Notes from Philly weblog

Jasper’s Philly debut

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Jasper Quartet
Astral Artists
October 17, 2010
Trinity Urban Center

The Jasper Quartet opened Astral Artists’ season Sunday. The debut was thrilling, Four strings, none under 30, in a town where we are accustomed to great quartets. The artists, in residence at Oberlin Conservatory, played Schubert, Beethoven and Aaron Kernis. Trinity Center for Urban Life was packed: this audience knows what to expect. But the Jasper Quartet was even by Astral’s standard’s a surprise: the refinement, the beauty of tone – the rich, unified sonority – it reminded of eminences. —–

The Schubert Quartetsatz could not have not have made a better start: a string cyclone, pulsing out its melancholy. Then, Kernis’s Second Quartet (Quartet No. 2) the one that won the Pulitzer. The first movement (“Overture”) is built upon Baroque and Renaissance dances though they change so fast that unless he’d told you (which he did) you couldn’t have known. The structural integrity and intensity of the music is adept: the mix of old and new. “Sarabande Double, Sarabande Simple” has some beautiful ideas beautifully and cohesively linked though one stretch begins to veer toward the sentimental. The finale, “Double Triple Gigue Fugue,”is inspired by the finale of Beethoven’s Opus 59, No. 3, Razumovsky. Ideas crash and topple on another. The music makes a furious chaos. It blisters and these superlative players also make it work.

Beethoven’s Op. 59, No, 3 in C Major concluded. Hearing it in context with Kernis’s homage underscored Beethoven’s emotional struggles with his deafness which violist Sam Quintal discussed before the Jasper performed. Those brooding dissonances to set into balance the coming heroism. The singularity of the Andante’s unbearable lightness. The amazing fugue.

The Jasper’s sensitive members are J. Freivogel and Sae Niwa; cellist is Rachel Henderson Freivogel. Violist Quintal has an uncannily beautiful tone.


Written by Lesley Valdes

October 18, 2010 at 3:30 am

Macbeth: The Wilma’s first Shakespeare

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The Wilma
Oct. 7-Nov. 7, 2010

The Wilma‘s first foray into Shakespeare is Macbeth, The theatre has done itself proud with a production that features a handsome score by Czech composer Pavel Fjat (pronounce Fight) and sound design by Daniel Perelstein (it includes birds, street and battle noises.) There is aerial choreography Philly’s gifted Brian Sanders. Mimi Lien’s two-tier set evokes the menace and modernity that suits a monarchy edging toward its doom.

C.J. Wilson as Macbeth is convincing in his ambivalence; the warrior’s ambition at war with his morality and fear. As the play moves forward, the evil of his seductive spouse takes hold. I found Jacqueline Antaramian compelling as the self- centered Lady Macbeth, a character as determined in joy with evil – and sadly truer than even the wonderful Iago of Mark Delavan heard recently at the Opera Company’s Otello. These Macbeths are very modern. The interpretations are fascinating: the way the couple switch gears, his growing misdeeds give him power –and madness. Her evil dissolves into a lunatic despair.

The women who play the three weird sisters – or witches – are riveting. Some silly supernatural masks could go in the boil- and- bubble scene; the Sixties’ references in London seems unnecessary whimsy. But the handling of the ghost of Banquo is well done and Macbeth’s hallucinations; also the battle in the Burnham forest.

Least successful is the inconsistent delivery of the iambic pentameter: A challenge for the ensemble unpracticed in Shakespeare. The Bard must not be stilted or sound like poetry. Still: more lines and characters work than don’t: MacDuff, Banquo and Duncan also held my interest.

The beauty of this production is its momentum; the dramatic thrust. Director Blanka Zizka has made a good and oddly suitable operatic start with her first Shakespeare. The Wilma’s Macbeth until Nov. 7.

Written by Lesley Valdes

October 11, 2010 at 3:42 am


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Verdi’s Otello
Opera Company of Philadelphia
Sept. 30-Oct. 2010

Bad guys are the most fun when they sing like Mark Delavan, the Iago in the Opera Company of Philadelphia’s new production of Otello. Iago’s menace comes from the pleasure of revenge; the power of enjoying another’s weakness. Delavan understands and doesn’t rely on stereotype. He has a gorgeous baritone. He sets the snares for his love- torn employer. He spits out jealous asides. Opening night, Iago rolled onstage at the Academy of Music in a wheelchair because of a newly repaired meniscus. Knee pain or not, Delavan’s ran rings around everyone else in the excellent production. He was the schemer who believes life is mired in mud but enjoys playing in it.

