Tag Archives: Jennifer Huddleston

Charlotte Symphony Spotlights the Balcony in “Romeo and Juliet” Tribute

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By Perry Tannenbaum

May 20, 2016, Charlotte, NC – A distinguished scholar who taught my undergrad Shakespeare course once told us that a precious folio edition of the Bard’s plays was on display at one of England’s most prestigious libraries, available to all to peruse, and that the most well-worn page in the whole book – by far – was the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. “Rightly so,” she added after a brief pause, defusing my presumption that she was about to sneer at popular taste. Charlotte Symphony Orchestra musical director Christopher Warren-Green might very well agree with my professor’s sentiments, for at the latest KnightSounds concert, he programmed that scene twice in succession, underscoring the fact that we still haven’t tired of that balcony 400 years after Shakespeare’s death.

Helping the demonstration at Knight Theater were emissaries from UNC Charlotte’s Theatre Department and Charlotte Ballet. Charlotte-based soprano Melinda Whittington helped to similarly double-underline the appeal of two other prime Juliet moments. So in the space of a mere 70 minutes, 50 less than the “two hours’ traffic of our stage” promised in the tragedy’s prologue, we not only had orchestral and operatic works inspired by Shakespeare’s first great tragedy, we had the lovers themselves speaking the lines of their most memorable scenes.

Tchaikovsky, Gounod, Prokofiev, and Nino Rota all took their cues from the blank verse and rhymed couplets in different ways. Of course, Tchaikovsky’s famed Fantasy-Overture wasn’t written for any specific production of Romeo and Juliet. With three fully developed themes for Friar Lawrence, the Montague-Capulet strife, and the R&J romance, the flavor of the piece is more like a Liszt tone poem than a true overture. About half the size of a Tchaikovsky symphony, the KnightSounds performance quickly offered us opportunities to savor the work of the clarinets, the double basses, the violins, the French horns, the cellos, the flutes, and harpist Andrea Mumm.

At the same time, the performance was streamed outdoors to the plaza at the nearby plaza on the Levine Avenue of Arts, and the screen hovering above the Knight Theater stage gave us the pleasure of seeing what the outdoor audience saw with the added thrill of the live sound. There were more than enough cameras deftly at work to prove that this video production had been nearly as meticulously rehearsed as the music. We didn’t cut to the French horns or the cellos in the early going, and the cameras later settled on the second violins too late and missed English hornist Terry Maskin entirely. Yet overall, direction was quite polished.

Romeo & Juliet 'Plazacast' Closes KnightSounds Sitting toward the front of the orchestra, I found that the cameras consistently revealed who was playing upstage when the musicians in front of them blocked my sightline. My fears of being overwhelmed by the sheer loudness of the orchestra were also allayed: the acoustic shell that graces the Knight stage gathers in the orchestral sound while still allowing it to breathe. This was different from the old school presentation that the CSO brought us of the Fantasy-Overture at Belk Theater in 2011, and while there was little to prefer musically at either performance, I have to say that the camera work lifted the current experience above the one I praised five years ago, enriching what I saw and heard then with occasional close-ups of Warren-Green’s expressions.

I had little hopes for the UNC Charlotte segments of the evening, with Jennifer Huddleston appearing as Juliet and Sammy Hajmahmoud as Romeo. When their stage director, Professor Andrew Hartley, appeared onstage to recite Shakespeare’s prologue, he didn’t exactly fire up my hopes. Nor was I initially impressed with Hajmahmoud when he initially came onstage to launch the party scene where the masked Romeo first meets Juliet. But Huddleston was pure luminosity as Juliet, instantly proving the advantage of casting the role as youthfully as possible. The glow of her performance magically turned Hajmahmoud’s halting awkwardnesses into virtues and he gradually relaxed into Romeo, further igniting their chemistry. Together they grew irresistibly charming, somewhat upstaging their elders when they followed.

13263907_1718667768397005_7712306438347482717_nAfter Huddleston, Whittington seemed woefully mature as Juliette singing the bubbly “Je veux vivre” from Gounod’s opera. The costume she wore was comparatively formal and neither the suppleness of her coloratura nor the lightness of her tone matched what we hear from elite sopranos in this showpiece. But she returned later in the concert and absolutely scorched Juliette’s “Potion Aria,” demonstrating the power that opera can add to turbulent moments of indecision. Huddleston and Hajmahmoud do all the potions and suicides as well, but their most glorious moments – and Hartley’s as well – come when they do the balcony scene.

