Friday, February 25, 2005
Dobama's 'THE EXONERATED' unnerving glimpse at reality
Punishment is supposed to fit the crime, but what if there is no crime, only punishment? This is the question at the center of ‘THE EXONERATED,’ now on stage at Dobama Theatre in its Cleveland debut.
This is no ”sit back and appreciate it” play. This is an in-your-face real life expose. We experience the tales of six real people who were placed on death row due to poor or corrupt police work, thoughtless defenses, and crooked judges and politicians.
The play was born when authors Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen attended an anti-death penalty conference and heard a phone call from someone on death row in Illinois who shouldn’t have been there. The duo decided that they would investigate the prevalence of the phenomenon and set off on a country-wide journey in search of the real-life "exonerated."
The authors indicate that "What we really have to say is, every time there’s a horrendous crime, the more likely it is that an innocent person will be convicted. In our six cases, every single jury member who voted to convict those people was 100 percent convinced they were putting away the right person." One of author’s goes on to state, "I don’t expect people to see the play and say, ‘Down with the death penalty.’ I expect people to see the play and say, ‘Oh, this is real. This is happening. We have to do something.’"
The question might be asked, “How common is the arrest and conviction of people who are then proven to be innocent?” The staff of the Center on Wrongful Convictions, which pioneered the investigation and litigation of wrongful convictions, estimates the numbers are massive. Their efforts, on behalf of nine Illinois death-row inmates, were a driving force behind both Governor George H. Ryan's decision to suspend executions in Illinois and the current nationwide movement to reform the criminal justice system.
The movement against false imprisonment has many believers, including a number of actors who have volunteered their time to portray the characters in ‘THE EXONERATED’ in various national theatres. Some of these stars include Marlo Thomas, Brian Dennehy, Richard Dreyfuss, Sara Gilbert, and Jill Clayburgh.
To pre-experience the play, just imagine everything you did between the years 1976 and 1992. Now remove all of it. Those 16 years were taken away from Sunny Jacobs, convicted and sentenced to death for a crime she did not commit. Her story, and the other five, are tales told in their own words. This is, in fact, a spoken-word collage. There is little real action, but the words are powerful and compelling enough to hold your attention throughout the long one-act presentation.
The Dobama production is well directed by Joel Hammer. The pace is right, the emotional feelings are right, even the humor is well-keyed. This is a unit piece and the cast is mostly believable in their portrayals.
Elizabeth Townsend, true to the character’s name, Sunny, smiles through her tears as she tells the tale of how she and her husband, who was electrocuted in a torturous manner, were framed by a killer who later repented. Jimmy Wood is right on as the black dread-locked Gary, who was manipulated into a “confession” and even after being released is denied his right to return to his previous profession as a surrey horse racer, but ironically is allowed to buy a gun.
Allan Byrne is properly pathetic as an innocent man whose conviction results in his brother’s total emotional demise and eventual murder. Jeff Grover plays many roles, all of them well. Darryl Lewis acts as our poet narrator. He sounds much like James Earl Jones and is generally effective, but often looks over the heads of the audience as he speaks, instead of directly at us. This is distracting. We need the consistent direct contact.
Kirk Brown fails to reap full emotional impact as a propertied murderer of his mother and father. His initial confusion, which worked well, doesn’t transfer well into the concluding scenes. Nate Cockerill does many of his multiple roles well, but has difficulty with some of the accent switches. Marnie Task and Sonia Bishop are effective in various roles.
The sparse set consists of nine chairs and a screen on which silhouetted scenes are acted. One might question the need for the silhouettes, as the words, rather than the visual images are the important elements and the acting out of certain actions pulls the viewer from the words to unnecessary images.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘THE EXONERATED’ is a play you will not soon forget. The play was selected as one of the 10 best plays of 2002 in both the New York Times and Time magazine and deserves that recognition.
Monday, February 14, 2005
‘RAISIN IN THE SUN’ gets creditable production at Beck
What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up Like a raisin in the sun?
This segment of the poem "A Dream Deferred" by Clevelander Langston Hughes is the underlying theme for Lorraine Hansberry’s ‘A RAISIN IN THE SUN,’ now on stage at the Beck Center for the Arts.
