Wednesday, October 15, 2014


Charming and captivating sums up Constellation Theatre Company’s rendering of ABSOLUTELY! {perhaps} -Pirandello’s  parable about meddlesome characters trying to figure out what is the true story behind the mysterious new family in town.

While Pirandello seems to play with the ideas of images and impressions for knowing the truth-- and makes short shrift of facts--he never discounts the reality of truth.  Ashley Ivey as Lamberto Laudisi guides the characters along, always reminding us of this  and the limits and fallacies in what we think we know.

 There are of course three sides to every story.  The play presents  two opposite but connecting answers with Michael Glenn and Kimberly Schraf as the the pivotal characters Signor Ponza and his mother-in-law Signora Frola.

 Can one be telling the truth? Can both be telling the truth?    Can both be lying?

While there is much disagreement among the characters, this play, on which every line hinges on the comic coordination of all the cast would not work if everyone was not in sync.  And that means the large cast of Lizzi Albert, Catherine Deadman, Matt Dewberry, Tyler Herman, Connor J. Hogan, Julie Garner, Julia Klavens, Toby Mulford, Sarah Pretz, and Teresa Spencer.

Did I forget to mention, the third possible explanation to the mystery?  For that you have to see the show.

Special kudos to the costume designer Kendra Rai.  (How does she do it to put together those great  outfits which speak for themselves!)

Constellation Theatre Company’s
ABSOLUTELY! {perhaps}
by Luigi Pirandello
a new adaptation by Martin Sherman
directed by Allison Arkell Stockman
1835 14th Street NW

This is an excerpt from the Nobel Prize speech for Pirandello:

The same relativity appears as an enigma in Così é (se vipare) (1918) [Right You Are (If You Think You Are)]. The play is called a parable, which means that its singular story makes no pretensions to reality.

 It is a bold and ingenious fabrication which imparts wisdom. The circumstances of a family, recently settled in a provincial city, become intolerable to the other inhabitants of the town. Of the three members of the family, the husband, the wife, and the mother-in-law, either the husband or the mother-in-law, each otherwise reasonable, must be viewed as seized with absurd ideas about the identity of the wife.

The last speaker always has the final say on the issue, but a comparison of the conflicting statements leaves it in doubt. The questionings and the confrontation of the two characters are described with great dramatic art and with a knowledge of the most subtle maladies of the soul. The wife should be able to resolve the puzzle, but when she appears she is veiled like the goddess of knowledge and speaks mysteriously; to each of the interested parties she represents what she must be in order for that person to preserve his image of her. In reality she is the symbol of the truth which no one can grasp in its entirety.

The play is also a brilliant satire on man's curiosity and false wisdom; in it Pirandello presents a catalogue of types and reveals a penetrating self-conceit, either partially or completely ridiculous, in those attempting to discover truth. The whole remains a masterpiece in its own right.

Monday, April 28, 2014

The Love of the Nightingale is at Constellation Theatre 

Overheard after the show:
“So elegant.”
“Violent beyond television but thought provoking.”

These are not words to describe some modern day urban myth which might be debunked as an unbelievable scary story-- but it well sums up an ancient one that Sophocles first told of 2500 years ago.

The snippets of his tale has been been adapted in many forms from Ovid in his magnificent opus Metamorphoses to the lastest theatrical treasure, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of the Nightingale.   

Allison Stockman, Constellation Theatre Company’s founder and director, said she
loved this play from the moment she read it.  Not only does it include all the exciting possibilities of theater (choreographied fight scenes, a retelling of Phaedra, a bawdy puppet show, wild Bacchanalian frenzy) but it goes to the meaning of theater and its  power of expression.
What is shocking in the ancient myth of the royal trio of Philomele, Procne and Tereus is not that it tells a story we do not know but it brings out human emotions that we know so well.

Megan Dominy as Philomele,  Dorea Schmidt as her sister, Procne, and Matthew Schleigh as Tereus, husband to one and rapist of the other--they are brave, daring in their own ways, wanting connections with other humans, and passionate in their needs.   Dominy, Schmidt and Schleigh --each emerge as strong personalities distinct from the company which plays the rest of humanity.

Unlike the decaying bodies found by unsuspecting travelers that stock fill urban myths,   this is quite vividly a bloody tale. 

