We read a book, a character is described, we form a mental picture: how she moves, the timbre of her voice, the look in her eye. Some descriptive power is so vivid—theatrical even—that it gives the casting department little wriggle room. So says Jeffrey Hatcher, the writer of Kinetic Theatre's newest production Holmes and Watson. And Holmes? Holmes allows a certain amount of leeway, but he had better be tall, he had better be trim, with aquiline features not soft ones, and God help the actor with a pug nose. His voice must have the authority of intellect and empire, and his diction must cut diamonds. This play manages to do something very playful, but honorific at the same time. It revamps the canon—the same time-honored tradition of this Elizabethan/Edwardian classic (Sherlock Holmes) but with a new candid script that plays on the trope of a well-established character (Sherlock Holmes). This is, in effect, META-HOLMES!!!! [caption id="attachment_6281" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Darren Eliker and Tim McGeever[/caption] The question, “Who is Sherlock Holmes?” has been asked countless times since the character first appeared in Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet. Sometimes the question has to do with Holmes' character or personality. Sometimes it's about his background and upbringing. And since Holmes quickly became one of the most depicted characters in modern fiction, the question also has to do with how is he drawn, what features do the illustrators emphasize, who plays him on stage, in film, on television? I can't talk to you about the plot. The ol' tract laid out as an imploring: “'For the enjoyment of future audiences, we ask you not to reveal the surprising plot twists that occur in Holmes and Watson.” I will tell you based on the short synopses that you might find online, the plot has to do with uncovering who the real Sherlock Holmes might be. It's a querulous deep dive into a well-excavated, near forgotten genre that nevertheless has bulky roots in our understanding of the detective tropes. To create something new out of an already was and always will be is not easy, and this play humbly relies on the audiences pre-conceptions meeting the traditional game of Detection! [caption id="attachment_6283" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Tim McGeever, Daryll Heysham, and James Keegan[/caption] I will tell you that this is an indelible thrill ride into an era where the mystery-thriller was new. The game of trying to upend the convoluted plot before the ending was cascading through the anxious energy in the crowd. The entire ensemble commits to the accent game well, with aplomb. Everyone is comfortably cast, blessed with the ability to handle the gravity of the Victorian highfalutin' with the comic timing for what could be considered light intrigue, a splash of the farce. This play is fun. It commits itself well to its bygone era. The utilization of New Hazlett's space is always a curious treat. With two-tiers of catwalks and multiple entry-points, it gives to the wondrous splay of perspective. In a play that relies on the accountability of the sharp eye, but constantly leads askew with plenty of unreliable narration; the use of space was a key character in this telling. Hence the farce, because the situational comedy of things playing then replaying arcs you, the audience, into the investigation. [caption id="attachment_6282" align="aligncenter" width="656"] Gregory Johnstone, Darren Eliker, Daryll Heysham, and David Whalen[/caption] I'd say this play is for and of itself. I mean it is not imposing any messaging, or any sense of bastardizing what is very much a canonized concept. It's simply what it is: a well-played plot and you as a player in its discovery. It is refreshing, this classic, with a new plot and a new life to the sensation of 'figuring it out'. Stand out performance by Tim McGeever whose comic timing as what I would consider very much a straight man role plays upon the levity as situations find themselves absurd. David Whalen is quite enjoyable as his role (Holmes #2, I'll say no more), playing on the potential for bodily comedy and with a nuance that stands him out in his respective Holmes-role for provoking more questions than may have been intended for the character. The entire ensemble works very well, with a sporty kind of chemistry, illustrated in the craft of the staged mystery—quick-paced, withholding substance and steady, punchy timing. I'll call it neo-elementary. It's a nice stock surprise refurbished with a new set of exploding expectation. Holmes and Watson runs at the New Hazlett Theatre through March 4. For tickets and more information click here. Photos by Rocky Raco
