seems to be to strip the play down to a kind of monologue charting Macbeth's descent into murdering madness."
"…This production falls prey—not in all scenes, but in many—to the whole raft of silly, pretentious, anti-theatrical mannerisms that currently pervade well-subsidized European theatre like a kind of artistic potato-blight; the funereal pace, the conversational mumbling at the back of the stage, the actors backing coyly into the darkness as they begin to speak."
With any luck, this production will surely be seen in New York. Possibly at BAM? Of course its chances would be better there had it been staged by Robert Wilson.
For the record, Steven Van Watermeulen—water-mills, not watermelons, surely—is a stalwart Macbeth, valiantly supporting the Production Concept. He is obviously a talented actor and could be a powerful, shattering usurper in a less gimmicky production.
Similarly, one would expect really impressive performances from Zandwijk's Lady Macbeth, Jacqueline Blom, and the Banquo, Herman Gilis.
Take away the state and city subsidies, and see how fast self-indulgent directorial and design gimmicks will disappear. Unfortunately, these ensembles might disappear as well.
DANCE/MOVEMENT/AND THEN SOME—Brian McMaster, the Festival's Artistic Director, is a brilliant performing arts manager whose first love—and expertise—is Dance Theatre. So it's no wonder that each Edinburgh season features innovative ballet productions, astonishing modern dance creations, and cutting-edge movement and performance-pieces.
A Ballet Night To Remember!
THREE SWAN-MAIDENS ALOFT--But no sign of the live owl in avant-garde Flemish "Swan Lake." Photo: ©Paul De Backer/2002.
Swan Lake With a Live OwlIf you remember fondly Matthew Bourne's all-male Swan Lake production—which made it all the way from classical ballet stages to Broadway—you may well be ready for Jan Fabre's most unusual re-visioning of Tchaikovsky's most popular ballet for the Royal Ballet of Flanders.
But No Live Swans—Only Skeletons
This fantastically conceived self-indulgent staging isn't apt to reach the Great White Way. But it is just the kind of Post-Post-Modernist EuroTrash Deconstructionism that is proving so salable across the East River at BAM.
Among the visual surprises are the huge face of an owl on the act-curtain. He moves and he hoots. In fact, during the ballet—when he appears live, strapped to the evil magician Rothbard's head—his hooting never stops. He has all the Hooters beaten. At once point, Odille paused in her star-turns to pass her hand over his nosy, beaky face. It didn't silence him long.
As the magician Rothbart—at least in the original libretto—is evil & intrigue incarnate, an owl at first seems an odd choice as his familiar. Athena's owl symbolizes wisdom and knowledge. Because Rothbard [Giuseppe Nocera] is wearing a falconer's glove, perhaps a predatory falcon would have been a more significant choice for one who preys on swans and maidens-turned-into-swans.
But the owl was not to be escaped. Between each intermissionless act, he appeared giant-sized on the act-curtain. Occasionally, his eye became transparent, revealing Odette poised on point in the dimly lit distance.
There were no intermissions because Jan Fabre—a celebrated cutting-edge artist/choreographer—didn't want to dilute the impact of the mounting mystery and menace. Or allow any appalled or baffled spectator to flee…
In addition to music-less intervals with the owl, there were also some scoreless pantomimes or movements—not precisely danced—which enhanced the unusual vision of this Swan Lake, even if they did not clarify its mystifying developments.
You really had to study the program-notes carefully, well in advance of the performance, to comprehend what was being danced, mimed, and posed on the stage.
One of these non-balletic dance-movements involved eight athletic male dancers in gleaming armor. They performed a kind of martial-arts drill which had a vitality all its own.
Unrelated to them was a knight in armor with two long feelers on his helmet. He appeared in a rectangle of light at either side of the stage, stood silently, and then departed. Titled "Mantis" in the program, he was posed—or prayed/preyed—by Eric Bortolin, who was not required to dance.
Then there were wanderings about the stage of a strange long-gowned figure [Rafaël Ngom] with an immensely long bird-beak, wide-brimmed black hat, and red walking-stick. A figure worthy of Hieronymus Bosch. The program revealed that he was The Plague Doctor!
There was also a very muscular and athletic dwarf [Jurgen Verheyen], who first appeared stabbing some hunters dressed like antlered animals. The program designated him as Nano. As in nano-second…
Later, he returned to a very formal court function as a semi-naked cupid, aiming his arrow at the handsome black-clad Prince Siegfried [Priit Kripson], who stood stock still in the midst of rotating ballerinas.
Not as innocent as he looked as Eros, this mini-powerhouse of evil was vicious and malicious—whispering dark suggestions in all ears. He did not seem to be an agent of Rothbard the magician. He appeared to be driven by his own dark demons.
Later, the dwarf returned, looking like a mini-prince in court-dress. But far more fierce than cupid, for he again carried a short sword—a sexual metaphor for a small man—with which he mimed slicing open swan-maidens' bellies.
He it was who finally finished off Odette with his sword, so her Dying Swan owed nothing to Petipa or Pavlova.
There was a black & white checked-and-pied jester [Wim Vanlessen] at court. His fool's cap was backed with a skull—a deadly joke. Later, he appeared with a cap of asses' ears, chief of a six-jester cohort who performed a lively dance.
The first act opened in what seemed to be a Museum of Paleontology. Even before the act-curtain rose, there was a swan-skeleton on the forestage. But when the dance-environment was disclosed—backed by a wall of medieval tombstones—it was hung with various pre-historic skeletons.
First seen was a group of apparently slaughtered deer, rough hides and antlers covering the bodies of dead male dancers—who then got up and exited. Their hunters' disguises were gathered up by the Plague Doctor.
One of them [Jeroen Verbruggen] seemed to have been almost fatally wounded. But not quite, as he continued to appear throughout the evening, flailing himself about like an Emio Greco dancer. Or someone in the acute stages of nerve-gas poisoning.
Although he was first discovered as a dying deer, later he seemed more like an adolescent swan trying to fly but never able to get off the ground. At one point, snarling like a dog on all fours, he squared off against the howling dwarf!
The program-notes revealed that he was a Zoömorph. As the notes explain: "He is an atavism of the world before ballet, who keeps haunting the stage. He is the product of a metamorphosis that was never completed."
Jan Fabre has effectually created new first and third acts. But he has retained much of Ivanov's second and fourth act white-swans-in-tutus. To the obvious relief of the immense audience in Edinburgh's Playhouse.
Siegfried was garbed in black, as was the dark queen [Barbara Regoci]—who seemed to enjoy Rothbard's company. The dark prince confronts a series of beautiful black swans in a kind of Glass Slipper Contest. He shows each the white feather Odette has left him, but it matches no one. Nonetheless, he chooses Odille for his bride, to the horror of the court.
This scene is ringed with somber monks in black cowled cloaks. When the hero shows the white feather, one after another drops her cloak to reveal a sleek black swan-maiden, ready for the princess-test.
Finally, both Siegfried and Odette/Odille are covered with a blue tarp, symbolizing drowning beneath the waters of the lake. They could be smothering under it.
Despite all the malign Freudian fantasy of Fabre's revised plot and stage-vision, it must be noted that the dancing was generally excellent, especially considering the movement and costume problems the corps de ballet had to contend with.