While the play is abundant with good lines, as the tragedies pile up, each more horrible then the other, the most dramatic moments occur after Philomele can not speak--her tongue having been cut out by Tereus. 

What has started as a playful retelling of a classic has turned into  the scariest story of all.   Centuries of psychological oppression of individuals who can not speak  because of either their expected gender role or of linguistic suppression because of their colonial status are wrapped into the multi-layer possibilities of interpretaion of this very ancient myth. 
The actors  carry that essence into their transformation  (scene spoiler) when in  the resolution of the horrors  when they are transformed into  a nightingale, a swallow and a hoopoe.    Metamorphoses!

Tom Teasley has a unique talent for creating music that is at once ancient and modern.  Taking inspiration from Greek, Balan and Thracian music --particularly well suited for for his original music for this production,  Teasley also adds another layer to the eternal discussion of communication with music, so fitting for a play which ends when humans transformed  into birds communicate in what we hear as music.

BOTTOM LINE:  Turn off your TV and take a trip back to a tale ripped from the classics--The Love of the Nightingale  at Constellation Theatre, Washington DC,  until May 25, 2014.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

                                    This  was my Moby Dick Moment!

BACKGROUND: Washington National Opera premiered on the east coat the new American opera Moby Dick, February 22 to March 8.  Written by composer Jake Heggie and featuring an English-  language libretto by Gene Scheer based on Herman Melville’s 19th-century literary classic.   

I have never read Moby Dick, so I was literally thrown into an ocean on this one: Where to begin before I went to show?

As an aside, most reviews tell you about what the reviewer  saw but first I want to show you what I saw and heard (something that is the miracle of the web that we can not do in print) so I am posting the selections the Kennedy Center put on line. 

Watch and Listen

I started by asking  others about what they thought of the book.

Have you ever Read Moby Dick?

Maybe this is not the greatest pick up line or conversation starter but I have discovered recently that it is a question no one can resist answering.

There is no simple yes or no response.  There is always some explanation, such as
“Yes, when I was a kid,” 

 Really?   Half of it is about the 19th century whaling industry and half of it is a bible for those who believe in predestination explained everything whether we liked it or not.

There is the humble “No, but I knew someone who tried once.” 

So, did you like it.  

The most truthful answer I have heard was, “Well you aren’t suppose to like it.”

One woman said “I hated it!”  This is a good choice because Melville is supposed to have said to a woman friend that (not only did he not want women in the book)  he did not want women to read it.

Then I ask, how many pages was it? 

Some people  say a lot, maybe 900.

 I have googled Amazon editions.  The best I come up with is the Penguin complete original with 754 pages some of which are probably blank sheet.

I am beginning to see this is the question that should be used in lie detectors.

I am suddenly happy about having gone to a Catholic school where Moby Dick with its thunderous doctrine of predestination would have been condemned as heresy.   (There was the the famous Index Librorum Prohibitorum of such books then, but apparently Moby Dick was both too long for anyone to read and American so why  bother to put it there.) 

I ask myself So why Moby Dick?  

I found a treasure of a book by Nathaniel Philbrick who addresses that very question, Why Read Moby-Dick?   It is clear that  Moby Dick whether read or not remains fixed as a symbol of  American literary effort to be epic. 

Besides reasons based its own merit, it has passed all all its initial requirements that are cherished by aspiring writers who like to remember that it was not well received at the time. 

It has provided further work for other industries like  the grinding academic halls where it is placed on the mantle between Edgar Allen Poe and William Faulkner, and for the historians who see it as a prophetic work of the Civil War, the war on terrorism and he doom of destroying mother nature in our own time.

Ahab has been a screen role for both John Barrymore and Gregory Peck.  Set designers got to create that great ship of a pulpit for Orson Welles to thunder forth in what is equal to the special effects when Ahab does meet his whale at the
end of the movie.

And let us not forget --Starbuck has given his name to a coffee chain.

 If this isn’t epic scope--well can the same be said for Beowulf for instance?

But I digress.  

Dear reader, if you are still with me, this is my message.

BOTTOM LINE: There is a new answer to that question  Have you read Moby Dick?  

And that is for us, the audience of thousands who can say now, No, but I have seen the opera. 

And if asked  But why see Moby Dick the opera

The answer is not mine, but in that previews with which I started: musical moments both lyrical and dramatic, scenes both highly personal and broadly universal, themes that as old as mankind but presented with the aids of  the latest technology.

