Saturday, October 23, 2021

Live theater in the mountains

 Before "Utopia,", I dipped a low-key toe in the water first with two performances at the Seagle Festival, the century-old summer program for blooming opera singers in the scenic town of Schroon Lake, N.Y., in the Adirondack Mountains.

The Oscar Seagle Memorial Theater
General Director Tony Kostecki and Artistic Director Darren K. Woods have, over the past few years, developed consistently fascinating programs that challenge their students and keep audiences engaged.

This year, love and romance was the theme. There was a mix of classics (La Boheme, Cinderella, The Fantasticks and a Broadway revue), along with and new or little-known works. Having seen most of the classics in years of opera-going, I'm most interested in the new and overlooked gems and this summer did not disappoint.
Who knew that Jacques Offenbach, who stepped firmly into the classics world with "Tales of Hoffman" and "Orpheus in the Underworld," wrote a little gender-bending confection called The Island of Tulipatan?

Written in 1868, this one-act operetta concerns a fantasy kingdom where the daughter of the steward of the supreme ruler (got that?) is a tomboy named Hermosa and Prince Alexis, son of the ruler, is a charming and pretty young man.

This is not an early dramatization of trans life, but due to some silly decisions by their parents, Hermosa -- who is actually a boy -- has been brought up as a girl and Alexis -- who is actually -- well, you get the picture. They genuinely fall in love and marry, now dressed in the clothing usually identified by their actual gender. 

Directed by Seagle alumna Meaghan Deiter, this frothy confection sparkled. Daniel Esteban Lugo was a suitably energetic Hermosa and Andrianna Ayala a graceful Alexis.

Last year, Seagle produced virtual performances, as did so many arts organizations. Arriving in person at the Oscar Seagle Memorial Theater in the woods, the live experience in 2021 didn't seem too much different from previous years, except for showing vaccination cards, wearing masks and not having intermission snacks or merch for sale. 

Seating was spaced out a little more for social distancing, but once the show started, it felt like being back in a comfy armchair. 

Several weeks later, I returned for the world premiere of Harmony, also directed by Deiter -- a very different work from Tulipatan.

Who knew (again) that the brilliant American composer Charles Ives fell in love with the daughter of a prominent Connecticut family that summered in the Adirondacks, that her name was actually Harmony, that Mark Twain was a close family friend and advised the Twichell family about Harmony and Charles' relationship?

It's all true, and the basis for this new opera with music by Robert Carl and a libretto by author Russell Banks, who is married to poet Chase Twichell, of that same family.
The action takes place completely in midsummer, 1908 at the Keene Valley, N.Y. summer home of the Twichells. The opera shapes the characters with great humanity and kindness. A central part of the plot is that Ives is a man with a secret. He has diabetes, which could not be treated at the time. All he can foresee is an early death and he loves Harmony too much to allow her to marry a sick man. 

Besides the fact that this is a work about Ives the composer told through music, the character of Ives in Harmony continuously refers to music, from the music of the spheres as he regards the summer night sky to a "tragic dissonance" in some words he hears. 

Charles Ives, besides being a successful, even innovative, insurance executive, was an astonishingly original composer.

In 1966, Igor Stravinsky said that Ives "was exploring the 1960s during the heyday of Strauss and Debussy. Polytonality, atonality, tone clusters, perspectivistic effects, chance, statistical composition, permutation, add-a-part, practical-joke and improvisatory music: these were Ives' discoveries a half-century ago as he quietly set about devouring the contemporary cake before the rest of us even found a seat at the same table."

It's probably not a spoiler to reveal that Charles and Harmony decide to get married as Twain advises them not to throw away love, wistfully recalling his late wife Olivia. Harmony is one tough lady. She has her eyes wide open; she is a nurse and understands Charles' situation.

Banks' libretto sings with poetry and the cast did a beautiful job: Joel Clemens as Charles Ives, Victoria Erickson as Harmony Twichell (photo, left) and especially Timothy Lupia as Mark Twain, a character that could have devolved into caricature. 

Carl's music, however, was a harsh stumbling block for this listener. Perhaps the score's discordant sound was a tribute to or reflection of Ives; it just wasn't attractive to hear.    

At this performance, there was an incident that I could only have witnessed live. Seagle's audience is mostly north of age 60, and I wondered how this material would appeal to a younger audience. Then I spotted two young women seated in the row in front of me, students, perhaps. One of them was looking up Olivia Clemens on her iPad.

I was pleased to learn through later research that the discovery of insulin in 1921 by Banting, Best and MacLeod did not come too late for Ives. He lived 79 years, to 1954, and Harmony lived to age 90, dying in 1969. What a fitting coda for their life songs.   