In fact, the Royal Ballet corps proved more disciplined and nuanced in ensemble movements than some more famous companies who have appeared in the Festival's Playhouse dance-venue.
As Fabre's Odette/Odile, Aysam Sunal was amazing in her technique and in her emotive responses to proffered love and naked threats. That she is also the wife of Robert Denvers—artistic director of the Royal Ballet of Flanders—has little to do with her starring in this challenging new staging. She is certainly a star in her own right.
And now, what else do Fabre's program-notes have to say about what we were supposed to be seeing—and possibly understanding—on stage in his new libretto/choreography?
According to the notes: "He has adopted Petipa's work, not with irony or the intention of deconstructing it, not to find a Freudian interpretation. His adaptation is an attempt to get to the heart of the turmoil underneath the mirror surface of the ballet's tale, without the dead weight of anecdotes or psychology. To believe in the lie/truth of the imagination." Oh…
Fabre went back to the origins of the fable in the Grimm Brothers compilation of ancient folk-tales. Rothbart apparently was originally an owl. And the more scary implications of this and other tales was expunged from Grimm's second edition.
Fabre is fascinated by dualities such as Life & Death, Reality & Fantasy, Good & Evil. Thus, the Queen, conscious that she will die, is always dressed in black and her court-ladies are always in mourning. Against a black dance-floor, this makes for some fairly somber scenes.
Nano the dwarf is both devil and cupid, degenerate knight and wild animal. As the program notes: "He is the schemer who seems to know beforehand the course of events. He is the Dr. Jekyll of the ballet, always whispering evil thoughts in the characters' ears.
"As a dwarf, he is truly an outsider within the closed system of the ballet, the only character who falls short of the requirements of physical perfection, who for that very reason manages to survive…
"Time and again he stabs the female dancers to death, but as if in this instance life and death are without consequence, since they invariably rise to their feet and continue dancing. The art of ballet consequently becomes an art that belongs to a land beyond Death, to a 'post-mortem stage of life'…"
I do wish I'd had access to these program-notes well before the performance. It would have helped to know why the dwarf and the zoömorph were in it. Not to overlook The Plague Doctor. And the Live Owl!
The interesting program also offers details on the original libretto, the fable itself as a dance-work from Tchaikovsky onwards, the world of 19th century ballet, and some quotes from Vera Petipa, George Balanchine, and Jan Fabre. For balletomanes, a real Collector's Item!
As much as Fabre's intrusive owl annoyed me, I do think I'd like to see this unusual production again. Perhaps at the Brooklyn Academy of Music? If they can find the money to bring the Royal Ballet of Flanders to the much less royal shores of Brooklyn…
Emio Greco/Pieter Scholten'sI rushed from seeing The Blue Orphan at the Traverse up the backside of Edinburgh Castle hill and down the Royal Mile to catch Emio Greco's Rimasto Orfano, or Abandoned Orphan, at the Festival Theatre.
Rimasto Orfano/Abandoned Orphan—
As orphans are, by definition, abandoned, either by death or by parental decision, this oxymoronic title proved almost as baffling as the brilliant movement patterns of Greco and his acolytes.
This was a one-night-only extension of his previous work, Conjunto di Nero, or Conjunction in Black. The Festival Theatre is immense—having once been a Moss Empire Theatre and later a massive Bingo-parlor. Obviously, a large audience was anticipated.
In the event, the orchestra was only sparsely populated, so we were encouraged to move into the center seats. Fortunately, those who did come were mostly young, clearly intent on seeing Greco's distinctive explorations of the body in stasis and in motion. The Old Fogies went elsewhere, but even Macbeth at the Lyceum would have ruffled their feathers a bit.
Initially, the stage was dark, but it gradually lightened to reveal a solitary woman in white, wearing what appeared to be a Marilyn Monroe wig. As Monroe was certainly something of an orphan, this could have been an interesting metaphor.
But Greco's choreographies are not about people, places, or plots. A précis of his aims explains that a movement-vocabulary is being created that "reaches back to the inherent mainspring of the dancing body; it is the body's own logic, which serves as a starting point for the dance. Dance is not used as a means to convey a message, neither is it intended to shape the theatrical space."
Among the Seven Statements in the artistic manifesto of Greco and his partner, Pieter C. Scholten, there is this fuller explanation:
"The body remains the starting point. This body, however, is placed in space, time, and place: a physical condition that is not defined in a theatrical fiction, but that is used as a source. A space that inspires, confronts, supports, or undermines the body. We fill the space with color, light, and sound, and instruct the body to rediscover its own meaning. This is the arena where brain and movement engage in a battle. A battle that creates its own language, and only therefore is it worthwhile."
And there you have it!
Again, from the program-notes: "Rimasto Orfano means abandoned orphan. The nostalgic quest for synchronicity has no closure: the desire for a perfect unison, for coinciding with space and time, with other dancers, for the unity of mind and body, remains an attempt to glue back together the scattered body. In Rimasto Orfano, new choices can be made only from a meditative reflection, the silence of the body. Stay or go; withdraw, regroup, take a lead, or remain behind.
"The patterns originating from this principle in Rimasto Orfano are subjected to the impulses of the surroundings. Exposed to the composition of Michael Gordon, as well as to the dynamics of light, the body makes its own inimitable choices. [Italics added.] Representation, description, and explanations are once more suspended."
Actually, many of these choices proved indeed imitable, as all of Greco's dancers could follow his lead and duplicate such feats as rapidly rotating the right forearm like a storm-swept windmill.
On occasion, when the troupe was in full flight, the stage seemed filled with Whirling Dervishes. Greco himself suggested the late Mahatma Ghandi in some form of epilepsy or St. Vitus Dance.
But there were indeed moments of solitary and group stasis that were provocatively prolonged. Sometimes, Greco's dancers moved to the music of silence. At others, to the insistent and maddening wail of sirens. This was climaxed by thundering cacophony of sounds as music.
The intimate audience was impressed and delighted. A standing ovation!
Boris Charmatz/Edna's STATUTS:
Media-Mix of Performances,Having just made the rounds of Post-Post-Modernist Artworks in Kassel at Dokumenta XI, I was disappointed to discover how retro Boris Charmatz's new "work" appears, deployed in a number of classrooms of the Edinburgh College of Art.
Films, and Post-Mod Installations!
It is a mix of soi-disant performances, film-loops, videos, and installations. Saluted in Edinburgh as really cutting-edge, it is anything but. In fact, it makes the recent Whitney Biennale look like the Second Coming. With Kassel's Dokumenta being only much more of the same—and by some of the same talent-challenged artists.
Several Edinburgh reviewers, however, early enthused over Statuts to such a degree that I was really looking forward to seeing something on the cutting-edge that finally would be original and unusual—even visually exciting and intellectually stimulating.
Possibly these critics are either too young or too provincial to recognize in this Charmatz Creation what used to be called Happenings, way back in the Sixties?
The Urge to Re-Invent the Wheel is understandable enough—even in the Arts. But it would be a very good idea if it could actually go round. In Statuts, it was the audience who went round
Assembling in the foyer of the Art College, the group was subjected to the repeated iteration of texts from Hollis Frampton. This continued throughout, even as the bewildered viewers left the premises.