Romeo initiates the scene onstage, but a spotlight cues us to the likelihood that Juliet will appear in the box seat section of the Knight’s balcony. It’s absolutely sublime when she does. Part of the magic is sculptural, after all, for the moonlit Juliet is not only more divine at a height, Romeo is more ardent and worshipful below her with his upward gaze. Hartley played around with the usual blocking and Romeo’s climbing up and down, but somehow he contrived to have Juliet down at the orchestra level and onstage for the latter half of the scene and its exquisite farewells.

The “Balcony Scene Pas de Deux” from Prokofiev’s ballet score had to follow this sublimity, and the presence of two eminent Charlotte Ballet principals, Josh Hall and Alexandra Ball, helped to ease the descent. Hall and Ball were so impressive, in fact, that I fairly well ignored Prokofiev’s music and the excellence of the orchestra. But as majestic as the lifts were – Ball’s hands as she rises have a musicality that most ballerinas can only envy – the sculptural advantages of the theatrical staging we had just seen were surrendered, along with Hajmahmoud’s touching awkwardness and Huddleston’s youth. An impossibly acrobatic final kiss partially compensated for those missing elements

After the stunning sequence of balcony scenes and potion scenes, the concert grew more somber with Rota’s “Romeo and Juliet: A Renaissance Timepiece” and Hartley’s pronouncement of the tragedy’s concluding lines. Until I heard CSO’s performance, I’d assumed that the Rota melody most familiar to me was his “Theme from The Godfather.” As often as I’ve heard that tune over the years, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’d heard Rota’s Romeo and Juliet melody even more often. The familiar melody nestles nicely in a composition that has more to offer, with some gorgeous work from Mumm, oboist Hollis Ulaky, and flutists Amy Orsinger Whitehead and Erica Cice.

An evening that I expected to be pleasantly light and superficial turned out to be rich and deeply satisfying. Programs were in the funky style that usually characterizes the KnightSounds series, but they are augmented by the Charlotte Symphony app that can be downloaded to your smartphone. You can get bios of the featured professionals from this app as you ease into your seat – it’s general admission, so early arrival can be recommended. While I couldn’t confirm my suspicion that Charlotte Ballet artistic director Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux was the choreographer, the app did supply translations of the Gounod arias.

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UNC Charlotte Drops a Russian Clown into the Cogs of Heiner Müller’s “Hamletmachine”

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By Perry Tannenbaum

March 19, 2016, Charlotte, NC – More than with most scripts, it’s difficult to say what exactly Heiner Müller had in mind when he wrote Hamletmachine in 1977. Performances of Müller’s plays were banned in East Germany until the fall of the Berlin Wall, so the 1979 world premiere was presented – in translation – in Paris, and when Müller himself finally directed the piece for the first time in his homeland, it was as the play-within-a-play in a far larger 1990 production of Hamlet, presumably in his own translation since that what was what he had completed before embarking on his own.

Looking at this script, which occupies just three pages in The Wadsworth Anthology of Drama (4th ed.), I’d have to say it’s presumptuous to call it a play at all, for it doesn’t offer a list of characters and doesn’t actually assign any dialogue to anyone until the second of its five parts. We can hardly greet that as a clarifying moment when Müller writes, “Ophelia (Chorus/Hamlet): I am Ophelia.” Nor is the custom of attribution religiously observed afterwards in a text that often resembles T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land in its stream-of-consciousness style and allusiveness. We should not be surprised that the current production at UNC Charlotte’s Robinson Hall, presented by the College of Arts + Architecture at the Anne R. Belk Theater, not only boasts three directors but also three Ophelias and four Hamlets in a production that clocked in at just under 38 minutes.

A wide latitude of interpretation is built into the text, which explains the fact that one Japanese production lasted 12 hours. That surely isn’t the outer limit, for Müller decrees “Snow. Ice Age,” after the executions of Marx, Lenin, and Mao at the end of Part IV. Yet I must say that the UNC Charlotte production follows the text far more closely – and recognizably – than the previous production I saw in Charlotte, presented by Off-Tryon Theatre Company as part of a double bill with Rosencrantz and Guilderstern Are Dead in 2005. Leading the all-female directing team, UNCC assistant professor Robin Witt has eliminated (among other things) the appearances of King Claudius, the striptease by Ophelia, and the gravestones or lecterns that should be the university of the dead in Part III. A whole motif involving Hamlet’s armor and his axe is altered beyond recognition, and the executions of the Communist trinity, which should have been done by Hamlet with that axe, are now done bloodlessly by hanging.

