Tuesday, December 24, 2013

"When shall we three meet again?"

Recently, Solange on Theater (SOT) asked the 16-year-old offspring and her best guy friend what show they would like to see for Christmas.

SOT had envisioned her childhood - perhaps the New York City Ballet's ever-wondrous Nutcracker or the power and joy of Handel's Messiah. If the ballet seemed too juvenile and the oratorio too classical, then possibly a Broadway show, preceded by an elegant dinner and a stroll through Rockefeller Center to take in the tree and the lights.


Little did she realize she would be plunged into a world of blood and madness as the high schoolers said they would like to go to Sleep No More, the two-year-old interactive theater performance based on Macbeth.

Ballet and song of a different kind.

Instead of Lincoln Center or Carnegie Hall, the three of us headed toward a former warehouse on West 27th Street and Tenth Avenue. Sleep No More is a production of Britain's Punchdrunk company, which has been devising immersive theater experiences since 2000 in environments that aren't traditional theaters, a concept called site-specific.

The converted warehouse is called the McKittrick Hotel, supposedly a luxury hotel that was shuttered in the 1930s and re-opened for this show. We lined up briefly under the streetlights, outside the black entrance door, as a bouncer marked with an X the hands of our underage non-drinkers.

Upon entering, down a dimly-lit hallway, we are told to check coats and bags ($4 charge), given a playing card as a ticket and ushered into a red-lit bar/lounge called Manderley (not so much a nod to Macbeth as to the Gothic novel and film Rebecca).

Our guides are rather arch in manner. We are given white masks (see photo above), told to wear them at all times and that there is to be no talking during the performance. It's a film noir atmosphere stirred with a touch of unease.

We are guided onto an elevator, told to explore and that "fortune favors the bold." Once off the elevator, I began letting my eyes adjust to the dim light as eerie music filled the air. Feeling my way down the hallways felt like a haunted house set and the sounds added to the sense of foreboding, but I knew there would be nothing as trite as ghoulies jumping out of the shadows.

There are four floors and dozens of rooms decorated in time-warp, hallucinatory fashion. The first room I entered had a double row of clawfoot bathtubs and resembled a 1920s hospital. A young woman in a gray nurse's uniform was washing a couple of shirts in one of the tubs and we masked voyeurs gathered to watch. Our pale uniform faces rinsed away all expression and identification. We were not tempted to look at each other.

She moved quickly out of the room and we followed, but I went down another corridor. Our group had been split up and one of the hints about the show is that it is best to explore alone. Each person has a unique experience. I wandered through many rooms - a bedroom where a woman was writing a letter, a tailor's shop where a man was meticulously sewing tags on a piece of clothing. The letter-writing woman entered and they danced. He wrapped her in a bolt of cloth, then unwrapped her.

However, I seemed to be wandering through a lot of rooms with much furniture and decor but no people and after the first half hour, was looking at my watch. Then things got active. Themes of blood and water - washing away blood -- recurred as a couple (Macbeth and Lady Macbeth) in a bedroom tried to sluice away guilt and murder. There was some nudity but somehow, behind our masks, we were each individually watching and there was no creepy crowd feeling, although there were at least two dozen people there. It was almost sacred.

"Out, out damn spot." 
Then the couple began a wild dance - on the huge bed with its brown sheets, along the piled-up suitcases and brown dressers against the wall. They flung each other down and around, even up against the walls. The lines from Macbeth ran through my head -"Methought I heard a voice cry 'Sleep no more!/Macbeth doth murder sleep.'" I saw two tortured people, demons wakefully haunted by bloody deeds, trapped in a hellish storm of their own devising, and I was brought to tears.

"Still it cried 'Sleep no more!' to all the house."
Following crowds and characters, I came upon a large room with low stone walls and trees. Here amid flashes of strobe lighting was a witches' sabbath of desperate eroticism as Macbeth and the three witches communed with the dark forces of the supernatural. All the symbolism of the scenes in Macbeth was there -- the bloody child (a baby doll, of course), a naked man wearing a donkey's head, the trees of Birnam Wood -- astonishing, sensual, brilliant.

As time wound toward 10 p.m., black-masked guides took up positions on the stairs, forcing us to go down to the main floor and a large open room where a stage was set with a banquet scene. Macbeth was at the head of the table and his male and female guests were arraying along it, almost dancing in place to music. And there was the ghost of Banquo, the last bloody-faced man, haunting the host at what becomes his last meal.

The evening ended at the Manderley Bar and our group of three reunited, although I had run into the two others along the way. All the way home, we compared notes and impressions, describing the personal, individual drama we had witnessed. It wasn't the usual Christmas show, but distinct and memorable nonetheless.

Note: this blog post is in memory of Pam Leven, a writer friend taken from us suddenly and too soon just five days ago. Now her story is ended, but while she lived she wrote it with verve, great humor and style. I'll always remember our adventures, Pam. It is so hard to say "farewell."



Friday, December 6, 2013

A grim, sordid little tale

Solange on Theater (which I now realize acronizes - if that is a word - to SOT) resumes, after a restful hiatus, with a trip to the Metropolitan Opera for Giuseppe Verdi's Rigoletto.