Charmatz's Association Edna collaborated on this multi-media artwork. In two classrooms, one or two of his colleagues moved, or did not move. Spoke, or did not speak. A silent head-stand was thought-provoking indeed.
In a corridor, a silent woman in black was frozen in place, holding a red cord—which was stretched through all the performance-venues, apparently linking them.
Opposite her was a head of St. Joseph, a plaster cast from the Art College's large and dusty collection of famous sculptures. St. Joe was not an intentional feature of Statuts, but his inscrutable plaster smile did seem to complement the static pose of The Woman in Black.
Or: Why Is This Man Laughing? Perhaps his wife had just told him a large bird had recently flown in her window to announce the forthcoming Birth of The Messiah?
In one chamber, pedestrian spectators could stand on scales connected to radio-loudspeakers. I was hoping for an effect like those old British I Speak Your Weight machines, but no luck…
In another classroom, a row of slide-projectors on the floor variously lighted up to show images of a naked man.
In yet another, an enclosure of hung canvases, white on the outside, revealed four photographic images: an open hearse with flowers, a skull and assorted bones, skull fragments, and a man installing jiffy-shelving.
On a hall wall was a photo-blowup—on the same flexible material—of a Frenchman pissing in the street. This is what happens when they demolish all the Paris pissoirs!
I was looking forward to the room completely filled with shredded paper. At least that is what one review led me to expect. In fact, there were only three fax-machines printing out a series of photo-images, which then were ingested into three paper-shredders. Hardly a room full of anything—except perhaps militant pretension…
ROUND AND ROUND HE GOES--"Short Cycle with Spin Dry" sequence from Boris Charmatz's new multi-media work. Photo: ©Douglas Robertson/2002.
The high-point of this adventure in art, film, and movement was Short Cycle with Spin Dry. Two men—after suitable meditation and preparation—mounted two low-set spinning disks.
Reviews had prepared me for some amazing feats of movement and gyration. But—even with fuzzy film-loops projected on a low screen and a spout of soapy water gushing on occasion, as light-bulbs dimmed or glowed—the results were fairly banal.
How, I asked my Polish colleague, was this more interesting than skate-boarding?
Speaking of things Polish, the last time I had seen anything remotely interesting in the Edinburgh College of Art—and that includes student works—was years ago when Kracow's Taddeuz Kantor first made a foray into the West. With his stunning Theatre of Death!
I was transfixed with his images in a long-ago Polish village classroom filled with dead people—who had obviously learnt nothing from life. This was later to be seen worldwide: The Dead Class.
I must have been the first American to interview the late Kantor—whom I later greeted when he brought his troupe to Ellen Stewart's LaMaMa. And even later, I was able to visit his theatre-workshop-museum in Kracow.
Kantor had no English when he came to Edinburgh, so we did the interview in a mixture of German and French. As I did later with Patrice Chereau in Bayreuth, discussing his seminal and Centennial RING production.
Before the Statuts performance, I photographed the Art College's red sandstone 1906 Beaux Arts exterior. The huge keystone in the entrance arch had never been carved, so it looked deliberately unfinished.
The porter explained to me that, as the College was also training architects, it was decided to leave the stone in its "natural state," whatever that means. In the quarry, perhaps? In any case, no one wanted a keystone carved with bygone traditional styles.
Unfortunately, this is not a really handsome complex of buildings. And it has not worn well with the passage of time. Even with white walls inside, it is still dark and dingy. Not to mention the dirty gray of many of the sculpture casts—the originals of which may be seen in London and Paris.
If you come to Scotland and want to see unforgettable Art School architecture, you must go to Glasgow to admire Charles Rennie Macintosh's magisterial Art Nouveau Glasgow School of Art!
But even there, you run the risk of being exposed to a multi-media art-event!
Indian Classical Dance at the Lyceum:Six programs of Indian Classical Dance were programmed for this year's Edinburgh Festival. In addition to Maharaj's Kathak performance, classics of Odissi, Manipuri, Kuchipudi, Mohiniattam, and Bharatnatyam were presented by outstanding exponents of these unique but traditional dance-styles.
An Evening of Kathak with Birju Maharaj
Kathak was charmingly demonstrated by the Master, Birju Maharaj, who learned the dances, songs, and traditions from his grandfather. And he is passing them on to his son, Deepak Maharaj, who sang many of the songs and also danced with the elegantly saried Saswati Sen.
The importance of the slightest movement of the wrists was emphasized. But Maharaj's movements and positioning of his head were also effective not only in underscoring the rhythms of the haunting music, but also in suggesting character and emotions.
It was interesting to see how many Hindi traditional Kathak dance gestures ritualize similar gestures in the West, indicating desires, emotions, and attitudes.
Wagner and Britten Sell OutInaugurated by the late Sir Rudolf Bing, when he was the Guiding Light of the Glyndebourne Opera Festival, the now venerable Edinburgh Festival still seems to be a magnet for outstanding opera productions and eager opera fans.
To Opera-Hungry Festival Public!
Over the decades, however, the prominence of opera—or lack of it—has largely depended on the tastes and interests of the fests artistic director. Stage-director Frank Dunlop, for instance, was more devoted to theatre in its many aspects.
The current and longtime director, Brian McMaster—when will they add "Sir" to his name?—is a dance specialist. But he has always ensured that opera also had an important place in festival programming. Not least in supporting new productions by the Scottish National Opera.
More than that, however, McMaster has covered the European continent scouting for importantly innovative opera productions. He has a very good eye and ear for stagings, conductors, and casts which will impress the critics and fill the seats.
This season, he seems to have had the most success yet, both with reviewers and the public. Performances of two of Wagner's major operas sold out, as did the strikingly Post-Modernist production of Britten's The Turn of the Screw.
I know this first-hand, for I sent the press-office my request for press-tickets months before. With special emphasis on my desire to see the Parsifal, Screw, Siegfried productions..
In the event, I landed on the waiting-list for all three. Apparently at the bottom, although I have been coming to the Festival for over four decades. Maybe they thought it was time I went somewhere else for a change? To the Rossini Festival in Pesaro? Or to the Aix-en-Provence Festival? I could probably have got a press-ticket for Screw at the latter, which premiered it.
Even waiting and phoning up to the last minute did not produce a press-ticket. So I paid for my Screw. Which was the sole unsold seat. But I passed on the Parsifal, as the one remaining ticket was in the stratospheric price-range of the Salzburg Festival—where the production originated.
HOLY GRAIL IN LEGOLAND?--Peter Stein's Salzburg/Edinburgh co-production of "Parsifal." Photo: ©Douglas Robertson/2002.
Peter Stein's Very Own ParsifalThe major complaint of many newspaper reviewers about Peter Stein's Parsifal concerned its set-designs. And even his stage-management of his singers. This could well have fueled the current debate about a music-critic's responsibility to his or her readers.
Direct from Salzburg's Easter Festival—
Trained musicians and musical academics who function as critics are annoyed with the attention paid—and the column-lines given—to discussions of stage-direction, acting-abilities, sets, costumes, and lighting in new opera productions.
Some have insisted that too many reviewers almost ignore the nature and quality of the musical performances. And that they seldom compare them with previous vocal achievements of Opera Greats and Conductor Immortals.