On March 11, 1959, ‘A RAISIN IN THE SUN’ opened on Broadway. The play had already negotiated a long and troubled road just to find its way to the opening and was filled with many firsts. It was the first major on-Broadway play by a Black female author. It thrust many of its rookie Broadway cast members into major entertainment roles including Cleveland-born Ruby Dee, and future superstars Sidney Poitier and Claudia McNeil.
No one could foresee that the play's imminent triumph would mirror the changing role of Blacks in this country and the role the play’s themes would play in African American culture in the years that followed.
The New York Drama Critics Circle named the Hansberry play the best American play of 1959 though this, probably the most important African American theatrical piece ever written, failed to receive either a Pulitzer Prize or a Tony for Best Play.
‘A RAISIN IN THE SUN’ relates the story of the Youngers, a Southside Chicago family trying to survive in cramped ghetto quarters. When Mama gets a $10,000 check from her husband's life insurance, they consider moving to a house in a white suburb. A suburb in which the residents warn that they don’t want a Black family as their neighbors.
A RAISIN IN THE SUN’ is clearly autobiographical. Chicago, where Hansberry was born in 1930, was self-segregated along racial lines at the time. As a child, Hansberry's family became one of the first to move into a white neighborhood. When their neighbors rebelled, both with threats of violence and legal action, the Hansberrys defended themselves. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court.
Hansberry told her husband she wanted to write a social drama about Blacks that was good art. She succeeded. Instead of stereotyped characters that would bear no resemblance to actual people, she held up a mirror to the racial nature of this country.
The Beck Center’s production is fine, as far as it goes. The missing element is the extra quality that would make the experience, as Hansberry intended, “painfully realistic.” It may be that the play, itself, has lost some of its power due to the changes that have taken place, at least in some areas of this country. But, more importantly there is an inconsistency in the acting and pacing.
Having seen the original New York production, and being swept up by its power, I feel that some of the Margaret Ford Taylor directed production was diminished because of the production’s languid pace, its lack of consistent intensity. This takes away from the play’s mission.
As for the performances, Connie Blair is fine as Mama, the head of the household. At times, however, she loses her stiff back, her stubborn pride. Sonia Bishop is right on target as her daughter-in-law, Ruth. The scene in which she pleads for the family to move, to develop their dignity, was extremely effective.
Michael May as the son is strongest in his rage scenes, but not as effective in displaying his frustration. Evelyn Stewart lacked the consistent depth of conviction as Beneatha, the daughter who is in training to be a doctor.
Young Anthony Nickerson is appealing as Walter and Ruth’s son. John Polk is on target as the representative of the white homeowners who don’t want the Youngers as neighbors. Jason Samuel’s version of one of Beneatha’s suitors consists of a bad accent which oftten makes him impossible to understand and distracting facial expressions, while Jonathan Wray as George, the other suitor, feigns character development.
Don McBride’s scenic design adds to the era-correct feeling of the play.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: The strength of Beck’s ‘A RAISIN IN THE SUN’ is Hansberry’s finely written script. It reflects an important slice of American history. Though the performances and pacing don’t always develop the depth of the material, but the end result is a very acceptable production.
‘VENUS’ fails to compel at CPT
During the second act of Suzan-Lori Parks’ ‘VENUS’ at Cleveland Public Theatre, I glanced down the row in which I was sitting. The man next to me was snoring and three of the remaining seven people were sleeping, or at least had their eyes closed. This does not bode well for a production. To be honest, I couldn’t blame them.
Parks play is loosely based on the story of Saartjie Baartman, an African woman with an enormous posterior, who was taken to London in the early 19th century. Dubbed The Venus Hottentot, she left her home not as a slave, but with a desire to make a lot of money. Once in England she became the star of a freak show. A debate began as to whether the exhibition constituted slavery, and a court heard a case to determine whether the exhibitioner should be sentenced under the country’s antislavery laws.
Based on Baartman’s story, Parks wrote a play which examines such issues as the objectification of people and cultures; the fascination with what is heathen, foreign, different, sensational; and how some people are influenced more often by appearances than substance. There is also the underlying commentary on how each of us, in our own way, is a freak.
On the surface, these topics should make for great theatre. The same concept worked well in the ‘ELEPHANT MAN.’ Unfortunately, this play misses the mark. It is pondersome, overly-long and fails to compel. This is somewhat surprising as Parks is the author of some impressive theatrical pieces including the Obie Award winning ‘IMPERCEPTIBLE MUTABILITIES IN THE THIRD KINGDOM.’
