Sunday, November 20, 2011

Anyone Can Epistle

"Egads, how epic, how exciting!" exclaimed the epileptic egalitarian with especially effortless exuberance. "This exquisite example of eye-popping eccentricity is the epitome of ethical earned excellence embedded in ethnic educational entertainment. Any exaggerated effort to deny its equally ebullient and ecstatically electrical effect (while exigently pushing the envelope with excessive ├ęclat) would be easily earmarked --  explained as an egregious excuse for embarking on an evil exploitation of encrypted emails!"

Others, of course, might refer to such esoteric epistles as exceptionally eager, enigmatic pieces of experimental excrement -- or eclectic endeavors to mix egotism with endless elitism.

Enter those words as empirical evidence that this extra elegant message has been brought to you by the letter "E." It should also be noted that writing these three paragraphs was way more fun than sitting through the Aurora Theatre Company's new production of A Soldier's Tale.

Based on a concept by former San Francisco Ballet prima ballerina Muriel Maffre, this production adds a four-foot-tall puppet to the 1918 work featuring music by Igor Stravinsky.  The score accompanies a libretto by C. F. Ramuz in which the devil aims to capture the soul of a poor soldier who is on leave for two weeks.

According to Tom Ross, Aurora's artistic director (who co-directed the piece with Maffre), the production's first outing took place in 2006 at the Orcas Island Chamber Music Festival. Using a slightly reduced orchestration for Stravinsky's music, the Berkeley staging features:
  • L. Peter Callender as the narrator and voice of the soldier.
  • Joan Mankin as the devil in a variety of disguises.
  • Muriel Maffre as the puppeteer and, later on, the daughter of the king.
Muriel Maffre guides the Soldier down a ramp
in A Soldier's Tale (Photo by: David Allen)

There's just one problem. The raison d'etre for this dismal production is to perform the piece with a puppet representing the soldier. What would happen if any of this show's key elements were removed from the production?
  • If the role of the narrator was eliminated, there would be no story.
  • If the role of the devil was eliminated, there would be no conflict.
  • If the puppet was eliminated, there would be no reason to mount this production.
And therein lies a very sad kernel of truth. Ms. Maffre's contribution seems like an artistic indulgence at best. The real stars of this production are Donald Pippin's easily accessible translation of Ramuz's libretto and a gripping performance by the ever-wonderful Joan Mankin.

L. Peter Callender, Joan Mankin, and Muriel Maffre in
A Soldier's Tale (Photo by: David Allen)

The opening night performance of A Soldier's Tale, which lasted approximately 75 minutes, was hardly what one would call a compelling piece of dance theatre. With all due respect to Ms. Maffre, the production concept (which seemed more like a well-intentioned artistic fantasy rather than a 93-year-old work in need of revival) struck me as a disappointing and tedious academic exercise that would have been much more at home in a university theatre department.

* * * * * * * * *
The opening night of the San Francisco run for the national tour of Fela! was quite the opposite. A rip-roaring piece of total theatre built on the concept of "recreating" one of Fela Anikulapo Kuti's 1977 concerts at the Afrikan Shrine in Lagos, Nigeria, the show's breathtaking energy level keeps audiences enthralled for more than two hours.

Born in Abeokuta, Nigeria in 1938, Fela Kuti became an international star whose combination of traditional Yoruba, highlife, and jazz gave rise to a potent new sound (Afrobeat) which he took to stages around the world. Prior to his death on August 2, 1997,  Fela had produced over 70 albums. Many of his songs are performed during Fela!

Fela Kuti was known for his blunt political activism as well as for his music. As I sat watching Fela! unfold, I was struck by how much closer this show came to representing the spirit of today's Occupy Wall Street movement than the recent revival of Hair (1968's hit counter-culture protest musical). In the following video clip, dancer/choreographer/author Bill T. Jones  and Carlos Moore (the author of Fela: This Bitch of a Life) discuss what Fela Kuti was like in real life:

Thanks to an electrifying performance by the athletic Sahr Ngaujah as Fela Kuti, opening night kept the Curran Theatre rocking like a house on fire. Much of the credit for the production's success goes to Jones (who co-wrote the show's book with Jim Lewis). However, a great deal of the production's visual appeal is due to Marina Draghici, who designed the sets and costumes for Fela!

In addition to Sahr Ngaujah's powerhouse performance in the title role, the touring cast features two women with stunning soprano voices. As Sandra, Paulette Ivory's singing cuts through the air like cold, lemon-coated steel.

Paulette Ivory and Sahr Ngaujah (Photo by: Tristram Kenton)

As Fela's mother, Funmilayo -- often referred to as "The Mother of Africa" --  Melanie Marshall brings a powerful set of pipes to "Rain" (music by Aaron Johnson and Jordan McLean with lyrics by Bill T. Jones and Jim Lewis). This beautifully-staged showstopper can be seen in the following clip (taken from the original Broadway production) featuring Lillias White:

Jones keeps his cast in perpetual motion while encouraging audience participation early in the show to help create the feeling of an  event. Strengthened by Robert Wierzel's lighting and Peter Negrini's projections, Fela! takes on a look, sound, and feel all its own. The show takes off like a rocket and stays in orbit until the house lights come up at the end of the evening.

Performances of Fela! continue through December 11 at the Curran Theatre (click here to order tickets).  Here's the trailer:

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