Obviously, most younger critics of Music-Theatre never saw Knappertsbusch in action. Some never heard Von Karajan at work—except on recordings.
As for singers, how many of the academic critics remember the Golden Years of Lotte Lehmann? Or Mary Garden? And certainly very few even remember the name of Emma Nevada!
Many critics who review varied forms of theatre—drama, opera, dance—believe they are not writing for the performers, music-historians, or other critics. Instead, they are describing and evaluating a new production for a broad spectrum of readers. People who might actually buy a pair of tickets to a favorably reviewed staging.
And one can assume that anyone who will take the time to read a review of an opera or dance production has some interest in these forms and in the potential of the production to engage their own interest.
Probably the major and most memorable element which now sets different productions of, say, Parsifal or even Falstaff apart, is how it looked and functioned on stage.
Last season, for example, the altogether admirable Bryn Terfel acted and sang Falstaff admirably in two quite different productions. One in Munich; the other in Salzburg. The elements which set the productions apart were the visual-environment and the staging of the characters.
Not having seen—or heard—the Salzburg/Edinburgh Parsifal, I can only share a photo or two. And note that most critics were most impressed with the gush of blood which dripped down an all-white curtain during the prelude.
Well, it is about the Holy Blood and the Holy Grail, after all!
Not to overlook the corruptive influence of seductive women, manipulated by a Master Force of Evil. Wagner always had a problem with women: For him, they often seemed either saints or devils.
Objections were made about the clutziness of set-designer Gianni Dessi's scenic vision of Klingsor's Magic Garden, which required the singers to clamber over and around them.
Even more objections were made to Dessi's Grail Temple. From the photos, I thought it was an inspired stroke of Post-Modernist Minimalist design. But others pronounced it inspired by either IKEA or Legoland. The Grail Knights were seated in glowing compartments in a semi-circle of tiered cubicles.
In one of Bayreuth's most memorable Parsifals—because of its staging, more than its singing—Goetz Friedrich placed the almost skeletal knights in tiers of arcaded galleries, with a fallen section or arches as the stage-floor. Even more difficult to clamber over—but unforgettable. Titurel sang from his tomb on closed-circuit TV!
For the final redemptive scene in the Salzburg/Edinburgh Parsifal, Kundry, Guernemanz, and Lohengrin's father were grouped together, adoring the Holy Spear, with a great golden ring overhead. This ring was not apparently an intentional reference to the Scottish Opera RING, opening its Siegfried soon after. Instead, it suggested a completion, a unity, a wholeness.
Some reviewers took Stein to task for what they regarded as awkward stage-direction and inadequate attention to the projection of character and emotion by some of the cast.
Actually—aside from the emotional turmoil of the seriously troubled Kundry and the potentially ecstatic-demonic frenzies of the evil magician Klingsor—not much action or heroics are required of the rest of the male cast. They can stand—or sit—like Public Monuments and declaim. This Wagner Masterwork is, after all, a virtual ritual.
Nonetheless, Violetta Urmana's Kundry was understandably much admired. As was Thomas Moser as Parsifal. Fortunately, I have been able to savor them in these roles elsewhere.
Claudio Abbado's sensitive conducting was much admired, especially as he had recently had a very serious brush with death. His life was in such peril, it was feared he might not be around to conduct in Salzburg, let alone Edinburgh.
I do wish I had been able to see this Parsifal. Maybe Alberto Vilar can find a way to bring it to the Met or to BAM? After all, BAM did import Peter Stein's Welsh Opera Falstaff…
Scottish Opera's SiegfriedAfter the jokey excesses of last summer's Die Walküre premiere—with Valkyries who looked more like Western cowgirls and acted like soccer supporters—I feared that the Scottish Opera's new Siegfried might be more of the same.
Forges 3/4 of Its New RING!
Given the original Abstract-Minimal design framework of the Scots' new RING, I did wonder what further excesses could be visited on Brünnhilde and her nephew-lover Siegfried.
But, as I was on the press waiting-list for a sold-out opening-night, I was almost resigned to missing such astonishments. My great good luck at the very last minute—the performance began at 4:30 pm, almost as early as at Bayreuth—was to be given a very good seat.
And I must say—having seen a great many RINGs by now—that this Edinburgh Siegfried is one of the most humanly interesting and dramatically effective I've seen. It is not without some jokey and even bizarre visual effects, but its over-riding quality is the human—even godly—truth in the vocal and physical interpretations of almost all the cast.
Of course, this is a tribute to the admirable actor-singers. But it could not have worked so well in some very moving moments without the perception and sensitivity of stage-director Tim Albery.
In the two previous Edinburgh RING installments, I was not so impressed with his staging. So I look forward to Götterdämmerung next summer and to Albery's complete Scottish Opera RING>
Even some seemingly awkward moments—as when Siegfried and Brünnhilde vocally and physically sparred around her mountain-top stone bed, reaching out and retreating—were very, very human, as Wagner's soaring music obviously intended.
The stainless goddess becomes a woman, inflamed with love and passion. The boyish, boorish dolt becomes a man and a lover! Elizabeth Byrne is a radiant Brünnhilde, not only vocally, but also as a woman awakening both physically and emotionally.
Wotan's quiz-game with Mime, his parley with Alberich outside Fafner's cave, his pathos in seeking Erda's wisdom and then voiding it forever, and his final self-destructive defiance of his own hero-grandson were remarkably effective and affecting. Matthew Best is both vocally and physically a very human yet commanding Wotan/Wanderer. He wore dark glasses, rather than a folded-over hat-brim. A slight fashion-note, to complement his basic-black.
I admit I was initially irritated by Wagner's Waldvogel [Gillian Keith], dressed in a white pants-suit, with woody-woodpecker-style red hair, bird-like flittings, and a mobile leafless tree.
But even she eventually won me over with her very real concern for Siegfried's safety and success. In the music and Wagner's own words, this often comes across as high-pitched twittering. Keith made it more than that, certainly.
Peter Sighom was a very believable ever-plotting Alberich. But his brother Mime—wonderfully played and sung by Alasdair Elliott—proved an outstanding comic-mime. Neither of these singers is in any way dwarfish, not in stature nor in talent.
True, Mime did brew up the poisonous beverage for Siegfried, pour it into a thermos, and stuff it into his backpack, in a rather Sierra Club fashion. But this kind of Mod-Comedy in the first act has become a fashion itself, ever since Chereau's celebrated Bayreuth RING.
Actually—aside from Wagner's only comic-opera, Die Meistersinger—there is very little comedy or even amusing moments in any of his major works. Siegfried is therefore something special.
Retaining the curved inclined concave-convex flanking sections of the previous two installments of this new Scottish RING, in Siegfried they were used to suggest sections of the earth-globe itself.
When Wotan came to summon up Erda—a sleepily magisterial Helene Ranada—the stage-right flanking section seemed to have some strange geometries drawn on it, but strange colored lighting suddenly revealed an abstract modern chaos worthy of Hieronymus Bosch.
One such section—smeared with swathes of red—worked very well for the Magic Fire. The fact that a photo of modern sedan and some tech drawings were on its margins must have been included to lend relevance. But they were so peripheral few noticed them.
That the main visual linking-element in all the scenes was a two-lane highway—with one of those — — — — — — white dividing-strips—at first looked like a deliberate sight-gag. Wotan wandering on Route 66? Siegfried bringing home the bear on the A4!
