Monthly Archives: May 2022

Choreographic Lab Distills Inventiveness and Energy

Review: Charlotte Ballet’s Choreographic Lab

By Perry Tannenbaum

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May 13, 2022, Charlotte, NC – We’ve been seeing plenty from Charlotte Ballet in the past month. Ending April and plunging into May, the company unveiled the world premiere of Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy Tailored Classic, with choreography by Matthew Hart – a ballet about a sleeping princess that had slumbered for two years prior to its pandemic-postponed awakening. That new piece ran for 11 performances over two weeks at Knight Theater to a trimmed Tchaikovsky score, with no fewer than four Charlotte Ballet dancers playing each of the lead roles, Princess Aurora, Prince Florimund, and the Lilac Fairy. Five days after that run – with plenty of rehearsal during the run, we can presume – another swarm of Charlotte Ballet and Charlotte Ballet II dancers darted to and fro across the studio at the Patricia McBride/Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux Center for Dance for the third edition of Choreographic Lab, also postponed for two years.

Naturally, all seven dances on this fresh program were created and developed in-house, with members of the two Charlotte Ballet troupes trying their hands at choreography, all working with their colleagues at the McBride/Bonnefoux “lab” to bring the new dances to fruition. In more than a couple of instances, new music was created especially for the new works. Giving extra polish to the production, each new dance was preceded by a video in which the choreographer discussed his or her aims and process. Somehow, the idea that Charlotte Ballet was alive and kicking became even more intense than with even the long-dormant Tchaikovsky ballet, for now the sounds and the styles were more contemporary.

The trio of new pieces before intermission was especially impressive, two of them featuring new music, one performed live by the composer. “Movement in 3” was accurately described by choreographer Maurice Mouzon Jr. as a “neoclassical work with a groove,” for the eight dancers, evenly divided by gender, all wore ballet shoes and costumes, with the women particularly prevailed upon to work en pointe in the opening section to music by Jonny Greenwood that sounded like a Bach partita. After insinuating themselves among the women, the men came to the fore in “Yumeji’s Theme,” music by Shigeru Umebayashi that had an unmistakable waltz-tempo lilt. Most of us were likely wondering where the groove was until we heard Olle Nyman singing “Heart & Soul” as all eight dancers joined in. Then it was unmistakable – and irresistible.

“Mile Marker 123” by Colby Foss would remain my favorite new piece of the evening, largely because it was so completely produced, with lighting, staging, music, and dance unifying so effectively. During most of the dance, Foss had his partner, composer and cellist Ian Cooke, seated center stage, playing and singing his original song, “Sterling.” Surrounding him were nine dancers in symmetrical formations, variously evoking a royal court, a worshipful adoration, or a campfire.

Two couples were deployed on each side of Cooke, and the ninth dancer, a female, stood vigilantly behind him, there to take hold of his cello when the singer stood up and was incorporated into the dance. At this point Cooke himself didn’t dance. The other dancers lifted him up, turned him upside-down, revolved him like the hand on a clock, and then carried him solemnly like a corpse at a funeral before restoring him upstage center to his throne. Very evocative in moody, amber light. The epigraph embedded by Foss in the playbill enjoins us to pay heed to Mother Nature: “Her power brings life and beauty but can just as easily wield chaos and death.”web_1525-9401

Sarah Ingel, who choreographed “Nebulous Reverence,” actually works behind the scenes at Charlotte Ballet as a production assistant – and with femme and queer performance makers across the Southeast. “I practice myth making from a queer and feminist perspective,” she says at her website, but there was no reason to feel threatened by her new work, which has comical and satirical overtones despite the black unisex costuming and Ingel’s explicit intent to project chaos. The three dancers deployed to intensely watch the other three, in the most memorable episode, share a bowl of popcorn as they behold the chaos, before spilling the remainder of the popcorn in their excitement. While you or I wouldn’t describe such reverence as nebulous, it was hard to argue with Ingel’s idea.web_1525-9754

Among the four pieces after intermission, the first and third, Josh Hall’s “Remnants” and Nadine Barton’s “Woebegone,” left the deepest impression. Could be that I’m a sucker for spotlit circles gleaming on a dance floor, for that’s what these works had in common. In Hall’s piece, contiguous circles lit up in a sequence corresponding to the shifts in music, two spare piano recordings by Luke Howard surrounding M Haase’s “Plaything.” Amelia Sturt-Dilley and Meredith Hwang were the first to dance Hall’s intimate choreography, joined by Anna Mains, who shed a frumpy pullover blouse to chime with the summery pink outfits worn by the others. Mains didn’t stop there, shedding her pink skirt with the arrival of Humberto Ramazzina for the final segment. Interaction between the sexes was relatively chaste and innocent, though Ramazzina’s tenderness was unmistakable. His windup probably confounded most expectations as he handed back the clothes that Mains had shed, and she put them back on.