The question of Shakespeare’s continued relevance in the modern world is an inquiry that never fully quiets. After all, so much has changed across four centuries since William Shakespeare penned Macbeth in 1606-07. However, Macbeth reminds us how strikingly little has changed when it comes to confronting those in power. We witness a country’s leader go rogue and continually one-up his docket of crimes while those around him fail to speak out, and even in that description, is the play or the present being referenced? The answer is both. Shakespeare holds the complacent accountable as their silence fuels the unchecked growth of Macbeth’s menacing power, yet his power instills fear as it is built on shutting down those who threaten him. Such are the meaty issues that Duquesne University’s Red Masquers must wrestle with in their highly relevant production of Macbeth. Productions often center on Lady Macbeth as the mastermind, reducing Macbeth to a sort of puppet. In the quest for relevancy, director Dora Farona wisely puts the ever-spiraling Macbeth at the center of this production. His murder of the king, a chess move that results in his own ascension to the throne, proves to be not an inhibiting source of horror, but the first domino in a stream of evil crimes. While the focus on Macbeth is a thoughtful choice, Nathaniel Yost’s Macbeth is not fully up to the challenge. You rarely forget it’s Yost as there is a self-conscious quality to his Macbeth that inhibits the character’s believability. He struggles to achieve the harder edges this Macbeth demands. Beyond Yost, consistency of performance quality is a broader issue within the show. While consistency challenges are not uncommon in college productions, it certainly doesn’t enhance the audience experience. The tone of the play changes, and the audience is clearly most engaged when the play’s three commanding witches (Sadie Crow, Lauren Gardonis and Katelyn Donnelly) are onstage. The trio works well together, none overshadowing the others. Yost’s performance draws from them and is strongest in their presence. He eagerly seeks them out, using their prophecies and interpreting their veiled references to support the evil he already wants to do. They become his political advisors and the executors of his devious plans, both literally and metaphorically. Farona chooses to set the production at the close of the transformative Victorian era, and costume designer Kim Brown supports the period’s look in her designs. The lone exception is the witches who wear vampy black lace dresses that read showgirl sexy with a twist of goth. Brown’s Victorian costumes are best exhibited with Lady Macbeth (Dana Demsko) who wears all black or all white in each of her scenes. We first see her in a ruffled, ankle-length black hoop dress with wide sleeves where she tucks away a letter from Macbeth. Demsko struggles with committing to a portrayal of Lady Macbeth who ends up seeming a bit scattered. She’s lashing out at her husband one moment and fainting the next. In ensemble scenes where she’s not speaking, Demsko’s Lady Macbeth is quietly tuned in, and you can see her observing and calibrating the room’s mood. When the ghost of the slaughtered Banquo (Max Begler) haunts Macbeth at a banquet, Demsko is at her best. She exhibits the tensions of a nervous wife working to excuse her husband’s odd behaviors while also playing the role of charming hostess in trying to distract her guests and ensure their happiness. John E. Lane Jr.’s set design is memorably impactful. The wooden set has stairs that switchback up to an elevated, railing-rimmed balcony. Lady Macbeth often speaks and looks down on her domestic sphere from the balcony, which also makes literal the eventual dead end of Macbeth and his schemes. The set extends out to the floor, which is covered with a red brick pattern. Lane creates tension by darkening some of the bricks to define a winding walkway through the center. At the play’s start, the wooden set is tilted. It’s already a world off center, and the darkened walkway spills from the corner of the set, foreshadowing the stain of spilled blood to come. Lane’s set spins and visually enhances the play’s sinister twists, but it is clearly heavy and proves cumbersome. Additional crewmembers to help move it more efficiently between scene changes would reduce choppiness and enhance the play’s flow. The opening scene concludes with the three witches chanting, “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” While the play ends with Macduff (Eric Matthews) vanquishing Macbeth in a well-choreographed swordfight (also by Eric Mathews), Macbeth’s reign has literally gutted much of the next generation of Scotland’s royal leaders. Foul does seem to be fair, a leadership legacy that’s as troubling today as it was then. Duquesne University’s production of Macbeth continues through February 25th at the Genesius Theater. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Red Masquers online.