If only Clifton Forbis’s Otello had been as persusasive. Forbis is one of two tenors (the other is Alan Glassman) to share the company’s assignment. The acting was sensitive and aptly contradictory in its emotional range. But the vocalism did not match up; nor hold the attention until the Moor’s pent-up jealousy began to rage in the later acts. Norah Amsellem’s soprano as Desdemona manages in power what it lacks in tonal beauty. Her acting somewhat compensates but the couple’s chemistry did not persuade. Margaret Mazecappa was the stoniest Emilia observed in some time, until that is she accused Otello of his crime. Cassio looked the part of a good soldier but the voice did not project.

Elizabeth Braden’s chorus was a giant success, resonant and thrilling. Maestro Corrado Rovaris’ drew from the pit most of Verdi’s demands and refinements.

The creative team worked theatrical magic; Otello’s set and production values had a splendor matched by this Iago’s pleasure in evil.

Written by Lesley Valdes

October 11, 2010 at 12:38 am

Posted in Opera, Shakespeare


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Michael Hollinger
The Arden Theater
Sept 15 –Nov. 7, 2010

In his seventh world premiere for the Arden, Michael Hollinger probes deeply and quietly into the mysteries of love and writing. Ghost-Writer, Hollinger’s new play is also a gift to his wife Meghan Bellwoar, who returns the gift with an accomplished and moving performance.
Bellwoar plays Myra Babbage, devoted secretary to novelist Franklin Woolsey, a role that demands her active presence on stage for Ghost-Writer’s entire ninety minutes. Myra is interviewed by an unseen interlocutor to determine if she is channeling or mimicking the words of the novelist who died in July with a manuscript near completion. It is November, 1919, in Manhattan. Myra insists she is not writing “only typing” and that she doesn’t believe in ghosts. “What is a ghost… a vivid memory?”

Douglas Rees as Mr. Woolsey also remains on stage throughout Ghost-Writer. He has less to say but the subtleties of gesture and inflection he employs convey meaning and express a period steeped in restraint. Bellwoar and Rees are very compatible. Bellwoar catches the complexities of a young woman of the last century and the wit, irritation and lively passion. Hollinger catches the tenor of language steeped in psychological nuance, wit and word play. Language to be savored for its quiet explosions.

The interpretation is beautiful in its movement from obsession to understanding into grief. Woolsey, upright, self-critical, belatedly unlocks forbidden feelings for his amanuensis. He has come to rely on Myra’s punctilious punctuation nor can the words come without the sound of her typewriting on only her instrument. She has been “tamed” of her jiggling, she reveals, attending over the years to his relaxed attentiveness to inspiration.

Theirs is a marriage of true minds. Since he is married, there are strictures. Once they dance, once he unburdens his heart then freezes. “We kissed and kissed,” Myra tells the interviewer. Then: clarifies “We would have kissed.” This is a true romantic.

Patricia Hodges as the overlooked Mrs. Woolsey appears and sounds imperious, vain, touchingly ignored, in short, ideal for the part but opening night her swift delivery and zig-zag movements were distracting and caricatured. She may need time to relax in the role. Mrs. Woolsey is given some of the play’s sharpest insights.

And if the words aren’t his? Myra alone with Mrs. Woolsey, struggles with this question.
“Well, then it’s just you alone in a room,” Mrs. Woolsey says. That’s called being a writer.
Ghost-Writer at the Arden through Nov. 7.

Written by Lesley Valdes

September 23, 2010 at 8:03 pm

Beckett’s First Love: Bravo Live Arts

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Live Arts….
First Love by Samuel Beckett
Gare St. Lazare Players Ireland
Suzanne Roberts Theatre
Sept. 3-5, 2010

Conor Lovett, of The Gare (pronounce: Gair) St. Lazare Players, Ireland, gave a brilliantly devastating depiction of Samuel Beckett’s rarely seen First Love opening weekend of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival. The work, from 1946, (but not published in 1971*) is so bleakly comic, the audience howled aloud. Artistic director Judy Hegearty-Lovett directed. In First Love, Lovett, portrays a man who hangs out in cemeteries and associates his marriage with the death of his father. Lovett, shaved head, poker face and short jacket immediately triggers a misunderstood, lost soul – ah, a Beckett man.