“Woebegone” had a solo dancer, Ben Ingel as Scooter, navigating the spotlit circles, choreographed by Barton to “How Can I Find True Love,” the B-side of the Del-Vikings “Come Go With Me” in 1956. Overdramatizing his woes, decked out in a clown suit, Scooter’s misery was substantially less than Pagliacci’s, particularly when Ingel broke the fourth wall and milked the audience for applause. Barton dressed purposefully for the occasion, coming onstage after the premiere to take her bow in a dominantly black polka dot outfit that echoed Ingel’s clown suit, topped by a vaudevillian black bowler hat and accented by flaming red gloves. Such preening was actually encouraged, it would seem, for Foss took his bow earlier contrasting radically with his partner, sporting a silver dinner jacket as he stood beside Cooke, who remained in his ramblin’ man casuals.

The other two pieces were certainly modern and energetic, reflecting the violence and pandemonium of our times. “Fulfilled Conviction” by James Kopecky fulfilled the choreographer’s desire to stage a jailbreak, featuring a scintillating and charismatic performance from Sarah Lapointe as the fevered action swirled around her – and in pursuit. “Listen to Me (Us)” by Eric Stith III of Charlotte Ballet II, had a surprisingly militant core: “We all want to be heard and seen. Sometimes you have to do that with violence.” Music by Les Tombours du Bronx, “Pneumothorax,” gave the violence a machine-gun battlefield atmosphere rather than the hues of terrorism or protest, and the bright red costumes worn by the dancers were closer to pajamas than blood.

Originally published on 5/15 at CVNC.org

Domingo’s Dot Makes Its Point

Review: Three Bone Theatre Presents Dot

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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The question that he frames in all but words

Is what to make of a diminished thing.

–Robert Frost, “The Oven Bird”

Since their return to live performance last October, Three Bone Theatre has been contracting and then expanding as they adapt to The Arts Factory, their new base of operations on W. Trade Street. They were breathing in at first, perhaps, with a compact one-woman show, and now they’re breathing out. Open was smaller in every way than either of the two productions Three Bone had streamcast during the QC’s lockdowns, Prisoner 34042 and their New Black Playwrights Fest. Smaller cast, shorter running time, and probably smaller audience.

From what I’ve been able to discern, each of Three Bone’s 2022 shows has been bigger, longer, and better attended than the one before. With Lucy Kirkwood’s The Children back in March, we saw a larger cast, a longer show, and actual scenery. Meanwhile, armed with masks and vaccination cards, more theatergoers seemed ready to venture out into the night to see a relevant post-apocalyptic drama.

Colman Domingo’s Dot detains us longer and offers us more characters to consider, though it’s clear that Philadelphia matriarch Dottie Shealy is far and away the one that we – and her three children – should be most concerned about. It’s the Christmas holiday season in Philly, a time when the children converge around a tall spruce tree with enough lead time to collaborate on the decorations. Shelly, the eldest and a lawyer, is holding down the fort while her sibs, Donnie and Averie, have the freedom to flounder in their careers.

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Shelly rightfully feels that she must watch her mom like a hawk. Ever since Dotty was hauled into a local police station after speeding at 95mph, unthinkable anywhere near Philly, Shelly has been unsure what bizarre lapse Mom might have next. With the onset of dementia and a diagnosis of progressing Alzheimer’s, Dotty shuttles between the self her children have always known and somebody prone to forgetting names and events, losing track of where she is and what time it is, or coming back from her kitchen with a bag of Oreos instead of the salt she went in for.

Unable to keep tabs on Dotty around-the-clock, Shelly has hired a gentle young Indian man, Fidel, to help her out. But Shelly is out of patience and out of her depth, so she has become a bit bossy and toxic. Not only has she hidden Mom’s car keys, she uses her disorientation to trick her into signing legal papers she doesn’t understand and going to bed in the middle of the day. Calling for a family conference with Donnie and Averie deep in Act 2, she locks Dotty in her bedroom, astonishing her sibs. Convinced that Mom is planning to kill herself – driving around at 95mph is a serious symptom – Shelly has also developed a paranoid attitude toward Fidel, suspecting him of helping Dotty to hatch her plan.