Monday, October 11, 2021

"Making sense" of real-life theater with David Byrne

My return to live theater after the wrenching pandemic hiatus took place in two very different locations: the St. James Theatre on Broadway and the Seagle Festival (formerly the Seagle Music Colony) in the peaceful confines of New York State's Adirondack Mountains.

My return to Broadway was the re-opening night of David Byrne's "American Utopia," which had been scheduled for a second Broadway run in the fall of 2020, but Broadway theaters were still closed then. 

As I walked from the Times Square subway station down 44th Street to Eighth Avenue, I saw half the shows still had not opened and, most distressingly, there was a sign on Sardi's front door that it was "under renovation" and would open in the fall. 

Who wants "renovation" at Sardi's? Nothing should change! OK, maybe new carpet and fresh tablecloths. Don't touch those caricatures on the wall. Even the "Ladies" and "Gents" restroom
A peek through the blinds at Sardi's.
signs have been there for 40 years.

At Eighth Avenue, I bought a hot dog from a street vendor for a quick supper and asked how business was going. "Kind of slow," he said. The tourists are only slowly coming back.

I took in the blue-black sky, the busy lights and all us characters on the street. I remembered drinking with friends in Eighth Avenue bars in the 1970s, when the street was rough, and thought, with an inner smile of deep affection, "my city."

I made this little video of typical hustle on just one street corner in the theater district, a scene of sweet clamorous joy compared to the recently-dead streets:

At the St. James, vaccination cards and ID were checked. Everyone was in masks and I lingered in the lobby near the bar, enjoying once again the yakky noise surf of an audience finding its way into a theater, but this is now how it looks:

If there was any doubt that theater was missed, from the moment the house lights dimmed, the mood was electric! After the first song, "Here," the audience jumped to its feet, cheering, clapping, as if for a show-ending standing ovation, causing Byrne, smiling and a little nonplussed, to say, "There's more."

David Byrne, right, in "American Utopia"
"American Utopia" is a concert with choreographed movement by Annie-B Parson of songs by David Byrne and his former group, Talking Heads, whom I remember well from late nights in the 1970s at the Bowery rock club CBGB, and other downtown locations. 

Talking Heads, 1970s, from left, David Byrne,
 Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison
Talking Heads wasn't so much punk as artsy/avant garde music that commented obliquely on the zeitgeist, but with a solid rock beat, often driven by bassist Tina Weymouth, a standout for rock groups, which were often all-male.   

Their first hit was "Psycho Killer," one of my favorites, but not included in "American Utopia," a show whose title, Byrne says, is not ironic. 

Dressed in the gray suit that is the cast's costume, Byrne begins seated at a desk with a model of the human brain. He talks about the brain's neurological connections, communicating the message that we are all -- including him, in his long career mastering various artforms -- just trying to make sense of our world. 

The show's arc reflects a man's long look at the landscape of existence, and songs that were arch 40 years ago now resonate with the perspective of age. Take "Once in a Lifetime." The link to the YouTube video shows a young David Byrne asking the song's questions, accompanied by stylized, herky-jerky movements.

But now, with both the singer and the listener in their 60s, these lyrics are not just questions: "You may ask yourself, well how did I get here?" "Am I right?" "Am I wrong?" and "My God, what have I done?" 

Mind and memory cast back to the exploratory energy of youth, but when there is more life behind you than ahead of you, these lyrics land with new meaning: "Time isn't holding us/Time isn't after us/Time doesn't hold you back." And the refrain: "Same as it ever was."

When the years pass and you lose people you love; when the oldest and then the next-older generations pass and you are now the elder, you inhabit the song "Every Day is a Miracle":

Every day is a miracle
Every day is an unpaid bill
You've got to sing for your supper
Love one another

The raucous, pent-up enthusiasm from the opening number did not wane! Throughout the show, the audience leapt to its feet at least half a dozen times, cheering, clapping, dancing to "Burning Down the House." I've never experienced anything like it in the theater.  

Byrne's larger message is not one of nostalgia, but of hope.

He talks about the urgency of voter registration, with representatives from the organization HeadCount in the lobby with sign-up cards. He comments forcefully on the recent protests for racial equity and against racist police violence, performing Janelle Monae and Jidenna Mobisson's song "Hell You Talmabout."

While identifying these ills, he reflects on the real physical illness abroad in the land, welcoming the audience at the beginning with "thank you for leaving your house," noting wryly that the phrase used to be a joke for the show's opening. 

At the end, he returns to the great mystery of the human brain: "Our brains can change. We are not fixed. We can imagine a different future."