I’m not sure whether there was a malfunction in Benjamin J. Stickels’ sound design, but I never discerned the voices of Lenin, Mao, and Marx, though three are listed for them in the program booklet. Similarly, the men and women dressed in white by costume designer Beth Killion are all designated as Chorus in the playbill, so I wasn’t aware until later, when I’d revisited the script, that the segment choreographed by Alex Baesen was a ballet of the dead women. It looked more like a dance of angels to me, though the woman with the little stove around her head should have told me that she was a suicide or a Holocaust victim.

There are also additions to the script by Witt and her team, including Marc Smith as a German Speaker and, most conspicuously, Kineh N’Gaojia as a Russian Clown who beautifully sings Leon Russell’s “A Song for You” for no particular reason. Before her concluding monologue as Ophelia Wheelchair, Raven Monroe inserts Todd Rundgren’s “Can We Still Be Friends.” Of course, when she begins her monologue declaring, “This is Electra speaking,” and ends by vaguely alluding to the Manson Family and Sqeaky Fromme, it’s hard to be sure who Monroe is as the lights go down on her in her wheelchair.

The sinew of Müller’s text is given when Hamlet Flag (née The Actor Playing Hamlet) has his long monologue in Part IV, “Pest in Buda / Battle for Greenland.” I’d say that the upshot of this ramble, ably delivered by Matt Miller, is that the revolutionaries who had ushered in the triumph of Communism in Eastern Europe had succeeded so well that they had rendered the possibility of current and future revolutions extinct. Looking frankly at himself, the Actor Playing Hamlet asserts that the Hamlet who once was, the brooding assassin who engineered a coup d’état, no longer exists and can no longer exist. The executions that follow are merely wishful thinking – by a populace of Hamlets who remained too indecisive too long.

Jamie Gonzalez was my favorite among the Ophelias. Her heart is not visibly a clock as the text demands. Instead, she is wheeled onstage as Ophelia Bed to deliver her lurid monologue, giving her a kinship with the Ophelia Wheelchair to come. No such connections are attempted among the Hamlets, since all four of them parade in front of us at the outset. Noah Tepper seems like he will be dominant as Hamlet Skull, conversing with a puppet Horatio (Brittany White), but he is succeeded by Tykiique Cuthkelvin as Hamlet Book and Jennifer Huddleston as Hamlet Axe before Miller’s Flag takes over. The gender bending in Witt’s casting becomes plausible enough when Miller’s Hamlet announces, “I want to be a woman.” He gets his wish when the Chorus surrounds him and dresses him up as Ophelia, but he’s back in tacky 1970s leisure wear by the time he launches into his big monologue.

While the thrust of Müller’s script is unmistakably an outcry against living under totalitarianism, its production at UNCC paradoxically affirms the benefits of dictatorship. It’s not a total coincidence that the most admired production of this piece, the 1986 revival directed by Robert Wilson (even Müller preferred it to his own), was presented at another university, NYU. Not only can university professors ignore commercial viability when deciding what they present on their stages, they can lavish resources upon each project that leave the prudential considerations of capitalism deeper in the dust.

That is the true wonder to behold when comparing the staging at Robinson Hall to the Off-Tryon version I saw in 2005. Tom Burch’s scenic design lifts this production to a frightful level of gritty German expressionism that is simply phenomenal, mirrored by the imaginative artistry of the props and costumes. Primitive stairways lead up to a platform where the mutilated German Speaker can babble, and the wall behind that platform is large enough to project the titles of each of the five parts we’re watching. When the script alludes to a television, Burch can deploy four of them, each one broadcasting nothing more than white noise.

The obvious reward of such excess is a Hamletmachine that is vivid and engaging – but no less mystifying than it is on the page. No doubt the post-performance discussion following the Saturday evening performance was helpful for amazed and baffled audience members who remained afterwards, and another discussion is scheduled with the cast and designers after the March 21 performance. Otherwise, there’s plenty to be gleaned from dramaturg Jeanmarie Higgins’ program note and the handy Tumblr website she and her dramaturgy students have established online.

© 2016 CVNC + Perry Tannenbaum