Woven into all this dramatic intrigue – and all of Shelly’s questionable choices – you’ll find that Domingo has provided plenty of opportunities for comedy. Shelly’s deceitful and aggressive coping mechanisms compromise her character for us long before her sibs arrive on the scene. So we can see why Donnie and Averie would both impugn her credibility and resent her bossiness, no matter how stressed she may be. Aside from that pushback, Dotty can be quite formidable herself when she’s lucid, with quite the sharp tongue on her.

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Perceptive, too. She could always see that Donnie was “gay as giftwrap,” even before her daughters knew. Nor is Dotty totally blind to her own decline, despite all the resistance she puts up against Shelly. It’s hard to believe that Dotty would off herself on Christmas as a reaction to her own deterioration, when all the family is gathered ‘round, but there is definitely something secretive about her interactions with Fidel.

Navigating Dotty’s mood swings, mental lapses, and surreptitious plotting takes a performer over some tricky terrain, requiring sudden hairpin turns; but if you saw Lillie Ann Oden as the wary, savvy, and pragmatic wife in The Children, you’ll likely have little doubt that she can tackle this black Philly matriarch. With Corey Mitchell back as director, after an all-too-common two-year hiatus from the local scene, you might find that Oden still exceeds your high expectations with her saltiness, her increasing confusion, and her sheer naturalness.

While Dotty and her struggles are comparatively fresh onstage, experienced actors and theatergoers will likely recognize the regathering sibs as somewhat formulaic. It won’t be the first time we’ve seen one of a set of sibs turn out to be disagreeably disapproving and controlling, nor will it be a shock to see a sister or brother who is insouciantly adrift, unsettled, charismatic, and irresponsible. Kookiness is often in the mix. Domingo takes pains to give Valerie Thames as Shelly, Marvin King as Donnie, and Nasha Shandri as Averie distinctive personalities and detailed backstories for them to inhabit.

You’re still forgiven if you occasionally find yourself feeling that these capable actors are filling in time-tested sitcom slots or a template lifted from Crimes of the Heart and skillfully refurbished. Thames gets to switch during intermission from a pineapple hair color to a bright raspberry, signaling that she may be the responsible sister but has no intention of remaining anonymous – at the same time showing us that Shelly can be vulnerable, sensitive to Mom’s criticisms.

Long before Shandri has made her first entrance, we’re aware that Averie is the most outré and unbridled of the Shealys. Yet we’re very quickly aware that there’s a loving, conciliatory core to Averie. Over and over, we see that the estrangement between the two sisters is strictly one-sided. It’s Averie who counsels Shelly, with full persuasiveness of a sister, that changing hair colors isn’t quite the right path. She must ditch Andre instead, her hairdresser. Off-handedly and gradually, Shandri and King reveal to us that Shelly undervalues both her sibs.

Jackie and Dotty

Likely an autobiographical creation from Domingo, Donnie is the sibling who most breaks the sitcom mold. King is a moderately daring casting choice from Mitchell, not reminding me of giftwrap at all, but he’s immensely likable without hardly trying. Although he never earmarks him as his parents’ favorite, Domingo clearly designates Donnie as the most beloved of the Shealys. Two additional characters are devoted to double-underlining this point, Tommy Prudenti as Donnie’s husband and Amy Dunn as his high school sweetheart.

Jackie, still carrying a torch for her old flame (among other things), is a useful character from the very beginning, long before she tries to come between Donnie and Adam. Frank conversations between Dotty and her children seem to have ceased years before her current aging crisis, and as the houselights go down, Shelly and her mom have no plausible reason to exchange information about each other that we need to know as quickly as possible. Jackie’s coming back home and catching up with her old flame’s mom, after years away in New York, opens up windows for us into what’s happening with both Dotty and Shelly.

Donnie and Adam

Dunn’s slant on Jackie takes into account that she is not at all opposed to homewrecking, so she can be a bit brash and irritating, though she usefully questions the crueler aspects of Shelly’s caretaking. She brings out a lot from Dottie and Shelly in the beginning, but it’s Prudenti as Adam who really brings out the best in his mother-in-law, unexpectedly reminding her of her dead husband. Due to his marital issues with Donnie, we get to feel that we know Donnie nearly as well as Dottie and Shelly, though Domingo overestimates our interest in seeing them sort out their love lives.