Parks’ approach to dialogues assumes that the audience is willing to dig and ponder meanings. She is noted for her dense language and use of metaphors. She repeats ideas and speeches. This writing style leads to a deliberately static plot evolvement, as is evidenced in ‘VENUS.’ There is little real interaction between the characters. Even the scene in which Saartjie and the Baron Docteur, who has purchased her as a “trophy” mistress, negotiate their relationship in bed, there is a lack of true connection between the characters.
Sometimes stagnant scripts can get a breath of life via a director. Unfortunately, Jyana S. Gregory doesn’t appear to be that kind of director. The production is static. Nothing sparks. There is little attempt made to compel the audience to watch, to listen, to understand.
The cast tries hard, but with little overall effect. Nina Domingue, a twice recognized “Times Tributes Theatre Award” winner in 2004, is unquestionably one of the area’s best actresses. Even she couldn’t save the production. She is given little to work with. Part of this is script, part is directorial decisions. She is thwarted by underplaying the character, not being allowed to use texturing of speech and action to make Saartjie live.
Robert J. Williams does a credible job as the Negro Resurrectionist, our guide to the goings-on. Again, he so underplays the role that his meanings are often lost. The chorus is often impossible to understand due to missed timing and not speaking in unison. David Loy, as the Baron Docteur, performs on the surface, not delving into the motivations of the character.
The highlight of the show is Sergio Villegas’s wonderful circus ring set. The program designs and poster art of Nikita Hunter are also wonderful.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: As my sleeping row-mates seemed to reveal, CPT’s ‘VENUS’ fails to compel attention or hold much interest.
Wednesday, February 09, 2005
Fantastic 'MOVIN' OUT' rocks the Palace Theatre!
There is a love affair going on in Playhouse Square. From the opening note sung by Clevelander Michael Cavanaugh, until the final curtain call which found the nearly sold out house standing on its feet screaming "Cleveland Rocks," the audience at 'MOVIN' OUT,' the Twyla Tharp/ Billy Joel musical now on stage at the Palace Theatre, was wired. During the curtain call the cast was wildly applauding the audience for its enthusiastic reception of the show. Audience comments on the way out included, "That was fantastic," "Best show I've ever seen," "That's what good theatre is all about," and "I'm coming back for more!"
I saw the first night preview of 'MOVIN' OUT' in Chicago where it received its out of New York tryout. My immediate reaction was "this is no ordinary musical." There are no spoken lines, the singing doesn't integrate into the plot, per se. In fact it is more a rock concert and a contemporary ballet done simultaneously. The band, and in this case, a great band, is suspended over the stage with the lead singer center stage. In Chicago, and now in New York, it's local boy Cavanaugh who received a 2003 Tony Award nomination for his Broadway debut. Cavanaugh took a recess from the New York production to sing the role in his home town. And we are very glad he did.
Another reaction to the Chicago production was that the first act was weak, the second act dynamite. I heard shortly after the Windy City opening that Twyla Tharp totally had restaged the first act and Billy Joel had added a song. The second act remained basically in tact. The first act is still weaker than the second, but in a production this dynamic, that's not saying there is much wrong.
The story, in contrast to many dance concerts, is easy to follow, concerns an examination of a group of 60s teenagers who progress through high school, followed by the males going off to the Vietnam War which results in one of them losing his life in combat. After the conflict the others return home, broken from grief and hooked on dope. The boys, now men, finally reconnect and discover they have found their way back.
Don't try to match Billy Joel's words to the dancing. While not all the lyrics are relevant to the action, phrase snatches and the musical themes set the tone for Tharp's choreography.
Cavanaugh, who was found in Las Vegas doing a show in which he sang Billy Joel songs, started to perform professionally at age 12. He is not only known as a singer but does character voices for the Disney Channel and has recorded a solo CD entitled "Sounds a Lot Like Me." His performance in 'MOVIN' OUT' is outstanding. His voice is strong, his articulation clear, and his piano playing wonderful. He sings with feeling and creates meaning from the words, rather than just singing words.
Usually in dance performances the women outperform the men. Not so in this production of 'MOVIN' OUT.' The men, including the male corps, were all strong.