Lovett’s played most of them. He’s considered an imminent interpreter. (The performance told why.) The second half of the intermission-less First Love could have you gasping if you’re a woman who has loved a damaged man though there is no physical violence. The writing though uneven holds quirks and terrors. Love and freedom, this play asks: Are both possible?

*Why did the playwright wait so long? Speculation Beckett wanted to protect an acquaintance. There are two in this one-man play. The question that will stick once you’ve seen First Love. Which one.

Written by Lesley Valdes

September 8, 2010 at 2:54 pm

Mauckingbird’s “Dream”

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file0580Midsummer Night’s Dream
Mauckingbird Theatre Company
Aug. 20-Sept. 12, 2010
Randall Theater at Temple University

Mauckingbird Theatre Company views the classics through “a queer lens,” says co-founder and artistic director Peter Reynolds, who is (among other titles) also assistant chair of Temple’s theatre department. Mauckingbird, usually at the Adrienne, has new endeavors underway at Temple, including Shakespeare’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. Temple professor Lynne Innerst joins Reynolds as co-director. One pleasure of this large scale but intimate production is casting Temple students as the mechanicals and fairies. Danielle Pinnock has a key role as Nick Bottom and Pyramis in the play within the play.

The staging also benefits from Mike Long’s video design and Chris Colucci’s invigorating sound track. The story’s been updated to Athens Academy where everyone’s texting. The Duke about to get married is a headmaster; a patron wants his daughter Hermia to marry Demetrius. But Hermia has eyes only for Lysander, who in this production is a girl. And unlike the original, Helena, is a boy, which at first is unsettling. However, actor Patrick Joyce does so well with the role he overcomes even the confusing name. Times have changed! Mauckingbird’s mission with a few surgical incisions to the script makes it easy to see Shakespeare’s jousting love struck couples in the magic forest as two girls and two guys together and why not.

The play runs without intermission.

Unfortunately, the fairy queen and king are not so well matched as their attractive statures. Charles Illingworth’s Oberon exudes authority and compassion. Not so, Sean Thompson’s Titania who starts with a snippy attitude that ultimately undercuts the persuasion (and magic) of his better lines during Titania’s extraordinary dream scene with Bottom.

Pinnock’s Bottom overplays the comedy; the girl has promise; we’ll be seeing her again. She lights the black box.
Shakespeare’s Dream foreshadows The Tempest. He’s juggling imagination, the highs and lows of love, life, art. Bravo to Emily Letts and Erin Mulgrew; Brent Knobloch who plays Puck. Lauren Perigard’s costumes enhance the nonsense.

Written by Lesley Valdes

August 30, 2010 at 3:06 am

Henry V on Sansom Street

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Henry The Fifth
Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre
Classical Academy
August 4-15, 2010

The English are better at their history than we are. They have Shakespeare to thank for making leaders human. If you have trouble keeping the Henry Plays Straight, you may want to try Henry Fifth at the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre through Sunday. The Classical Academy run by the Theatre is doing a nice job with a complicated play. The academy is summer session for emerging theatre professionals. The performances at 21st and Sansom are free; best to call ahead for tickets or email.

Director Aaron Cromie uses the conceit of a classroom and it works. A teacher takes the role of Chorus. Fazeeh Fazeehpour’s simple classroom design becomes tavern, battlefield, and court. It is hard to keep the nine actors straight, in their school uniforms and backpacks since most of the cast takes multiple characters.

Fortunately Michael Gregory takes only the role of King Harry, or Henry the Fifth, who learns to battle royal insults from France before his ultimate great victory at Agincourt.

Gregory, who trained at the Hartt School, in Hartford, brings many colors to the role, he is at his strongest showing the pulls upon the crown; the qualms that rarely mean a good night’s sleep in a soliloquy that’s quite persuasive.
Nick Martorelli functions as the chorus.

Victoria Bonito is an engaging Lord Exeter, amusing Lady Katherine’s maid. Bethany Ditnes distinguishes her roles as Katherine and Montjoy. Amanda Bernhardt, Meredith Mitchell, Eric Wunsch, B.K Elam, Shaun Fury, complete assignments both serious and comic.

The confusions as to whom plays whom will not be unraveled until the conclusion of the second half but the Classical Acting Academy’s delivery of Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter is well done. Henry V on Sansom Street is not as much theater to watch as theater to listen to. Bravo to text coaches J. J. Van Name and John Peakes; bravo Aaron Cromie. The spoken lines are not self-conscious but they don’t lose the poetry or the music.

Written by Lesley Valdes

August 9, 2010 at 3:07 am