Both Jackie and Adam, interestingly enough, are white, so there’s a refreshing lack of racial tension in Dot, though the meanness of Philly’s inner city lurks plainly enough in the background. In fact, Jackie is Jewish, further broadening the palette. In these matters, Domingo is most subtle, for there is a shared prejudice against Fidel among the younger Shealys, leading them to underestimate the foreigner, either through unwarranted suspicion or dismissiveness. Our dear Dottie is the first to properly gauge his intelligence and worth.

In his theatrical debut, computer science grad student Satheesh Kandula gives us a marvelously mild account of Fidel, diffident and polite but not at all servile. Kandula is hardly a credible target for xenophobia, but we’re not terribly surprised to see it happening – and it might give us pause if we consider the possibility that Fidel may understand Dottie better than anyone else onstage. What he and his co-conspirator wind up concocting for Christmas turns out to be the best lesson of the night.

Only Jackie calls Dottie “Mrs. Shealy,” and absolutely nobody presumes to call her Dot. So why is that Domingo’s title? I’ve yet to read a review that mulls that question over, though I consider the answers – pragmatic or literary – worth pondering. “Dottie” might hint too broadly that Domingo’s protagonist has gone crazy, a matter that the playwright would surely prefer to remain ambiguous.

The other reason for the title is about what Domingo does wish to say. He’s using the diminutive of Dorothy and Dottie to emphasize that Dottie, in her drift toward dementia and Alzheimer’s, is becoming different, “a diminished thing” as Robert Frost would say. At the same time, she remains the same. That’s the main point of Dot.

Heretical Fairy-Tailored Format Is a Winner at the Knight

Review: Charlotte Ballet Premieres Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy Tailored Classic

By Perry Tannenbaum

Final Dance by Jeff Cravotta

Whether paired with Vampire Lesbians of Sodom onstage, orchestrated by Tchaikovsky for ballet, or adapted by talents as diverse as Walt Disney and Matthew Bourne, Sleeping Beauty isn’t a title that sleeps for long. Between here and Greensboro, the title appeared more than a dozen times on our cultural calendars between 2005 and 2020. So it’s a bit of a shock to find that the Charlotte Ballet’s world premiere of Sleeping Beauty: A Fairy Tailored Classic, one of the first cultural events in Charlotte to be cancelled with the onset of COVID in March 2020, has slumbered more than two years before finally coming to life.

Actually, it had been more than three years since Charlotte Symphony last played the Tchaikovsky score live at Knight Theater. But not the whole score. Mikhail Pletnev’s benchmark recording with the Russian National Orchestra clocks in at two hours and 45 minutes, about 75 minutes longer than the typical Nutcracker performance. So if by “tailored” you were hoping that Charlotte Ballet and choreographer Matthew Hart mean trimmed – substantially trimmed – then you can breathe a sigh of relief.

More exciting, the fairy-tailored concept embraces a format that some balletomanes might find heretical, integrating a spoken narrative with the dance. Obviously, spoken narration invites a more intimate interaction between the performers and the audience, especially the anklebiters that adults may have dragged into Knight Theater with them. But really, what might seem outré to ballet fans is perfectly de rigueur for parents and kiddies attending Symphony’s Saturday morning concerts, drawn to Belk Theater by the lure of Francis Poulenc’s Babar, Serge Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf, or similar fare.Nurse Fairies by Jeff Cravotta

Traci Gilchrest-Kubie, portraying little Princess Aurora’s doting Nurse, is our graceful trailblazing narrator. Once upon a time, you may recall, Gilchrest-Kubie was a perennial lead dancer when the company was known as NC Dance Theatre, but she has transitioned within the organization over the past 10 years and now serves as Repetiteur – rehearsal director, if you don’t speak ballet – for both CharBallet and CharBallet II. She has also worked behind the scenes, staging several company productions, as she also does here alongside Charlotte Ballet II director Christopher Stuart.

While the playbill didn’t specify who was responsible for the narrative script, it was worthy of credit, pleasingly spare like Prokofiev’s beloved Peter. Turns out that the nifty narration was co-written by Hart and acting coach Jane Wymark. Ostensibly modeled after Marius Petipa’s original 1890 choreography, Hart allows himself and his dancers some strikingly whimsical moments. Perhaps the most pointed of these came when Rees Launer as Puss in Boots and Meredith Hwang as the White Cat danced their featured pas de deux at Princess Aurora and Prince Florimund’s gala wedding celebration.Aurora Group by Jeff Cravotta

If the tentative meowing music, abruptly segueing into hissing and clawing, sounds oddly familiar, it’s because Disney sacrilegiously applied it to the climactic moment when Sleeping Beauty finds a spindle high up in an abandoned turret of her castle and pricks her finger on it, fulfilling the Evil Fairy Maleficent’s curse. Not to be outdone by Disney’s irreverence, Hart had Puss twerking to that same macabre music.