Corbin Popp, who played Tony, showed mastery of not only modern dance, but displayed fine balletic moves. He also displayed strong acting skills. His Broadway idol good looks and buffed body added to his strong stage presence. In "This Night" he showed excellent partnering skills, as was the case in "Big Shot." "Big Man on Mulberry Street" was a show stopper.
As Eddie, the distraught post-Vietnam burnout, Brendan King almost stole the show with his amazing gymnastics and dancing power. A segment entitled, Eddie Attains Grace, danced to "River of Dream," "Keeping the Faith" and "Only the Good Die Young" was amazing. It was one of the strongest dance performances I've seen in any musical.
Sean Maurice Kelly, who filled in for Matthew Dibble, didn't match the dancing polish or dynamics of Popp and King.
On the female side, Julieta Gros was wonderful as Judy. She captured the stage with her petite good looks and controlled dancing movements. Laurie Kanyok was inconsistent as Brenda. She was at her best when partnering with Corbin Popp.
"Goodnight Saigon," which displayed the horrors of war was superb, as was "Captain Jack."
The Movin' Out Band was note perfect. They not only played well, but were excellent in vocal backups.
Technically, the show was of Broadway quality. The lighting, costuming and scenic design all added to the overall positive effect.
Tuesday, February 08, 2005
GROUNDWORKS shines at Botanical Garden
The first time I saw David Shimotakahara dance with the Ohio Ballet I knew that I was watching a very talented performer. When I saw his first choreographed piece for the same ballet company, I was equally impressed. The work was creative, the dancers well-disciplined, the piece polished.
When Heinz Poll left his post as Artistic Director of OB, I was hoping that Shimotakahara would be appointed to continue the company's creative work. Unfortunately, the post went to someone else. Instead of giving up, Shimotakahara founded GroundWorks Dancetheater, which has become a leading modern and contemporary dance company in the area. He has developed a loyal following which supports his every effort. This was obvious at the sold out performance where viewers thoroughly enjoyed GroundWorks Landmark Series performance at the Cleveland Botanical Garden.
The Landarks Series places the company in various settings in the community. These are as diverse as churches and abandoned buildings. His purpose is to bring dance to the community. While in the venues, he often expands beyond the performances of production. For example, the company's Botanical Garden stay included exhibitions for Cleveland school students, for a group of seniors, and a fund raiser for the Garden.
The recent program included 'ALWAYS,' a piece centering on the vocals of Patsy Kline, which premiered in 2003. The piece is a collaborated invention of the original performers Amy Miller, Shimotakahara, Mark Otloski and Xotchiti Tejeda de Cerda (who has left the area). In this case the thoroughly enjoyable 'ALWAYS' was danced by Miller, Felise Bagley, Shimotakahara and Brain Murphy.
Murphy, a dancer with Ohio Ballet, was a replacement for Mark Otloski who in mid- January, injured his leg and will shortly be having surgery to correct the problem. Murphy, by far OB's best male dancer, stepped in with less than two weeks of rehearsal and added much to the performance. To add to the awe, Murphy continued to rehearse with Ohio Ballet which will perform in Cleveland (February 18 & 19) and Akron (February 25 & 26).
Murphy's presence aesthetically helped the balance of the dancers. The very talented Otloski is very tall and thin. He towers over the rest of the company. This works in many pieces, especially when he is dancing solo or with a petite female partner. However, his size often creates unbalanced visual lines. Murphy, who is parallel in size to the other dancers, physically fits into the many intertwining movements of Shimotakahara's choreography.
'ALWAYS' is a humorous, creative and delightful piece. Miller, a powerhouse of a dancer, has unbelievable physical control and makes every movement a total picture...beginning, middle and ending. Though the piece's movements don't develop the story of the words, the actions parallel well the mood of the music.
'SEVERAL TRUTHS,' is a duet created by choreographer Gina Gibney, who often showcases her works with GroundWorks. Premiered in 2001 the piece uses sounds rather than music to convey various moods. An emotionally and physically exhausting dance it is dependent on the controlled intertwining of bodies, strong movements, powerful carries, and the execution of parallel precision. Dancers Amy Miller and David Shimotakahara were up to the task. The startling ending, with no sound accompaniment, was greeted with enthusiastic applause.