When it comes to the two Italian opera composer heavyweights, SOT (I'm starting to like this) is more of a Puccinella than Verdista, opting for lyric beauty over chest-heaving dramatics.

However, the prospect of an imaginative re-thinking of one of the repertoire war horses drew me to Lincoln Center and it's one of the few times that I bought a ticket mostly due to a photograph of the set:

Act I of Rigoletto.
Not to slight the cast, it was attractive too: tenor Matthew Polenzani (whom I'd seen in the HD broadcast of L'Elisir d'Amore) as the slimy Duke and Russian baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as the hunchbacked jester Rigoletto.

Director Michael Mayer has set the story in 1960 Las Vegas - apparently not a good idea, according to each of the ladies of a certain age who flanked me in my grand tier seat. "I guess I'm traditional," said the lady to my left. I begged to differ! Translating the atmosphere of court corruption to the anything-goes glitter and neon of Rat Pack Vegas seemed brilliant to me.

The Duke, casing the casino action in his white dinner jacket, opens with "Questa o quella" as a lounge act, flipping the mic cord like Dean Martin. The theater choreographer Steven Hoggett (who seems to be everywhere these days) created moves for the gamblers and showgirls, timed to the pulses of the music. I was enthralled.

Christine Jones' set, a neon riot of pleasure, was mesmerizing as the background to the immoral goings-on.

I was delighted by some of the free lyric translations on the little seatback screen in front of me, i.e. "Say, your movie star looks really light up the joint." I'm not sure librettist Francesco Maria Piave really wrote that in 1850.

Rigoletto is the nightclub comedian and not so hunchbacked, just sort of bulky around the shoulders and clad in an argyle sweater and slacks, which I thought a little odd among costume designer Susan Hilferty's dinner jackets and cocktail gowns. I thought it looked almost too casual, but I'd be hard put to suggest an alternative, and obviously the designer wanted to distinguish the character from the sea of more-formal wear.

Count Monterone, who wants to avenge the dishonoring of his daughter by the Duke, has become a wealthy Arab in this production - and the overtones of Muslim "honor killings" are ripe.

Polenzani and Hvorostovsky were expertly negotiating their roles when bass Štefan Kocán as the assassin, I mean hit man, Sparafucile, garnered a round of applause by holding a final note for what seemed like 30 seconds.

The voices of Hvorostovsky and soprano Sonya Yoncheva beautifully melded like coffee and cream on the duets between Rigoletto and his ill-fated daughter, Gilda.

The grand tier ladies and I agreed that Gilda wasn't the brightest bulb in the box since she fell for the Duke's masquerade as a "poor young student." (See, this is where Verdi's operas fall apart for me. He had no sense of plot. Have you ever tried to make sense of Il Trovatore?)

However, the music is ravishing. I still have "Caro nome" in my head and Yoncheva added lovely vocal embellishments to that song of longing.

Act II opened in a lounge outside the Duke's penthouse apartment, with a striking statue/neon centerpiece - another set winner by Jones - and his henchmen all drunk and passed out.

Act II of Rigoletto.
Apparently the Duke is actually smitten with Gilda - or cynically thrilled with the chase -- and Polenzani memorably spun out the last note of his aria. The henchmen have kidnapped Gilda as a prank, believing her to be Rigoletto's mistress, but the jester/comedian arrives and reveals she's his daughter. Hvorostovsky was heartbreaking as he pleaded on his knees that his daughter be returned to him.

The act ended with another stunning duet as Rigoletto vows revenge on the Duke and Gilda pleads for him (see what I mean - a little dim). In addition to the well-known arias, with the most famous coming in Act III, the glory of this opera is in the duets -- two people expressing sometimes-conflicting emotions, raising the dramatic stakes to fascinating heights.

In Act III, we're really entering the world of sleaze outside Sparafucile's seedy club and director Mayer thoughtfully provides a topless pole dancer to wake up the husbands in the audience. The grand tier ladies clucked with disapproval.

Act III of Rigoletto - from left, the Duke, Maddalena, Rigoletto, Gilda.
The "hit single" of this opera – “La donna è mobile” - comes toward the beginning of the act and it seemed to me that Polenzani sort of tossed it off without much oomph. The duke is singing about how women are fickle - oh the irony - and maybe he was trying to give it a suave, casual reading but for me, it came across as a little too laid-back.

The duets give way to the quartet “Bella figlia dell’amore,” sung by the Duke, Gilda, Rigoletto and the Duke’s mistress Maddalena over music that is also laden with foreboding.

Tragedy inexorably marches toward a grimy climax.  The music is at its darkest here, rumbling as a storm descends, and the set lit up with neon flashes of lightning. Gilda makes her final mistake and Rigoletto realizes his thirst for vengeance has turned to strike at the very heart of his life.

Mindful of train times, I couldn’t stay for the curtain calls and bade a quick farewell to the grand tier ladies, who like their opera served up with traditional cutlery. As for me, spin the roulette wheel, fire up the neon, bring on the showgirls and bourbon and let Verdi soar over the Nevada desert.