The magical role of Princess Aurora will be timeshared by no fewer than four dancers between now and the closing May 8 matinee, but that hardly implies that the ballerinas’ burdens have been lightened. Sarah Hayes Harkins, who played Aurora on opening night, was fated to play the title role twice more, but she was also slated to take on Gilchrest-Kubie’s narrative role at three other performances, so she had lines and steps to rehearse. Meanwhile, Harkins’ opening night partner, James Kopecky as Prince Florimund, had two more turns scheduled as Aurora’s destined beau, five as her father the King, and three more as Prince West, one of the marriage prospects presented at the princess’s inauspicious 16th birthday ball.

One of the most rewarding qualities of CharBallet’s extravaganzas, for audiences and dancers alike, continues to be the freedom that the company allows to their principal dancers – encouraging them to bring their own style and personality to each role they play, rather than enforcing a bland and boring sameness. So you’ll find a gratifying individuality to Harkins’ Aurora as she pours regal elegance into her, along with touches of youthful delight, mischief, and a wisp of loneliness. Other Auroras sharing the role (Emerson Dayton, Amelia Sturt-Dilley, and Isabella Franco) might strike you as more nubile, childish, coquettish, or amorous.

As Florimund, Kopecky is almost pathologically sensitive and sincere, an absolute dreamboat for the naïve young fry in the audience, but I expect that Josh Hall, consigned to the role of King on opening night, will stir older libidos when he takes over as the destined Prince, paired with Dayton in her maiden season with CharBallet. Kopecky’s sublimity, on the other hand, chimed well with Harkins’ ethereality – and contrasted deliciously with Colby Foss’s flamboyant rendering of Carabosse, Tchaikovsky’s Evil Fairy.Carabosse 2 by Jeff Cravotta

Of course, the Sleeping Beauty that former CharBallet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux premiered here in 2012 is still deeply embedded in the company’s DNA, so a crossdressing Carabosse won’t be a total shock to loyal subscribers. But Disney’s Maleficent can also be cited as part of the evolution of Hart’s Carabosse. When Tchaikovsky stretched the rather thin storyline to epic length, he largely relied upon celebrations, a Sweet 16 and a wedding piled upon the original christening.

Disney wanted drama, so he didn’t discard Carabosse after the opening scene, or even after the birthday party, where Tchaikovsky began the tradition of having her disguised and smuggling a contraband spindle into the kingdom. No, she is still around a century later, in Disney’s scenario and in Hart’s, barring Prince Florimund from waking his ladylove and providing some sorely needed pushback against the predestined outcome.

Foss’s bravura requires a counterweight that’s stronger than the magically-challenged Florimund, so the Lilac Fairy, “wisest of the Fairies” according to the Nurse, is elevated as much as Carabosse in Hart’s scenario. In fact, with Sarah Lapointe’s sparkle, power, and serenity, you can make the case that Carabosse and the Lilac Fairy are the plum roles in this Fairy Tailored Classic rather than Aurora and Florimund, though Harkins and Kopecky do conquer the most challenging choreography.Court by Jeff Cravotta

Sharing the Lilac gig with three other dancers, Lapointe will actually spend most of this CharBallet run as Aurora’s mom, the Queen. When Foss isn’t making a meal of Carabosse’s malignity, he will trade places with Andrés Trezevant, looking very cavalier on opening night as Catalabutte, the officious and slightly pompous page who presides over every ceremony. While the costumes designed for him by Peter Docherty aren’t nearly as wicked, gnarly and spectacular as Carabosse’s outfits, Trezevant was accorded a wardrobe change after the 100-year intermission, wielding his scepter in a purple-and-blue livery for Aurora’s birthdays before rocking a copper-and-blue ensemble for the wedding.

While Docherty’s scenery is not quite as eye-popping as his costumes, Jennifer Propst’s lighting design dramatically contrasts the daylight of the public celebrations with the moody gloom of the sleeping kingdom and castle. Aside from the dimly lit apparition of the Sleeping Beauty behind a misty scrim, Docherty and Propst combine on a nice effect as the Lilac Fairy’s spell first takes hold. Vines descend dramatically from the fly loft, covering most of the courtyard as we move toward the intermission blackout.