But this Wanderer On The Road image carried through very well, making these Nordic mythic events seem more relevant, resonant, even timeless than they do in Wagner's poetic but definitely 19th century libretto. Of course the music certainly makes this tragic tale resonant and timeless.
I rather liked the idea of Wotan summoning up Erda—not only with the stentorian words and music of Wagner—but also by pushing an elevator-button on the wall of the world and having her arrive by Schindler Lift from the bowels of the earth.
At least that's what it looked like to me. But a local critic explained that this was merely an apartment-house door, with several door-buzzers. I like the idea of Erda coming up from Down Below in an elevator much better.
What if Wotan pressed the wrong door-buzzer? He might have summoned up Condi Rice or Sean Connery!
But the revelation of the dragon Fafner was not at all effective. It should be rethought and redesigned—as they almost always have to do at Bayreuth with a new RING and a new idea for avoiding a dragony dragon.
Initially, the scene is moody, modern, and menacing. A blank black concave section of the globe is flanked on the stage-right side by a modern metal bench, such as one could find at a rural bus-stop. At the left is a sodium-vapor street-lamp. The two-lane highway curves from upstage toward the right.
But when a black panel on the section slides open, it reveals not a cave but an oval with an immense gaping open dragon's-mouth, framed by gigantic teeth. Siegfried can hardly plunge Nothung into Fafner's heart in this vision. The best he could do is perform a tonsillectomy.
The minute he's thrust his sword into the mouth, the cloth collapses, revealing Fafner as a rather handsome young man [Markus Hollop], in very elegant evening-wear. All dressed-up, and no place to go—but to the cemetery! Actually, Hollop is very affecting in his death-scene.
And then there's the interesting young singer who plays the title-role. Graham Saunders looks more like a fugitive from The Full Monty than a Wagnerian Hero.
Even though Siegfried is not very bright—as well as being boorish, rough, untamed, and untrained in Wagner's libretto—Saunders does manage to make him somewhat sympathetic. An orphan-boy, after all. Basically, with a Good Heart.
He certainly does his stuff forging Nothung. When he's finished, flares burst all over the stage, rather than a simple old anvil splitting. In Edinburgh, fireworks like that are usually saved for the close of the Edinburgh Tattoo. But in Albery's Siegfried, it's only the end of the first act!
An especially human touch: when Siegfried is preparing to leave the Cave of Envy—yes, that's what Wagner called it—he seems more concerned about getting his parka on than picking up the tarnhelm.
What puzzled me about Saunders' Siegfried was the occasional vocal strangulation or forcing which was almost unpleasant to hear. But it usually occurred at moments of especial stress or passion, so it almost seemed emotionally right.
He is a big stocky man, still rather boyish in some ways—very right for this role. But he needs much more experience so that he can control and modulate his basic big tones more effectively. Still, a young talent to watch!
In fact, this was Saunders' debut in this demanding role. That considered, he did very well indeed.
You may have noticed that no one of this fine cast is a star from Mittel-Europa. It is very encouraging that Wagner can be cast from Europe's off-shore islands.
Richard Armstrong's conducting of the Scottish Opera Orchestra was both sensitive and powerful, at every moment emphasizing the dramatic potentials.
DUEL TO THE DEATH--The Governess fights with the ghost of a dead man for her pupil's soul in "Turn of the Screw." Photo: ©E. Carrechio/2002.
Luc Bondy Works WondersThe elusive nature of the grim realities and evil fantasies which inform Henry James' haunting tale of two orphan children—in thrall to a dead couple who once worked in their remote English manor-house—permits a variety of visions when the story is adapted as a drama or an opera.
With Turn of the Screw from Aix
Should the audience actually see the evil Peter Quint and the pathetic dead governess, Miss Jessel? Do the children really see them? Or are they only figments of the living Governess's imagination?
The housekeeper, Mrs. Grose, cannot see them. But she becomes aware of their malign power and presence.
Myfanwy Piper—Benjamin Britten's librettist, for his opera, The Turn of the Screw—decided that they should be seen by the audience—if not by Mrs. Grose. And that they should also be heard, singing out their fierce passions and regrets.
The visible presence of these vicious ghosts suggests interesting production possibilities. For William Archibald's stage-version on Broadway—once ironically titled Ceremony of Innocence—a dark, spooky Victorian ambience was invoked. This proved very effective—and also very decorative.
But, for Britten's opera version, directors and designers have often moved far away from realism. A memorable Washington Opera production used layered projections to a most haunting effect. Plus Miss Jessel high aloft in a swing, singing out her pain.
Luc Bondy's very elegant but very Minimal staging of Turn of the Screw wonderfully manages to evoke a time and place and fear long past. And, at the same time, to give the tale an almost timeless relevance and resonance in the present.
In Henry James' time, the idea that lovely young children—"trailing clouds of innocence"—could be corrupted, sexually or otherwise, was taboo. Despite the slum children for sale on the streets of London. But then that was something for Dickens to deal with, not for James.
The nature of the evil—what Quint may have told or taught young Miles, what Miles did to get himself expelled from school—is not defined either in the novel or the opera.
But the dynamic and ever innovative director Luc Bondy has visually indicated that it concerns sexual awakenings and possible paedophilia.
At one point, after a confrontation between Miles and the desperate Governess, a shirtless Peter Quint is revealed lolling under the sheets in Miles' bed. Suggestive, to say the least.
At the close, when the Governess is fatally trying to free Miles from Quint's malign dominance, Quint appears in an elegant 18th century costume, dancing around the two, unseen by the Governess but very real to Miles. He was trying to be his most attractive, to lure Miles to him. And to Death.
Current outraged concerns about the seduction of innocent altar-boys by corrupt priests does not seem to admit of any collusion on the part of the lads. Or the possible longing of a fatherless boy for any kind of union with a father-figure. For at least a hug, or even sexual contact of some kind..
When Freud announced his discoveries about infant sexuality, he was widely excoriated. It seemed disgusting and even perverted of Freud to suggest that babies had been sexually aroused by their nurses, to keep them from crying.
In the current wave of Roman Catholic outrage about man-boy contacts, could there be more to the various sad stories than is being revealed? Either most of the inflamed, angry adults have forgotten about their own vague sexual feelings in childhood. Or they don't want to remember. After all, worship of the Virgin, Mary Immaculate, and constant repression of any sexual thoughts or urges is central to good moral conduct.
Who knows what secret experiences both Henry James and Benjamin Britten may have had in childhood and youth? Neither of them ever married…
But Luc Bondy has read Britten and Piper very astutely. And effectively. This is about sexual passion and repression. Not only with Miles, but also with the lonely young Governess.
Mireille Delunsh and Hanna Schaer are consummate as a strongly contrasting pair of care-givers: The Governess and the Housekeeper.
Marlin Miller and Marie McLaughlin were also well matched—in what in life must have been a sado-masochistic relationship—as Quint and Jessel.
As the children, George Hicks and Pippa Woodrow were both handsome to behold and obviously precocious, if occasionally a bit strained vocally. Bondy's direction of the two young performers was masterful: their innocence and charm masking darker secret dreams and doings.