He notes that research shows that what people most like to view is not a lovely landscape or something as mundane as a bag of potato chips: "It's us - you and me, and that's what the show is. It's the connections among all of us." 

The show ended with the jaunty "Road to Nowhere," with a nihilistic title contradicted by lyrics such as "feeling that time is on our side/take you there" and "it's very far away/but it's growing day by day and it's all right."

In an unusual move, Byrne brought stage crew members out to join the cast for bows and the audience clapped and cheered on and on, reluctant to let anyone leave the stage. That can't be replicated on Zoom. 

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The next post: Utopia in the Adirondacks. 

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Why live theater really lives

I went to the theater during the pandemic, or rather, the theater came to me. Every performing arts venue in New York closed in March 2020 and once the shock sank in, performances went online. I saw Metropolitan Opera performances, play readings, musical salons – all through streaming services, Facebook live or via Zoom.

Concerning theater, actors and companies made a valiant effort, reading their parts, sometimes in costume, in the little video Zoom boxes. I bought the tickets, made the donations to keep the producers going, applauded in my home office.  

Now, an unfathomable year and a-half later, live performances are set to return, though still under the shadow of the COVID-19 virus delta variant. I’ll be at a Seagle Festival performance tonight, in Schroon Lake, N.Y., among the Adirondack Mountains, and I am recalling what live theater has meant to me.

Since attending, as a child, my first performance, I love the gathering anticipation of live theater – the hubbub in the lobby as people reach for tickets, greet each other, critique the restaurant where they just had dinner, read the cast list on the wall, then the voices in the theater as people take their seats, the sound dying as the house lights fade to black.

I don’t know why, but the echo-y sound of theater actors’ voices on stage enthralled me. This was LIFE, bigger and grander and more thrilling than the existence I’d just left on the sidewalk. There they were, right in front of me, in one more dimension than a movie screen, speaking and singing, the shape of their voices molded by the theater’s acoustics and the sound-absorbing weight of our bodies.

To this day, I can recall vividly live moments in the theater.

Olivier as Shylock
How about the great actor category? At the end of “The Merchant of Venice,” Shylock the moneylender is forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity. In London, in the 1970s, no one who was in the theater could forget Laurence Olivier’s terrifying, anguished, howling cry of despair. I can hear it yet.

Or Christopher Plummer, in his 80s, reciting from memory the great speeches from “Henry V,” in concert with the New York Philharmonic, commanding the stage as his voice rang in the St. Crispin’s Day oration, inspiring his troops to battle.

How about audience reaction? I saw “Les Miserables” in London with my then-partner, Hank, a big, strong guy with a sensitive side, but a fairly macho guy nonetheless. As Jean Valjean was dying, you could hear sniffles all over the theater – including in the seat next to me.

One summer on Prince Edward Island, Canada, I attended a show by the storyteller David Weale, who specialized in collecting and dramatizing islander reminiscences of the place’s unique way of life. As

David Weale
you might expect, most of the audience members sported quite a few gray hairs. As he began a story about the island’s old one-room schoolhouses, he described a certain wooden pencil case that kids carried then. At that moment, there was an audible intake of breath from what must have been more than half the audience. They hadn’t thought about that pencil case in years, but the mere mention of it was like Proust’s madeleines – a touchstone for a flood of memories about childhood and school.

Another time, the absence of sound created an indelible theater memory at a theater performance for deaf people. I learned that deaf audiences applaud by waving their hands. I saw a dance of sign language, spoken narration, video and actors’ movement for the hearing and non-hearing audience members. You could do it in two dimensions, but the impact was immeasurable in person.

Although I enjoyed – somewhat – the streamed performances, the play readings on Zoom had a distanced quality, with little emotional impact. A live evening at the theater follows an emotional arc – anticipation, engagement, release. I always feel a little cheated if I have to go straight home after a show and don’t have time to go out with my companion and discuss the production.

After “American Idiot,” I waited while my 14-year-old daughter, Flo, gathered with the crowd at the stage door for Billy Joe Armstrong’s autograph.

Anthony Newfield

After “1984,” Flo, her boyfriend Ryan and I joined my friend, cast member Anthony Newfield, and his friends for a meal and lively stories of acting in this play and other Broadway shows. This was Ryan’s first Broadway play – what an extra treat!

Perhaps the best of all – when I was quite young, Mom took me to Sardi’s (where she was a regular) for a post-theater bite. It was Welsh rarebit, I recall, and I was intrigued by this new food as Princess Grace, Prince Rainier and Jessie Royce Landis swept by, on the way to their post-theater repast.

I can’t wait to savor all of theater’s dimensions again.