Thanks to the Nurse’s ongoing narrative, there is extra charm to the intermission. Before nodding off in front of the proscenium and slipping away to the wings, Gilchrest-Kubie announced the 20-minute interval and drew our attention to the slowly moving clock projected high over centerstage. Just a single minute hand sweeps clockwise around the clock after the lights come up. Only the clockface has been reconfigured so we’re gradually counting up to 100 like a speedometer, instead of the usual 12 or 60, as Sleeping Beauty’s sleep flies by.

Compared to Aurora’s century-long coma, the two years we’ve had to wait for this Fairy Tailored Classic are nothing to complain about. On the contrary, we have a ballet wakening of our own to celebrate.

US Premiere Keynotes Symphony Concert, with Multiple Thrills and Triumphs to Follow

Review: Charlotte Symphony Plays Sibelius Symphony No. 2

 By Perry Tannenbaum

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April 22, 2022, Charlotte, NC – There had been no foretelling that five weeks ago, the Belk Theater stage would be splashed with the colors of Ukraine’s flag for a Charlotte Symphony concert. Nor could guest conductor Karen Kamensek, making her Charlotte debut, have predicted that the music she was bringing to Knight Theater would be so pertinent to this moment: a symphony by a Finnish composer written in response to Russian oppression in 1902, and two pieces written by Russian-born composers, one of them publicly condemned by the Stalinist regime in 1948. Sadly, these works by Jean Sibelius, Victoria Borisova-Ollas, and Dmitri Shostakovich have new life and fresh significance today as the world trembles, anticipating the full consequences of the horrific Russian aggression unleashed by its unhinged leader.2022~Sibelius 2-06

Written by Vladivostok native Borisova-Ollis, a longtime Swedish citizen, in 2008 for the 850th anniversary of Munich, Germany, Angelus had its long-overdue United States premiere. Nor was the Chicago-born Kamensek unworthy of the honor, having conducted the 2022 Grammy-Award winning recording of Philip Glass’s Akhnaten with the Metropolitan Opera. Although the upstage at Knight Theater wasn’t lit up with Ukraine’s colors, there certainly was an auspicious tableau – and a sense of occasion – as a phalanx of percussionists were spread across the rear of the orchestra, bells and drums and cymbals further brightened by the sounds of piano, celesta, and a pair of harps. The composer’s account of how she fulfilled the Munich Philharmonic Orchestra’s commission, reprinted in the digital program, lays heavy stress on the stroll she took through the city and the recordings she made of its church bells, so that aspect of the piece, underscored by Kamensek’s spoken intro was eagerly anticipated – a pacific, spiritual answer to Putin’s insane “de-Nazification” rallying cries.2022~Sibelius 2-25

What was surprising for me, especially in light of Borisova-Ollis’s description of the opening of her Angelus as “a hint of a Celtic chant,” was hearing principal violist Benjamin Geller playing a melody, over soft tremolos from the string section, that unmistakably resembled a traditional Passover song, one that I had heard in synagogue as recently as that morning. The predicted bells would eventually arrive in three or four waves, but not before we heard from the trumpet, the horns, the timpani, and the clarinet. Extending beyond 20 minutes, not at all a bonbon typically programmed at the beginning of concerts, the piece was studded with unusual instrumental effects – like a brief organ-tuba duet – and swirling, cresting climaxes. Even as she built to the first tolling of the tubular bells, Kamensek’s interpretation was more bustling and boisterous than Skari Oramo’s relatively quiescent recording for BIS with the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic. Since Kamensek lists one Borisova-Ollis’s operas, Dracula, among her credits, expect to hear more from this composer-conductor pairing in the future.

Shostakovich completed his first Violin Concerto just one month after his denunciation, but he and violinist David Oistrakh, for whom the work was dedicated, had to wait over two years after Stalin’s death – more than seven years in all – to respectively hear and perform the premiere. Although I own two of the Oistrakh recordings you can access on Spotify, I can only trace two prior occasions when I heard this epic piece performed live, once by the Charlotte Symphony in 2001, when young Caitlin Tully was hampered by the acoustics of the First United Methodist Church, and once at the Verbier Festival in 2006, when violinist Vadim Rapin conductor Yuri Temirkanov fired off all its burners with a student orchestra that was on a par with the Spoleto Festival’s.2022~Sibelius 2-11

Charlotte Symphony subscribers greeted concertmaster Calin Ovidiu Lupanu with an ovation that probably would have startled Repin himself, and the violinist seemed buoyed by the occasion. While Lupanu didn’t quite replicate the sublimity of the opening Nocturne in the 1956 recording by the Leningrad Philharmonic with Oistrakh and maestro Yevgeny Mravinsky, he came breathtakingly close, enough to earn another ovation between movements, and the slashing energy and brightness he brought to the ensuing Scherzo – coupled with the brio Kamensek drew from Symphony in this catchiest movement – earned an even more-deserved ovation afterwards.