'BEFORE WITH AFTER,' choreographed by Shimotakahara to music by Bach, according to program notes "suggests life's encounters, steps and crossings but ultimately acknowledge what it means to be alone." This theme was carried out by use of solos, duets, triads, quartets and quads of dancers. As with the whole program, the piece was well-performed. Precise, strong and fast movements were at the center of the concept. Brian Murphy's solo and his duet with newcomer Jennifer Lott were among the highlights, as were duets by Shimotakahara and Miller and Miller and Felise Bagley. Lott, the newest member of the GroundWorks company is an attractive dancer. Her skills, especially her body control, are not yet up to the levels of the other GoundWorks dancers, but under the tutelage of perfectionist Shimotakahara she should develop into a good addition.
The Cleveland Botanical Garden space was a perfect setting for the company. Dancing on a raised stage against a wall of sheer shades, the performers were highlighted by natural as well as artificial light. The trees and even people walking in gardens behind the dancers added to the naturalness of the choreography. Having the audience within feet of the performers allows for an in-your-face experience. Hearing the shoes squeak, the floor lightly creak, and the breathing of the cast, as well as watching their muscles move and flex, makes for audience involvement in the entire process.
Capsule Judgment GroundWorks Dancetheater once again proved in its Cleveland Botanical Garden presentation that it is the area's premiere modern and contemporary dance company. Their next presentation will be as part of 'DANCE WORKS 05'--Cleveland Public Theatre which salutes their residence dance companies: Groundworks (March 31-April 03); Verb Ballet (April 7-10); Inlet Dance Theatre (April 14-17), and SAFMOD (April 21-24). Location: 6415 Detroit Road at W. 65th Street. Tickets: 216-631-2727.
Thursday, February 03, 2005
At the conclusion of Verb Ballets’ ‘NEW CLASSICS COLLECTION,’ the company’s Artistic Director, Hernando Cortez, shouted to a sold-out audience, “Verb’s the word, verb’s the word.” And, how right he is. Verb is the word in Cleveland area ballet.
Ever since The Cleveland-San Jose Ballet packed up its debts and fled the city, Cleveland has lacked a premiere Cleveland-based premiere ballet company. That is not to say there are no local ballet companies. Karen Gabay and Raymond Rodriquez’s Point of Departure has been fine in its presentations and has developed a loyal following. Unfortunately, their presentations are few. Gabay and Rodriquez are still members of the San Jose Ballet family and have no permanent presence in the city. The Ohio Ballet, which many felt would be the logical successor to CSJB has not filled the void. Its attendance in both its Cleveland and Akron performances has been underwhelming. Under its present administration it has failed to build a solid audience base. Ohio Dance Theatre, Denise Gula’s Oberlin based group, does a nice job for a small company with limited resources. It has made quite a positive impact on the Lorain County area and in national outreach, but hasn’t been as successful in its Cleveland ventures.
Two years ago The Repertory Project was transformed. The wand was handed to Executive Director Dr. Margaret Carlson and Artistic Director Hernando Cortez. They made their three wishes and the pumpkin has blossomed into a full-fledged shimmering coach. Now known as Verb Ballet, they have developed a new repertory, repositioned the company’s publicity, signed on a group of enthusiastic board members, and formed a permanent Cleveland based company that offers its dancers on-going employment. It is in the process of amassing its new Classics, Contemporary Artists and Emerging Artists Collections to accompany the works of its Artistic Director.
As witnessed by the appreciative audience at the company’s recent Playhouse Square debut, this is a superb dance company. Besides the fine evening of dance one must be amazed by the fact that potential attenders had to be turned away due to a SRO crowd. A sold out audience to see a Cleveland ballet company? That hasn’t happened in a long, long time.
The program consisted of three pieces: ’APPALACHIAN SPRING,’ ‘ESPLANADE’ and ‘CARMINA BURANA.’
This version of ’APPALACHIAN SPRING’ was a reworking of that presented last summer at Cain Park. There was a new set and costumes (by Suzy Campbell and Robert Katkowsky) and an altered cast. The set worked well though it did not have the severe rustic feeling of the original. The costumes at times distracted. The severity of wilderness living was diminished by the colorful material used for the women’s dresses, especially those of Followers.
Mark Tomasic gave his usual strong masculine presence to the role of the Husbandman, though I thought he added more to the production as the Revivalist in the Cain Park rendition of the piece. Glynn Owens, who danced the Revivalist is slight and youthful. Though he dances well, he failed to convey the sternness and power needed for the role. His hop moves fringed on the comic rather than the serious. Tracy Vogt was wonderful as the Bride. This is one very, very talented dancer. Elizabeth Flynn was excellent as the Pioneering Woman. The Followers danced well, but one of the performers broke the solemnity of the occasion by smiling during segments of the performance.