The Pittsburgh Opera world premiere of Douglas J. Cuomo’s Ashes & Snow last evening offered a number of novelties aside from being the first ever performance of the work. Operas featuring a sole singer are rather uncommon. Francis Poulenc’s 1958 La voix humaine (“The Human Voice”) is the only other that comes to mind that has attained any enduring popularity, but as recently as 2015, Arnold Schoenberg’s 1924 Erwartung (“Expectation”), was the first opera projected live on a Times Square jumbotron. While the French and German works center on lone sopranos and are of somewhat shorter duration, Cuomo’s English-language adaptation of the Wilhelm Müller poems Franz Schubert set to music in the 1820’s runs for an hour and a quarter, and challenges a tenor to carry the show over an electronic accompaniment. An opera premiere with the composer taking up the guitar? Almost certainly a first. Mr. Cuomo has an extensive background in composing for the stage, television, and film, and Ashes & Snow is not his first opera. His study of music is complemented by years of playing in pop, jazz, and funk bands. “I wanted to break free here and let the music take me wherever it did,” he is quoted in the program notes, “because I could change it as I was composing to fit my inspiration in the moment. I did, however, stay strictly within the form of the Schubert song-cycle. There are 24 poems in the original, and I re-interpret the text of each in a different way.” Müller’s poems inspired him in a variety of ways; a few of the set pieces in the opera are for the most part literal translations, while others he uses as a “springboard.” “This is a punky, hard-edged piece,” Cuomo continues, “but it is also a world of miniatures, intimate, stark and delicate. Operatic in its heightened emotion, with movements of great power and great stillness, the protagonist is singing a long and evolving mad scene, as he searches for faith and grapples with his (and our) ideas of love, human connection, loneliness, desire, betrayal, faith, and finally the nature of existence itself.” “We are not sure at the end whether… our protagonist finds what he is seeking,” Director Jonathon Moore adds, “or indeed what choice he will make. But choose he must.” All this is carried on a musical background of guitar, piano, trumpet and electronic sound effects. The tenor is “mic’d” – not because he needs volume, but to place him on an equal “sonic playing field” with the instrumentalists. There were few moments when this seemed necessary, as the accompaniment wisely and rarely competes with the singer in any way, and the one in question possesses a powerful set of lungs. It also provided the challenge of how to mic a man who spends (nearly) the entire work in nothing but a pair of boxer briefs. The result was the appearance that he kept his wallet in a most unusual location, with flesh colored tape doing the best it could to conceal the wire running up his back. So far as stage design, a more fitting set for a man confronting his demons could scarcely be imagined. A motel room is trashed in every sense of the word. Liquor and beer bottles, some empty, some not, are everywhere; take-out and fast food trash is sprawled amidst tipped over lamps and drawers pulled from the slides of a dresser. Clever projections heighten the man’s mostly dark moods, and in a spot or two seem like his hallucinations. From the start, the spectator is confronted with the emotional rawness that lies ahead – the first number is sung by the man as he is naked (very discretely posed and in semi-darkness) and trying – unsuccessfully – to keep down the liquor he swills straight from the bottle. There is no turning back from a visceral experience with such a stark beginning. A very short moment of lightness finds him briefly switching on the TV, only to see the off-stage musicians on the screen. The sheer intimacy of the piece made its staging in the George R. White Opera Studio at the company’s Strip District headquarters a wise decision; it most probably would make a lesser impression in a larger venue. Some familiar with Schubert’s treatment of the poems may find themselves hard-pressed to take in Cuomo’s composition on a first and single hearing, while some may find the unique musical experience entertaining from the start, even if a sameness of mood at times makes the opera seem a bit longer than it actually is. As with the majority of contemporary operas, only time will tell if Ashes & Snow will be revived by other companies. Eric Ferring, the tormented “Protagonist,” sang the role with a vocal opulence that came as no surprise. The music encompasses his finely burnished and powerful head tones and solid lower register in places and allows for occasional fortissimo and delicately delivered pianissimo passages, but for the most part lies comfortably in the middle and provides many opportunities for the display of his voice at its best. He sang the role with a compelling sympathy and a heart-rending understanding of the complex character – sometimes flat on his back or belly, and once from under a mound of bedclothes. Acting the role relies largely on facial expression and body language, and while it’s difficult to imagine a singer not being nervous during the first undertaking of such a role, it hardly showed. The audience was with him throughout, maintaining the art song recital gatherings’ tradition of total silence until the final note faded away – then burst into hearty applause, cheers and whistles. Mr. Ferring modestly attempted to share the ovation with the composer, director, musicians, and designers, and the crowd politely indulged him, but his was by far the finest achievement of the evening, and his listeners clearly wanted him to know it in no uncertain terms. In many respects, the work offers something for all lovers of music, and the remaining performances are deserving of capacity audiences. For tickets, more in-depth production details and a good deal more about the opera and those involved with its presentation, please visit Pittsburgh Opera. “The Artistic Team” for Ashes & Snow – Composer, Douglas J. Cuomo; Director, Jonathan Moore; Musical Direction, Mark Trawka; Scenery & Properties Designer, Brandon McNeel; Lighting Designer, Cindy Limauro; Video Designer, Joseph Seamans; Sound Designer/Engineer, Kristian Tchetchko; Head of Music, Glenn Lewis; Associate Coach, James Lesniak; Assistant Director, Frances Rabalais; Stage Manager, Emily Grand David Bachman Photography