Their Ceremony of Innocence was indeed an ironic ritual. Not a childish burial of a dead beetle, but a requiem for Quint and Jessel.
Although Hicks is still a boy, when the Governess sat Miles on her knee, he almost towered over her. This was extremely suggestive, as he was not visually a little boy perching on a big adult's thigh.
At the end, Miles cries out: "Peter Quint, you devil!"
Bondy's direction suggests that he has not been able to break free of Quint. The Governess has lost definitively.
She has lost more than his immortal soul and his living mortal body, but also what must have become her first love. She falls down on Miles' inert form, covering him completely with her own body and her voluminous Victorian skirts. So they are both lost, tragic souls.
Instead of a haunted Victorian mansion, Bondy and his set-designer Richard Peduzzi—who designed Chereau's celebrated Bayreuth 1976 RING—opted for an almost clinical Post-Modernist Minimalist milieu. Tall stark white panels moved back and forth, in and out, up and down, to suggest elemental rooms.
Although designer Moidele Bickel had created Victorian costumes for the characters, some of the very few set-props were in fact modern. Quint & Jessel were seated at a chrome & formica kitchen-table at one point. Before the children covered them with a sheet and performed a funeral ceremony over them.
There were, however, some period props, such as the school-desk in the classroom and the rocking-horse in the nursery.
The almost Expressionist lighting of Dominique Bruguière was very important in hightening the drama, the menace, the fear. It made the frameless, faceless wall-panels haunting, threatening in themselves. A kind of prison of the mind and spirit, outside place and time.
Luc Bondy is surely a genius. Both his opera and his drama productions are revelatory. His Salzburg Festival staging of Botho Straus's drama, Gleichgewicht, remains deeply engraved on my memory.
But, as with many opera-stagings, it is most often the visual image of the production which comes more readily to mind than the actual emotional conflicts and confrontations. You need to look at the text again—or hear the arias again—to summon up more exact memories of a specific production.
Speaking of arias, the sung English in this Turn of the Screw was always clear and effectively accented in performance. No supertitles needed, though that's not always the case with Opera In English.
If it's not economically feasible to bring this Luc Bondy staging to New York—and even beyond the Hudson—can't he and his favorite designers be invited to stage an opera for one of our major opera companies soon?
Traverse Theatre's Mini-Festival of New Plays!In addition to the Traverse Theatre's commissioned play—staged at the Lyceum Theatre—it mounted as usual two new plays of its own, plus a group of specially selected productions from outstanding alternative theatre ensembles at home and abroad.
This means each of its two empty-cube theatres—with spartan seating—may have as many as four strikes and sets each day to accommodate the various plays and performances. This is quite a feat of technical know-how.
TOUCHING A NERVE--Two bird-watchers spar in "Outlying Islands." Photo: Courtesy Traverse Theatre/2002.
David Greig's Outlying IslandsDavid Greig's world-premiere play won a Fringe Festival First, and deservedly so. But Outlying Islands is one of those Scots dramas which requires a semi-realistic setting for maximum effect. This means a complicated set-up and strike, especially when it's followed by a quite different kind of staging.
Entering the black-box Traverse One, the audience sees what looks like a curving sea-wall, inclining toward stage-right, with a projection cyc in the background, designed by Fiona Watt.
Actually, this structure's first use is as a curving trail up to the high island cliffs. A young Cambridge-trained ornithologist poetically introduces us to this forlorn, uninhabited island off Scotland's northwest coast.
Shortly thereafter, however, this set-piece proves also to be the interior wall of a "pagan" chapel, abandoned over a century ago by people who could no longer survive on this windswept sanctuary of rare gulls.
Aside from the gulls, the only other forms of life on the island are some sheep, grazed by a crusty old mainlander, Kirk, who holds the rights to the island.
He urges an unseen man to kick on the heavy chapel door. He knocks it off its hinges, a sight-joke repeated throughout the drama.
This is John [Sam Heughan], also a Cambridge grad and bird-lover. He is somewhat of a working-class foil [and prig], contrasting with Robert [Laurence Mitchell], the smug, cynical, over-analytical, and caustic leader of this two-man expedition to make a census of the sheep and gulls. And, for their own particular interest, to study this very special breed of bird, whose habits are so little known or understood.
The island's proprietor, the gruff old Kirk [Robert Carr], wants to make sure The Ministry pays him for damage to the door and any other losses which may be incurred.
It soon is disclosed that the reason the two young men have been sent to the Orkneys on this mission for The Ministry is to gather the information needed to launch an airborne anthrax attack on the sheep and the gulls, to test the biological weapon for wartime use.
The eager bird-men have been misled, but Kirk lets it slip. Robert is determined to prevent this wanton destruction of the island and its gulls. Kirk doesn't care, as long as The Ministry pays him off.
To persuade him to change his mind and refuse to permit The Ministry to carry out its plans, Robert attacks him. Then he pins his arms behind him and orders John to beat the old man. This causes a heart-attack, leaving Kirk dead on the sole table on the island.
He is laid out by his niece Ellen [Lesley Hart], whose "jugs" have been admired by Robert. She is glad her tyrannical uncle is dead. And she's ready for romance.
Who will get the girl—as the old man's body lies three days long on the table, unburied?
Forget about the anthrax. The Ministry will bomb the island anyway.
But Robert and John have made some important photos of the gulls in flight late at night in a drenching storm. Their mission is completed.
From the first, there is something of a homoerotic undertone in Robert's patronizing interest in John, both as fellow-scientist and as a buddy.
When John and Ellen finally get naked on the table—at her urging, as he is epically shy and unsure—Robert crouches like a gull, watching them.
Then he runs outside, up the sea-wall ramp, and leaps over the cliff like a gull in flight. We don't actually see this, but it would certainly work well in the film that surely will soon be made of Greig's drama.
Anthrax is so topical now…
Philip Howard staged the play.
Rona Munro's IronCurtain-time—if it can be called that, as there is no curtain in Traverse One Theatre—was delayed almost twenty minutes. It took that long to strike the previous show and erect the metal stairs and catwalk necessary to suggest a women's prison, the site of Rona Munro's painfully ironic Iron.
Josie, a daughter who has not seen her mother in fifteen years, almost on impulse decides to pay a visit to her in prison. Years ago, her mother, the feisty Fay, stabbed her father to death after a drunken altercation.
But the daughter can remember none of that, nor even what her father looked like.
The drama is fairly effective and tautly directed by Roxana Silbert. It could make a good film, with Susan Sarandon and Jodie Foster, directed by Tim Robbins.
But Munro—who also writes film-scripts—will need to offer more psychological depth to her drama. Some of the emotions and impulses of both mother and daughter, both in the past and the present, are not explored adequately.
Despite the fine performances of Sandy McDade as Fay and Louise Ludgate as Josie—as well as Helen Lomax and Ged McKenna as prison guards—as an alien American, I would have appreciated supertitles.
Even with two Scottish grandmothers—and many Augusts spent at the Edinburgh Festival & Fringe—I still find some Scots accents as mysterious as Ancient Celtic.
Somehow, I understood Fay to say that her drunken mate had set her on fire. That certainly seemed reason enough to stab him, if she were also drunk at the time.
When I finally read the play—which was also the program, published by the inimitable Nick Hern—I discovered that this was something of a metaphor.