‘ESPLANADE,’ danced to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, was originally choreographed by Paul Taylor in 1975 and has been reconstructed by Hernando Cortez. This is a high-energy exhausting, audience pleasing piece that is divided into a series of short segments. The dancers were in a constant state of running, bouncing, writhing, leaping, rolling, twisting, and walking on and jumping over each other. The numerous combinations of line intertwining and single and duet dancing was compelling.
Carl Orff’s ‘CARMINA BURANA’ is one of the most popular 20th century choral works. It is based on a collection of medieval poems from the early 1800s. The topics range from the ever-changing fortune of humans to physical love. The illuminated pictures which accompanied the script which was found in the 1930s was the basis for many of the dance images framed by choreographer Hernando Cortez.
Joan Yellen Horvitz’s pumpkin-like designed backdrop was enhanced by Chaneault Spence’s lighting design which resulted in changed colors to fit the mood of each segment. Horvitz’s costumes were breathtaking and appropriate.
The choreography mirrored the music, and the dancers, who were well prepared by Cortez, continually changed mood to convey the textures of the music.
In its World Premiere, the piece, though overly long, was met with positive response by the audience. Cortez might consider cutting some of the segments in order to make the piece more audience friendly.
CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: Verb Ballet has the fortune of being headed by the dynamic Margaret Carlson and the talented Hernando Cortez. They have assembled a stable of generally very capable dancers. The females, as a whole, are excellent. The males are less consistent. Mark Tomasic is one of the area’s best male dancers. Robert Wesner is a fine but often overly affected solo dancer, but has trouble pulling back and becoming part of the ensemble. Newcomer Glynn Owens appears to have the makings of a solid performer though he needs to work on his posture. Hernando’s challenge will be to flesh out the company with dancers who can help carry the company from excellent to world class.
'THE PIANO LESSON'--an examination of the African American adventure
Playwright August Wilson thinks that African Americans have not been fairly represented by White culture writers and historians. To counter this, Wilson has set out to create a series of works which examine the lives of Africans who were brought to this country, often against their will, and enslaved. He develops his messages by using cultural patterns such as story telling and music, with references to history, religion and superstition. ‘THE PIANO LESSON,’ now on stage at The Cleveland Play House, is the fourth in Wilson’s 20th century decade-by-decade chronicle.
The story centers around a piano that sits in the parlor of the Pittsburgh home of Doaker Charles and his niece, Berniece. The years is 1936, but the piano serves as a persistent reminder of the ancestral memory of the home’s inhabitants. Carved on the legs and front of the piano, as described in Wilson’s stage directions, are “mask-like figures resembling totems...in the manner of African sculpture...rendered with a grace and power of invention that lifts them out of realm of craftsmanship and into the realm of art.” These figures, created by Berniece’s great-grandfather, tell the history of the family through the long years from slavery to emancipation.
For Berniece, the piano evokes memories and emotions. Her mother used to make her play the piano every day, an obligation Berniece accepted because she was convinced its carved figures had the ability to come alive and walk around at night, to create ghosts and memories too fearful to confront. When her mother died, Berniece “shut the top of that piano...and ain’t never opened it again.” Out of respect for the generations of ancestors enshrined in its tableaux, she’d never dream of allowing the instrument to leave her parlor.
Berniece’s brother, Bob Willie, shares none of his sister’s attachment to the instrument. He views the piano as a commodity to be sold and the money used to purchase the land of the former owner of their slave ancestors. He believes that getting rid of the piano and claiming the land will purge the ghosts from the entire family.
Ghosts, both literally and figuratively, hover over the happenings. The works itself sits at the intersection of realism and metaphor. Are the ghosts real? Is the storm near the play’s conclusion the exorcism of the actual spirits or the end of the family’s obsession with the horrors of the past?
Is ‘THE PIANO LESSON’ a great script? In spite of its awards, reviewers generally agree that it is not a masterpiece. It is repetitious, imperfectly resolved, and as often is the case with Wilson, much too long. What it does have going for it are also Wilson’s trademarks: the rhythms of black speech, the essence of the culturally uprooted, the legacy of slavery, and the knowing message of what it is like to be at the bottom rung of the American way of life.