There is another answer.  I woke up one morning hearing one of the melodies from Moby Dick. And after I left another epic-into-opera production, The Met’s production of Borodin’s  Prince Igor this week, I heard someone loudly singing its hit song in the Metro. Moby Dick is a new opera for sure, and its place in the opera pantheon is not secure, but that I still hear it is, well reason enough for now.

Monday, January 20, 2014

La Vie en Rose, the In Series collaboration with The Washington Ballet Studio Company,  is not your usual song and dance show. 

Evoking Parisian life through the musical palette of modern French cabaret chansons and belle epoque art-songs, the work is imaginative, emotional and energetic.  

The singers walk and move among the ballet dancers.  While this is not unusual in itself, it is conceptually  different from musicals where singers and dancers share a stage but are clearly distinct.  

In La Vie en Rose, one might say the singers and dancers move together to the same tune. They breathe together.  What one sees is how the body  of the dancer and the voice of the singer are expressing the meaning of the song simultaneously.   

The coordination of two separate arts in this highly creative staging is not simply keeping to the same beat of the music.  What the singers and dancers share is their breaths in what might be deemed  to be an organic work. 

In some cases, props were appropriately used--a marionette scene were two dancers become entangled in their strings pulling them, or two women sitting on a picnic blanket singing while two dancers pour snow flakes on them.  At other times, the dancers  slumped perfectly immobile in cafe chairs, blending in as they were part of the scenery.

The lyrics of  Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine and Belgian Jacques Brel and music by Berlioz, Henri Duparc,  Debussy, Edith Piaf  are woven together, each a separate piece, that are clearly united as French.   

In the end, it was all about love in all its moods, neither always white or black, but as the theme  song translates “Life is pink.”

La Vie en Rose is gone now but like its title, not forgotten.  It was presented at the Gala Theater in  Washington DC in January 2014 and featured renowned soprano Fleta Hylton and tenor Byron Jones, as well as rising stars CarrieAnne Winter, Andrew Adelsberger and Adrienne Starr.  The Washington Ballet Studio Company dancers included first season performers  Ariel Breitman, Laura Chachich, Esmiana Jani, Josue Justiz, Olivia Lipnick, Carolyn Lippert, Fernanda Oliveira, Sukyung Park, Daniel Savetta, Carly Wheaton and Marshall Whiteley.   

May the farce be with you.

Constellation Theatre Company again lives up to its name by reaching  up into the universe of possibilities to mount Moliere’s Scapin as adapted by Bill Irwin and Mark O’Donnell.

A trip in outer space would have less bumps than the rambunctious trip that the shrewd scheming servant Scapin leads his characters from exposition to coincidences to the inevitable chase finale.

The razzling cast is led by Michael Glenn who as Scapin is the first zani, with the versatile  Bradley Foster Smith as the second zani.  The two servants will through a series of skits succeed in uniting people  as well as involving the audience in a parody of the theater, all at the expense of the pocketbooks and prides of their pompous masters.

The ensemble cast --Megan Dominy and Ashley Ivey, Nora Achrati, Vanessa Bradchulis, Manu Kumasi, and Carlos Saldaña --are convincing actors especially as they move on a fantasy set created by  A.J. Guban,  in exceedingly silly clothes designed by the superb  Kendra Rai, and under the direction  by Kathryn Chase Bryer,

But there is one character who should be mentioned.  That is the piano, whose musical lines are from some of our well known television programs and movies.  Travis Charles Ploeger, the composer and pianist, heightens the sense of theatricality with the musical snippets which compliment the words and actions.  Intuitively, the audience knows what sense of drama that music connotes.  When placed in context of the ridiculous actions, the laughter is compounded.

As a side note--this truly is Moliere who is somewhere in the center of the comic theater pantheon which stretches from commedia dell’arte, through vaudeville and television comedians like Lucille Ball   Accused of plagiarizing to create his characters, he gave one of his famous aphorisms: I recover my property wherever I find it.  If he borrowed too much from other works, he also left a treasury of works to be borrowed from.   Scapin is not only Moliere’s personification of zaniness, but of all the  clowns we have known and loved and laughed at.

Bottom line:  Classic farce infused with fresh barbs --Scapin--done to perfection at Constellation Theatre.