Fay does actually say: "He set me on fire and watched me burn and he laughed."
But it's only a metaphor, as she's said, just before this—which I did not clearly understand, thanks to the accent-filter: "…my anger flashed over and started to burn me alive…"
The characters and the situation are by no means Scots-oriented. This play could as easily be set in San Francisco, Dallas, or Toronto. And some theatre ensembles there and elsewhere are sure to give it a try…
Catalyst Theatre's The Blue OrphanThe Traverse has a tradition of importing a new Canadian play each Festival season, produced by one of Canada's increasing number of avant-garde theatres. Poor Superman was a Fringe Festival hit which had a later life internationally.
Calgary's One Yellow Rabbit Theatre is an ensemble which never disappoints, for example. This summer, the new show came from Edmonton, some miles north from Calgary. This was The Blue Orphan, created by Catalyst Theatre.
Authors Jonathan Christenson and Joey Tremblay note in the program that they began their journey in devising this strange fantasy, inspired by Grimm's Fairy Tales, the often ghoulish fables of Edward Gorey, and Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio.
Considering the characters they have conjured up to tell the tale of the miraculous Blue Orphan butterfly which can sing, they might also have taken a look at Dylan Thomas's Under Milk Wood.
Jonathan Christenson—who also staged—has composed a haunting score, with some enchanting songs and fragments. But both the songs and the spoken texts are over-miked, which make them seem less haunting than was apparently intended.
This is a fey little show—with some truly Gorey-esque characters and events. One of them, Barefoot Clare, is even deliberately gross.
Nonetheless, its over-arching Orphan Fable is not without charm and resonance. And its music certainly deserves a wider hearing.
The program notes that this is a production in progress, changing at each performance. But it is not going to emerge from its current caterpillar-stage into the beautiful singing Blue Orphan that it could become—without a complete overhaul.
It would profit from a fresh dramaturgical look at its book, a far more fantastical design, more effective staging, and even some new performance-talent.
That's asking a lot of a provincial Canadian ensemble, so it probably won't happen. But this could emerge from its chrysalis to become an Off-Broadway Butterfly.
The authors are obviously striving for a form of poetic diction, but much of the text seems compounded of time-honored clichés. As frequent readers of these columns must by now have realized, clichés are often a handy short-cut in communication. They provide something like Instant Recognition, trite though they may be.
Thus, in The Blue Orphan, "impending doom" was frequently foreseen. Not "imminent doom," nor "certain doom." In fact, the authors liked the ponderous pomposity of this verbal threat so much the phrase was used several times.
For the record: Henrietta—the rich, reclusive heir to the now defunct paper-mill of Crooked Creek—is enchanted with the song of the Blue Orphan butterfly. She takes a holiday in South America, where a rich butterfly-collector captures her fancy.
But he later sends her—mounted inside a jeweled frame, as are all his rare lepidoptrae—the last singing Blue Orphan. She is devastated, appalled. She throws the frame onto a trash heap beneath her window.
Sister Parnel, who operates a home for orphans, finds the frame. She makes it a Holy Relic in her orphanage, creating the legend of the Singing Blue Orphan.
Then one dark day, the frame and the butterfly are stolen. In fact, they are inside the glowing suitcase of the orphan-boy who has left the orphanage to embark on his journey in life.
Then there's a Papillon. And there's even a fragile girl who makes paper butterflies, cared for by a beast who once must have been a man. That's where the Grimm Brothers seem to enter the frame.
There is certainly something in this concept, this score, and these diverse characters and visual elements which could make this a really charming little show. It's on the verge…
Unlimited Theatre's SafetyFor me, Chris Thorpe's Safety—a study of the psyche of a war-photographer at crisis-point—was one of the most effective of the Traverse Theatre's offerings.
Directed by Jon Spooner—for Unlimited Theatre, in association with Sheffield Theatres—Thorpe played one of his four characters. This was an unemployed, disaffected young man, Sean.
Seeing the photographer's little girl in danger of drowning, he instantly jumped in the water and saved her. But he also noticed her father looking on at the incipient tragedy without making a move to rescue her.
Thorpe's play opens with Michael, the famous war-photographer [Steven Dykes], being interviewed in a hotel-room by Tanya, a star-journalist [Louisa Ashley], who is also his mistress.
It is to be their last tryst. Things are wearing out, it seems. Even the former thrill of being at the heart of the action in one of the world's many War Zones.
Images of war-photography are used effectively. But often verbal descriptions seem even more powerful than pictures, as over-exposure to photo-horrors in papers and on TV can dull the emotions.
Susan [Bridget Escolme] and Michael invite Sean to an awkward dinner, to thank him for saving their daughter. Plain-spoken Sean utters the needed home-truths that lead to Susan's decision to leave Michael.
More important, Michael is finally forced to admit that one of his most famous images—that of a dying young soldier, surprised at his imminent demise—is more than it seems.
Afraid he was being attacked in the dusk of a shattered city street, Michael shot the soldier. Before taking his prize-winning photo, which has become a devastating indictment of the senseless cruelty of war. Irony indeed.
Something to which Michael has by now become inured. Ready for the next battle-assignment. And horrific Photo-Op.
A local critic dismissed this drama as old-hat, obvious in its plotting and effects. I believe, nonetheless, that the play would prove effective for a wider audiences.
SADO-MASOCHISTIC MOMENT--Stu confronts Abby with sadistic porn in "Stitching." Photo: Courtesy Traverse Theatre/2002.
Bush Theatre/Red Room's StitchingAt the Traverse—as elsewhere on the Fringe, with its over 200 venues—one becomes accustomed to productions which credit two or three progenitors. Accordingly, The Red Room and The Bush Theatre were presenting the World Premiere of Anthony Neilson's Stitching, also staged by the playwright.
This is a two-hander, sure to be more widely produced, owing to its basic battle of the sexes and its more graphic revelations about modern methods for keeping those colored lights going.
Stu [Phil McKee] is a dour and difficult young Scot, married to the attractive Abby [Selina Boyack], who seems to have married beneath her.
They can't seem to agree on anything—except that, somehow, they love each other. To keep that love alive, they have resorted to various fantasies.
Some of them specifically sado-masochistic, with strong language to match. In one scene, Stu nearly chokes Abby with a dildo. Then she wrests it away and rams it down his throat.
In another—as they have been playing the game of customer and whore—Stu shows her a series of porn photos of various perversions, including mutilation of the uterus.
Fortunately for audiences in the all-too-intimate Traverse Two Theatre, these seemed to be red-coated sheets, so images could not be distinguished. Only described, which proved quite horrific enough.
And the nasty sexual encounters were performed fully-clothed. Some future director of this troubling script is sure to find a way to show these scenes in the nude.
At the opening, Abby is pregnant and obviously wants the child. But Stu thinks it's too soon. He's not yet secure enough in his job. He'd rather wait a few years.
Abby, like so many young women, wants the child now. She's afraid of 40 and waiting too long. But she also wants to please Stu, to do what he wants her to do.
Neilson's taut drama moves backwards and forwards in time, so that it's not possible to know if a scene is pretend or imagination, or something that actually is happening.
Thus, in one scene, their son, Daniel, seems to have died because of their carelessness. Making love when they should have been watching him.
