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
The Theatre Factory production of A.R. Gurney ‘s Sylvia is a charming and funny story of a man, his wife, and the love triangle their new dog Sylvia creates. It’s the early 1990’s, and Greg and Kate have just moved to Manhattan. His career is winding down, and hers is presenting exciting opportunities for the future. Greg has found a stray dog in the park and brought her home. There is no information on her collar other than the name Sylvia. At Greg’s insistence, they decided to keep her. Eventually, Greg becomes utterly obsessed with Sylvia which leads Kate to fear their marriage is falling apart. Sylvia, on the other hand, feels that Kate doesn’t understand what a relationship between a man and a dog should be. Pitt graduate Claire Sabatine charmingly captures the essence of a dog in this physically challenging role. Most of the time she is on all fours with the behaviors and expressions which endear and exasperate us about our dogs. Director Jeff Johnson lets Sabatine subtly morph Sylvia into a more human upright form for those discussions about love, commitment and compromise. Costume Designer Maria Bruno dresses Sabatine in a simple light brown jumper with yellow leggings with matching the top and like-colored gloves. The decision to not put her in “a dog costume” is a meaningful one. Sylvia becomes the object that reflects the mid-life crisis men often go through as retirement nears; the kids have grown up, and they begin to see that the light at the end of the tunnel that ultimately goes dark. Sylvia could represent a sports car, a sailboat or an affair with another human instead of a pet. Sabatine delivers a deliciously adorable Sylvia who loves her human while at the same time looks out for her well-being and some old-fashioned dog fun. Art DeConciliis is perfect as Greg. We see him struggle with his career while he enjoys his new-found love both for Sylvia and the adventures they share together. There are hysterically funny scenes when he and Sylvia are out for their walks, and she comes across a cat or male dogs. Jennifer Chervenick’s Kate is a strong, no-nonsense woman. Kate is having her post baby bloom as an educator now that their nest is empty. The portrayal of her and Greg’s relationship comes across as believable. They are a couple with a bond forged over many years who struggle with the next chapter of their lives, and Sylvia’s intrusion into it. “Sylvia has taken a serious bite out of our 22-year marriage.” Another dimension to the story is provided Terry Westwood, who plays multiple characters. Tom who is a macho fellow dog owner, Phyllis Kate’s old college friend, confidant and longtime New Yorker and Leslie, a gender neutral psychologist who tries to help Kate and Greg come to terms with their marriage. Westwood handles the gender diversity of these characters with humor and ease. The cast of experienced actors from our area under Jeff Johnson’s direction makes Sylvia a funny and touching adventure worth making the trip to the Theatre Factory in Trafford. If all dogs were as smart and endearing as Sabatine’s Sylvia, there would be no dogs in shelters looking for homes. Sylvia is at the Theatre Factory in Trafford with performances February 16th to 25th. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 pm and Sunday Matinees are at 2:00 pm. For tickets visit http://www.thetheatrefactory.org/tickets/ Thanks to the Theatre Factory for the complimentary tickets.