Kamensek and the CSO met the grand challenge of the Passacaglia, infusing it with martial gravity, and Lupanu played with more eloquence and fire than I’ve ever heard from him, carrying forward a thrilling momentum into the Andante – Cadenza portion of that movement and, without an interval for the audience to express its enthusiasm, into the final Burlesque, the shortest section of the work. Cheated of the chance to explode after the Cadenza by the onset of timpani for the Burlesque, the audience redoubled its fervor at the rousing conclusion. Fortunately, Lupanu had an encore at-the-ready, a lovely Sarabande from Bach’s Partita No. 2, the first encore performed at a CSO concert since before the pandemic.

Of course, if you were among the legions who can’t get enough Sibelius, the Symphony No. 2 after intermission, while significantly statelier and more reposeful than the concerto, was anything but an anticlimax. However neatly the oppressed narrative might fit current anti-Russian sentiments, Kamensek seemed to take the quieter episodes of the opening Allegro as subdued rather than oppressed, with an incipient optimism ready to burst forth with ebullience or blossom into grandeur. The opening of the ensuing Andante, ma rubato can sound morose and grim on recordings, but at the Knight, where the pizzicatos of the basses and cellos could sound lighter and livelier, buoyancy lurked within the quietude, so transitions to anger and reflection sounded more natural. Once again, the two final movements were linked without an interval, punctuated by another brief timpani tattoo, but this time followed with trumpet heraldry and a grand orchestral flowering. Repeated lulls and swellings reaffirmed the triumph, beautifully calibrated and fervently delivered.

Originally published on 4/24 at CVNC.org

Biff! POW!! Welcome to Geek Theatre

Review: She Kills Monsters at The Arts Factory

By Perry Tannenbaum

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The curtain is finally going up in Charlotte on the works of playwright Qui Nyugen, the American son of Vietnamese parents who founded the Vampire Cowboys Theatre Company back in 2000. Soon afterwards, Nyugen’s brainchild transplanted from Ohio to Off-Broadway – where it became the first theatre company sponsored by NY Comic Con and the wellspring of “Geek Theatre.” Emphasizing sci-fi, stage combat, and gaming – with a biff! POW! comic book edge – Nyugen’s 2011 comedy-drama She Kills Monsters is typical of the breed.

Of course, the monsters are no more real onstage at The Arts Factory than they are in Dungeons & Dragons tabletop role playing. Try outlandish costumes, fantasy projections, and puppets.

So this co-production from Charlotte’s Off-Broadway and Women-In-Plays, directed by Sheri Marvin, is plenty of fun, much louder than it is fearsome. Yet there is a serious side to Agnes Evans’ quest for the Lost Soul of Athens in the fantasy realm of New Landia. Wresting the stolen Lost Soul from the fearsome five-headed Tiamat isn’t truly the crux of Agnes’s quest. Nor was it stolen, precisely, for we’re back in 1995, when demon overlord Orcus actually traded the soul for a neat TV/VCR combo.1

Agnes, a humdrum high-school English teacher, is on a quest to connect after losing her parents and her younger sister, Tillie, in a car accident. While preparing to liquidate her childhood home and move in with longtime boyfriend Miles, Agnes stumbles upon an unfinished Dungeons & Dragons module that Tillie has left behind – a first baby step toward realizing just how little she knew about her little sister while she was alive. Taking the module to Chuck, the notorious Dragon Master of Athens (Ohio), big sister learns that Tillie remains a D&D legend, revered as Tillius the Paladin in the gaming world.

More humbling secrets lie ahead as Agnes enters the fantasy world of her sister’s legacy: Tillie was gay, and she was bullied at school – the school where Agnes teaches. Of course, live theatre heightens the impact of these revelations, thanks to some subtle nudging from Nyugen and a logical plot twist. Tillie is in the game as one of the companions who helps Agnes on her quest, and she’s a central character in the storyline. Nyugen enables Agnes to effortlessly converse with Tillius, who comes back to life during their adventures, giving the action hero a chance to vent the resentments she still feels toward her neglectful sister.6

Friends of Tillie’s are in the storyline as well, along with Miles, who is cast as one the obstacles who must be slain if Agnes and her companions are to have their rendezvous with the five-headed Tiamat. So are the bullies, succubi named Evil Gabbi and Evil Tina, aliases that are not at all obscure. Of course, as Agnes shuttles between the role-playing D&D world and real life, she encounters all of Tillie’s companions – and enemies – at school.