This is the crux of Ibsen's Little Eyolf. Also of Albee's A Delicate Balance. But did it really happen with Stu and Abby?
Or is Daniel a fantasy of an aborted child who never was? As in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
The play ends effectually where it began, with Abby and Stu trying to pick apart the stitches of their relationship to see how it can be saved, sewn back together. One critic described this as a happy ending.
But it was not at all clear that this was so intended. Rather, it could have been an ironic flashback to a beginning that did possibly result in either a regretted abortion or a birth and a too early death.
This, to me at least, proved more compelling than confusing.
But the strong sexual language and violent physical contact—although fully clothed—could well provoke cardiac-arrest in some American Senior Citizen show-goers, if Stitching reaches the regional theatres. As it is very like to do!
WINDS BLOWING WESTERLY--Rebecca Hope Terry as manic Canadian TV weather-girl. Photo: ©John Lauener/2002.
Volcano's WeatherThis is another production imported from Canada. Volcano, in association with The Moving Company, has an interesting one-woman show in Rebecca Hope Terry's Weather.
Terry—who also wrote the script—plays a deliberately perky TV Weather Forecaster, having to seem endlessly cheerful about the vagaries of Canadian weather.
Terry is attractive and personable in her broadcast uniform, but what makes this aspect of the show so amusing is her constant use of really descriptive hand-gestures to suggest the form and ferocity of the impending weather she's describing.
But things are quite different when this lonely girl is at home. The flip-side of the weather is really quite sad and depressing. She finds comfort in caressing a stuffed white goose she keeps in a suitcase, which doubles as a side-table.
Even worse than loneliness is the terrible Canadian Cold. It gets into your bones. She notes that Winnipeg winters may be horrors, but it is a dry cold. In Toronto, the snow is wet and freezing. One never gets warm. One never gets dry.
And winters are even colder in Montreal, Quebec is the coldest of all. For that matter, not even Vancouver is comfortable in winter.
I can remember one winter at McGill University in Montreal when we crossed streets through ice-tunnels. Terry is right on about Montreal! It's almost as cold as Madison, Wisconsin, in winter.
Terry's weather-woman laments that New Yorkers behave as if they had no sense of snow. The same for Ohio and Illinois.
This takes on the amusing color of one of those national low-self-esteem complaints against Canada's neighbors to the south.
Terry has created some choreography for herself, but the entire show was directed by Ross Manson. This is a performance-piece which could have a wider life.
"ALL RADIANTS MUST BE KILLED"--Futuristic Class-Struggle creates internal conflicts in "The Drowned World." Photo: ©Manuel Harlan/2002.
Paines Plough's The Drowned WorldThis Traverse Theatre import won a Fringe Festival First. Gary Owen's poetic drama of a new form of Ethnic Cleansing in the not-so-distant future could pass over from grim fantasy into horrifying reality.
In a sense, it already has in Bosnia under the Serbs. And in Afghanistan, under the Taliban. In fact, Hitler rose to power by using it.
It is on the surface a metaphor for the class-divisions which still seem to infect British life. But behind and below what transpires on stage is the darker threat of mysterious unseen Rulers, who maintain their power by manipulating the envies, fears, and hatreds of the less intelligent, less attractive, less capable, less prosperous, and even less loving lower levels of human society.
Not so long ago, it could have been a metaphor for the hatreds of Working-Class Labour Party members directed against Upper and Middle-Class Tories.
The unseen authorities are waging a successful campaign to search out and destroy any of the "Radiants" their minions can find. These Beautiful People are then savagely killed and mutilated.
The one stage-image for Gary Owen's The Drowned World is an elevated aquarium-tank filled with beautiful flowers. Actually, in the script, the flooding of the city has not yet happened, but the doom is impending, as they say. Two Radiants, Tara and Julian—sensitively played by Josephine Butler and Theo Fraser Steele—have been hiding in their home. But one day a real Citizen, Kelly [Eileen Walsh], comes knocking at their door.
She is an agent come to arrest them and turn them in. But a glance into Julian's Radiant eyes makes her unable to carry out her task.
Another Citizen, Darren [Neil McKinven]—a very scruffy, seedy young member of the dominant ordinariness—has glimpsed the Radiance of Tara and is smitten.
Underneath, he is not so ordinary. And he is attracted to Radiance,. Rather than repelled by it, as his Citizen society insists he must be in order to survive.
How this drama of the two pairs plays itself out is both radiantly poetic and passionately painful. It does not end well. How could it?
Unfortunately, Owen's prophetic play is being played out at lower levels of class-clash all over the world. And the announced reasons for Muslim Terrorists hatred of the West and its cultures certainly suggest a fierce desire to wipe out all that Owens would call Radiant.
Vicky Featherstone staged for Paines Plough, in association with Graeae.
A quote from Owen's text:
And that is why we can't have these
Fatally radiant creatures
Walking around the place
Reminding us how clumsy
And foul we all are.
Joe Chaikin Gets Some ShuteyeCanada's not the only western nation represented at the Traverse. From Philadelphia comes the Pig Iron Theatre Company. With Shuteye, conceived and created by Joseph Chaikin and this talented young ensemble.
The show is a very ingenious and often hilarious exploration of the nature of sleep and waking, of dreams and nightmares, of narcolepsy. There is even a forlorn woman with nightgown and pillow, endlessly searching for the Sleep Lab.
The mad cascade of seemingly non-sequitur events begins with a man lying in a hospital bed in deep coma. His sister comes to sit with him.
Suddenly a business conference, involving her, is in full swing around the bed. At a critical moment, the brother jumps up to intervene and save his sister's job with some clever ideas for company strategy.
Unfortunately, this patient may be in the last spasm of life, with his EKG leveling out. Not to worry: that suddenly transmutes into a metaphor for a company in trouble. A pillow-company, as it happens.
Joe Chaikin's own long experiences with doctors and hospitals have surely inspired some of the trenchant, incisive comedy. But the resourceful ensemble surely developed many of the sight-gags and pantomimes out of their own experiences.
It all has the ring of truth, even in the hectic distortions of anxiety-induced nightmares.
But when the medical prognosis is at the worst, doctors, nurses, and hospital staff break into a mock Gilbert & Sullivan mini-operetta to deal with it. This is worth the price of admission alone!
Events—which may be either real or dreamt—slip backwards and forwards in meta-time, so that it's not quite possible to know what may have happened and what is dreamworld fantasy.
The scene which suggests how Michael came to be lying in bed in a coma is a solo masterpiece, as well as a gem of social criticism.
Driving to work, sitting in a chair, holding a steering-wheel, Michael is also trying to drink a cup of coffee, carry on a business-fraught mobile-phone conversation, make a note on his palm-pilot, and consult a brochure. Fortunately, he does not also try to light a cigarette. That could be added?
The ingenious text has been devised by Deborah Stein, with some very effective music by James Sugg.
There are some deliberate Chaikin-esque longeurs in the show, but these could well be elided to maintain the otherwise breakneck pace of the events.
I would have missed this wonderful show had not Sherri Eaker—editor-publisher of Backstage—met me at another Traverse production and urged me to see Shuteye.
This could be a big Off-Broadway hit. With the right development, it could even make its way to Broadway. All the way from Philadelphia—by way of Edinburgh! [Loney]
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