The CPH production, under the able direction of Chuck Patterson, develops Wilson’s intent. In spite of excellent performances, they cannot, however, completely overcome the excessive length, abstraction and talkiness of the script.
Wiley Moore (Doaker) stands proud as a Black man who has meet the system and taken it on as a hard working productive member of society. Moore adds just the right inner strength to the role. Albert Jones doesn’t consistently smolder as Boy Willie, though he has periods of brilliance. Marlon Morrison, as Willie’s naive country boy friend Lymon, is wonderful. He is simple, without being a simpleton. Linda Powell’s Berneice sometimes lacks the texturing necessary to make her character a totally real person. Sierra Heard as Berneice’s daughter, Kim Sullivan as the preacher, Doug Jewell as Doaker’s brother and Colleen Longshaw as the women who Boy Willie and Lymon hook up with, are all quite good in their performances.
Felix Cochren’s set is outstanding. It is not only era perfect and visually attractive, but gives the actors an efficient place in which to perform. Myrna Colley-Lee’s costume designs are wonderful. William H. Grant III adds much to the production through his lighting.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: August Wilson is an important African American playwright. ‘THE PIANO LESSON’ is another of his plays that helps give a picture of the African American experience. Though a flawed script, the CPH production is worth seeing for no other reason than it is an important piece in the puzzle of defining an important racial component of the American story.
'LA BELLE' IS A BALLET SPECTACLE
The opening notes of Pyotr Illyich Tchaikovsky's "The Sleeping Beauty" are dark and somber. Wait, "Sleeping Beauty" is the story of a beautiful princess who falls under the spell of a wicked witch, falls into a deep sleep, is eventually kissed by a handsome prince, and they ride off to live happily ever after. Well, at least that's the Walt Disney version.
In fact, the tale, as written by Charles Perrault, is a story of forceful carnal characters. The moral, which is drawn from the original story states, "But desire with its ardor aspires to conjugal faith."
Les Ballets De Monte Carlo's production of 'LA BELLE,' as conceived by Jean Christophe Maillot, was performed at the State Theatre of Cleveland's Playhouse Square from February 3-6. The production was given the Nijinsky Award for the Best Choreographic Production 2001 and the Danza & Danza Prize for the Best Show 2002.
Maillot's interpretation explores all aspects of human relationships. It eradicates the original classical ballet version staged by Marius Petipa, which had little to do with Perrault's initial 1697 tale in which the barbaric Queen Mother's jealous rages lead to not only her own dreadful death, but to emotional torture for her husband, son, Beauty and many others. Maillot wanted to create an emotional masterpiece which centered on the dark elements of the tale, while at the same time respecting the euphoric and timeless love story that it has become.
In this interpretation the first act brings to life the joyous past of the princess as recounted by the Lilac Fairy to the curious prince. The second act centers on her rape, the princess's long sleep (as represented by her dance inside a larger-than-life transparent crystal ball), the arrival of the prince, her ultimate awakening, the continued battle with the Queen Mother, the death of the Queen, and the couple's eventual freedom from the ill-influences.
Though I would love to say that I was enchanted by the presentation, I can't. I found much of the staging very gimmicky. The props, the setting, the lighting, the costumes often overrode the impact of the choreography. I also found some of the story line so convoluted that it was difficult to follow. This was not aided by the program notes which confused rather than enhanced. As one of the people behind me whispered, "What do the program notes have to do with what is going on on-stage?"
This is not to say that the performance was bad. It wasn't. The dancing, as a whole was superb.
Bernice Coppieters, who danced Beauty, was breathtaking. Her perfectly toned body was accented in a skin-tight sensual see-through lace unitard. Her movements were precise, her dance interpretations flawless. As the prince Chris Roelandt was fine, but seemed to tire near the end of the performance when his movements became less precise and he lost some of his passion. Their scene in which she arises from the deep slumber culminated in a sultry duet which was punctuated by an arousing kiss that lasted so long that the audience started to titter.
Gaetan Morlotti as the dual-sexed Queen Mother was excellent. In fact, his curtain call was met with "boos." These were not as a negative but as a positive reaction to his effectiveness as a truly wicked person.
The rest of the cast was effective, but the male corps de ballet was sometimes not in sync. The large orchestra was impressive, giving the dancers excellent musical accompaniment.