And since the same actors portray the characters Tillie invented and the people they are modeled after, the difference between the fantasy world and the real world is largely erased, far more for us than Agnes, who is presumably encountering the tabletop D&D dramatis personae as plastic action figures.

If you can manage to take so much silliness seriously, you might descry a distinct vein of feminism in Marvin’s directing, for the men, when not merely annoying, consistently deliver their villainous vaunts at high volume. Kudos, then, to Nyugen as well for upending this traditionally masculine world of geekery. Needless to say, the real heavy lifting is done by our mostly female clan of heroic gladiators under the guidance of fight choreographer Katie Bearden and fight captain Nathan Morris, who moonlights as Dragon Master Chuck.5

Lighting by Sean Kimbro decisively marks the borders between Agnes’ worlds. But the costumes by Ramsey Lyric enhance the fun and immerse us in Nyugen’s quirky fantasy. The tight leather action suit sported by Charlie Grass as Tillius, along with her dungeon war paint, instantly grabs our attention, the Viking war gear of her party dimly gleams its savagery, and the monkish cowl enveloping Morris as Chuck marks him as a mystic master of the dark D&D arts. Juxtaposed with these costumes, with Lyric’s fabrications representing New Landia outlandish ogres, and with his climactic Tiamat, Luna Mackie as Agnes looks rather humdrum in her functional everyday attire.

While Mackie is toughening as Agnes, Grass is softening as the resentful warrior sister, a gradual and graceful rapprochement overall with numerous bumps along the way, as Tillie drops one revelation after another. Mackie doesn’t immediately strike us as having much adventure queen potential, but her speedy transformation is nicely gauged – if you consider the difference between the learning curve of a board game and an apprenticeship for a black belt.

Rushed or not, Mackie’s metamorphosis is stunning: she absolutely rocks the role of Agnes the Asshatted. Yet there might be some in the audience who see Grass as playing the title role. They are that good, for we can see the softness and vulnerability behind the black leather and the black war paint as soon as they stride onto the scene. Their ferocity is a volatile mix of bellicose energy and pent-up resentment. There’s enough sincere force coming from Grass for Mackie to be genuinely shaken, so Agnes’s perseverance became authentic and ultimately admirable on opening night. For just a moment, the rapprochement of the sisters was rather moving for me.

Now we can get somber and sententious about the bullying and gender crises we witness here, but it’s back in 2011 when Nyugen writes his Vampire Cowboy romp and 1995 when he sets the action. So for Marvin and her cast, this is signal enough for outsized posturing from heroes and villains alike, epic declamations of WrestleMania proportions, mixed with the stereotypes and pettiness of a high school sitcom.9

While Mackie and Grass are admirably divided within, Caleb Hinkley as Miles gets to play two separate versions of the same person, big sister’s boyfriend that Tillie despises and the D&D distortion of him that Tillius can destroy. Kaeleigh Miller as Kelly and Kaliope, Joe Watson as Ronnie and Orcus, and Charlie Napier as Steve are also recognizably twin versions, real and imaginary, of the same people. For the evil succubi, Nevaeh Woolens as Tina and Michelle Strom as Gabbi, the gulf between reality and fantasy pointedly diminishes, for both are cheerleaders in Athens and New Landia – with bloodier tops and mouths as succubi.

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Amari Rice may have the most lighthearted pair of roles as Vera, an incompetent guidance counselor in real life, and The Beholder, an appropriately short-lived enemy in New Landia. Easily the most poignant and affecting dual roles belong to Elizabeth Marvin. When we first meet her in New Landia, Marvin as Lilith is a horned demon queen who is Tillius’s closest companion, wielding a wicked battle axe, but in real life she is Lily, no boldness to her whatsoever, shyly denying any past relationship with Tillie, and likely in the closet.

Mostly bellowing, officiating, and narrating under his mystical hood as our Dungeon Master, Morris as Chuck subtly changes in the real high school world as he introduces Agnes to her late sister’s friends and tormentors. But learning the true-life identity of Tillius the Paladin, Chuck clearly sparks Agnes’s curiosity – and her epic D&D adventure – with his open, larger-than-life admiration. Under the radar, he is also learning about Tillie and Agnes as he presides over the elder sister’s D&D initiation.

In that respect, Chuck’s journey is the most like our own. Forget about Greek tragedy, and enjoy Geek theatre.