Friday, February 24, 2012

The Demons Within

Thirty years ago, Miami was a much quieter place than it is today.
I attended that unfortunate world premiere as locals worried about a huge tropical storm coming ashore. Nothing particularly exciting was happening in the theatre where, during intermission, I heard one Florida matron mutter "Really, Estelle, who wants to go to an opera about nuclear war on their bridge night?"

Critics unanimously roasted Minutes Till Midnight, which starred the husband-and-wife team of Thomas Stewart and Evelyn Lear (who were familiar to South Florida's audiences). Lear, who had starred in the world premieres of Reuben, Reuben (a 1955 opera by Marc Blitzstein), Alkmene (a 1961 piece by Giselher Klebe), Die Verlobung in San Domingo (a 1963 opera by Werner Egk), Mourning Becomes Electra (Marvin David Levy's 1967 adaptation of Eugene O'Neill's play), and The Seagull (Thomas Pasatieri's 1974 adaptation of Chekhov's classic) had lost all respect for the librettist (who thought it would be easy to sing words like "uniform-ed thugs are on the prowl").

Later that summer, when I visited Stewart and Lear at their home in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Evelyn related how she had given the composer a piece of her mind following the premiere. When Ward entered her dressing room toward the end of the run and asked if she could suggest any musical cuts for future productions, Lear threw her score on the dressing room floor and told him in no uncertain terms that there weren't going to be any future productions of Minutes Till Midnight.

The final paragraph of my review of Minutes Till Midnight stated that "The result was an evening sunk by overproduction to cover a very frail story structure. Despite the huge investment of time and talent, one couldn't help but wonder if the composer had long since lost touch with modern times or if the Miami Festival itself was doomed to begin with a stillborn birth."

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That's pretty much how I felt after the lights came up following the Cutting Ball Theatre's world premiere of Tontlawald, a 65-minute long performance piece crafted by Paige Rogers, Eugenie Chen, Annie Paladino, and Laura Arrington. Heavily inspired by the work of a Polish theatre company, Paladino explains that
"Teatr ZAR’s work carries impact and meaning far beyond what one might expect based on the simple and archetypal (truly, Biblical) themes that anchor their pieces. This is because of the deep personal, cultural, and spiritual connection that exists between the performers/creators and their source material (namely, the songs) -- the performance becomes, in some ways, a kind of ritualized reproduction of years and years of culture, history, and collective memory. Even though the audience may not understand these connections and meaning explicitly, implicitly we are moved and affected by the transformations that are evident in the performers’ bodies and voices.

In our work on this piece, Paige, Laura and I have pushed ourselves and each other to explore what can be accomplished artistically and thematically with song, text, and physicality. We have striven to value each of these components as truly equal, and searched out ways in which each can be its own source of meaning (e.g., the act of singing, in and of itself, carrying the meaning of a certain moment, rather than supporting dialogue or a plot event). Following that impulse, but with our own personal and cultural histories to draw upon, our process for creating Tontlawald has consistently been about braving the unknown -- a trajectory that dovetails with Lona’s journey in the fairy tale, interestingly."

To my mind, the real stars of the evening are set designer Silvie Deutsch and music coach John Bischoff. Although Tontlawald starts strongly in darkness, it quickly implodes under the weight of its own concept and pretensions. After years of writing about opera, it's fairly easy to explain why.

Because we live in such an amplified world (in which most of the sound we hear has been electronically engineered), when audiences hear the human voice singing without any enhancement the purity of the sound comes as a genuine shock. The smaller the performance space, the bigger the shock.

Madeline H.D. Brown and Rebecca Frank appear in Tontlawald
Photo by: Annie Paladino

Tontlawald is essentially an ensemble's creative exercise in using motion, sound technique, and minimal text as a basis for improvisation. Ultimately, the show drives a wedge between "true believers" and those who (like myself) fail to come under the project's magic spell. For all of the creative team's earnest attempts to create mood, symbolism, depth, and despair, the painful truth is that there really is no there there.

Other than Deutsch's set, the most impressive part of the evening is the ensemble's a cappella singing (and passages of coordinated breathing). Unfortunately, these elements become most effective when the ensemble is harmonizing passages whose only words are "Section Three," "Section Five" and other chapter headings meant to link the barely perceivable narrative. Take away these chapter headings and it becomes painfully obvious that there is no play.

Sam Gibbs and Wiley Naman Strasser appear in Tontlawald
Photo by: Annie Paladino

Members of the ensemble included Madeline H.D. Brown, Rebecca Frank, Sam Gibbs, Cindy Im, Marilet Martinez, Wiley Naman Strasser, Meg O'Connor, and Liz Wand. The fact that the opening night audience wasn't sure when Tontlawald actually came to an end offers a sad comment on the piece's appalling lack of structure as well as its inability to keep the audience involved.

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The clarity of Modern Family (an 18-minute Korean film that will receive its North American premiere at the 30th San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival) is one of its obvious strengths. Although I'm not usually drawn to horror as a genre, I tip my hat to Kwang-Bin Kim. This is a talented writer/director who knows what his story is, where it has to go dramatically, and gets there with meticulous skill.

Sung-il Park stars as Hyun-soo, a male executive who keeps getting interrupted during a business meeting by phone calls from his young son. Although Hyun-Soo tries to get the boy to stop using the telephone as a toy, when his son says "It won't stop bleeding," the worried father dashes out of his meeting and races home.

Sung-il Park stars as Hyun-Soo in Modern Family

Upon arriving at their residence, Hyun-soo sees his son's arm drenched in blood as the boy stands quietly in the doorway, holding a toy. Upon entering the bedroom, he discovers that  Myung-jin (Dong-woo Yoo) has stabbed a playmate to death.  Why? After Myung-jin won a game they were playing, the other boy refused to hand over his toy. So Myung-jin killed him.

Dong-woo Yoo and Sung-il Park in Modern Family

When Hyun-soo's wife, Eun-jung (Na-Mi Yoo) returns from shopping, she discovers her husband and child covered in blood. As the couple struggle to cope with the afternoon's events, they are interrupted by the dead child's mother. As the old saying goes: "The family that slays together, stays together."

Having dismembered two bodies and stuffed them into rolling suitcases, Hyun-soo heads for the woods, with his wife and child in tow. As he digs a grave, his son quietly plays with his new toy. The true horror of the film is what Hyun-soo tells Myung-jin in the film's final moments.

Sung-il Park, Dong-woo Yoo, and Na-Mi Yoo  in Modern Family

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