Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Sound Of Dead Silence...

Perhaps the most striking moment in Madison Opera’s production of Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” is the moment when convicted killer Joseph De Rocher (Michael Mayes) confesses his sin to Sister Helen Prejean (Daniela Mack).  After the admission, there is no singing and no instrumentation – only silence. And at the final dress rehearsal on Wednesday night, in a hall with hundreds of patrons, cast and crew members, that moment was dead silent.  No coughing or rustling.  No breathing.  Only silence.
Michael Mayes and Daniela Mack
Surrounded by that silence is a work that is one of the most challenging and complex I have ever seen staged.  It is appropriate that it is performed within the operatic genre, as I feel it is the only art form that can convey this wide mix of emotional range.
“Dead Man Walking” is not a statement about whether the death penalty is right or wrong. It is about the human struggle to resolve the unresolvable.  It is a journey to the truth, which leads to forgiveness. The violent rape and murder scene in the prologue is hard to watch, as it should be.  But those few minutes set up an emotional, thought provoking performance the likes of which I have never before experienced.
Mayes portrayal of De Rocher is spot on authentic, down to his Cajun accent while singing his lines. Watching his journey progress to the self-realization (or acceptance) of his sins at the end of the opera is at times stunning.  Mayes truly understands this complex character and plays him perfectly.
Susanne Mentzer as De Rocher's Mother
But the focus of “Dead Man Walking” is not De Rocher’s journey, but rather the spiritual journey of Sister Helen.  We see immediately, as she is driving to the Penitentiary, the struggles she has with her faith, as she talks to herself… or God.  Indeed, I wondered how after witnessing such a horrific act, I could resolve those thoughts in my mind.
Later in the first act, we hear from De Rocher’s mother (Susanne Mentzer), who clearly does not believe or accept the charges against her son.  As she pleads her case, she is interrupted by the deceased girl’s father (Alan Dunbar) that not only had she been raped, but also stabbed 37 times in the neck, so badly that her senior pin was lost in the wounds.  We have the image of a sweet son juxtaposed against the image of a monster within seconds.  Sweet memories interrupted by unimaginable pain.
Alan Dunbar, Saira Frank, Jamie Van Eyck and J. Adam Shelton
And that is the thrust of this work.  How can the parents resolve the gruesome death of their children? Will De Rocher’s mother accept the fact her sweet son did in fact commit these crimes?  And all of this falls on the shoulders of Sister Helen, who at the end of the first act gets caught between the quartet of the grieving teens parents (along with Dunbar, played by Saira Frank, J. Adam Shelton and Jamie Van Eyck) and a solo by Mentzer, which soon turns into a sextet including Mack.  
Librettist Terrence McNally offers up some of the most heartbreaking lines as the parents sing about the last words said to their children, “shut the door,” so mundane but emotionally crushing.  This leads into a chorus of all the voices in Sister Helen’s head – all the contradicting emotions of all involved, leading to her being overcome as she falls to the floor.
A Chorus Of Conflict
And that was only the first act.
John DeMain’s masterful handling of Jake Heggie’s score is the backdrop of this powerful production. DeMain owns this score.  Jake Heggie, who was attending this performance, went so far as to embrace the Maestro before the beginning of the second act. The score is very Copland-esque, with a peppering of Louisiana twang.  This music is very powerful yet accessible, proving that American Opera can be mentioned in the same breath when compared to its traditional counterparts.
In the second act we see Mayes’ character prepare to die.  The only question is, will he give the Sister what she wants – what she knows will not only save him eternally, but also start the reconciliation process for all the victims connected to the crime.  His admission is what she seeks.  The truth is what will set everyone free and on the path to forgiveness and healing.
The night of the execution, the victim’s parents appear again to watch.  As they enter the chamber, the girl’s father stays back, and admits his truth to Sister Helen:  He looks in the mirror and doesn’t like what he sees, which is anger and grief.  He knows that De Rocher’s death will not bring his child back, and he understands at that moment the struggle he has within.  He understands his own truth, which is the sign that he is on his way to reconciliation.
The Beginning Of Sister Helen's Journey

We then get to that moment where everything stops:  De Rocher’s confession to Sister Helen.  That defining moment of extended silence, not often experienced in opera, may be the most powerful pause I have ever experienced.  As the truth is revealed, healing through forgiveness is started and the work concludes.
Bravo to Madison Opera for staging this groundbreaking production.    

Jeff Turk
Fresco Opera Theatre



Thursday, January 30, 2014

Music Theatre Of Madison's "Hostage Song" - Grim Beauty

There was something unsettling walking to the back of the Frequency nightclub to see Music Theatre of Madison’s production of “Hostage Song.” The back room is dark, dingy, cramped and for the most part standing room only. I felt almost uncomfortable as I stood waiting for the production to start.
And it was the perfect setting for what turned out to be an eye opening experience for me with this modern theatrical production.

“Hostage Song” follows Jennifer – a journalist, and Jim – a government operative abducted by radical terrorists. Katie Davis plays Jennifer and I felt, provided the strongest vocal performance of the night. Mikhael Farah provides a good male counter in his portrayal of Jim. Both have solid acting chops.

What struck me about “Hostage Song” were the juxtapositions throughout the 80 minute show. Descriptors of brutality followed by beauty are peppered throughout the script. An example is when Jim’s wife, portrayed by Dana Pellebon, describes seeing home movies – her first images - of him as a child playing “Pin the tail on the Donkey”… with a blindfold on. Due to the early technology, these images are grainy. She then transitions into her last grainy images of him as a blindfolded hostage. Pellebon delivers a heartbreaking account of foreshadowing in her lament of the Government not letting her see the final images of her husband: beheaded.

This story will lift you up and then punch you in the gut. We watch to the inevitable end as these two hostages form a unique bond that shows a beauty in the midst of the most ugliness of human behavior.

Clayton Hamburg has multiple roles as the Frontman (and bass player), as well as a very convincing performance as Jim’s son. The cast is rounded out by Paul Lorentz as the Father, who in his dual role was menacing as he donned the terrorist cloth that covered his face.
Musical Director Ross Shenker (also on keyboard) led the tight ensemble including drummer Jacob Wolbert and guitarist Jason MacPherson. Director Catie O’Donnell did a wonderful job of managing a challenging space the Frequency provided. The setting was intimate to say the least, as the audience was in the same cramped room as the hostages. As stated, I felt this provided the perfect setting for this particular show.

This is a gritty and gutsy production, and due to the venue and content is for an 18 and over crowd. I would highly recommend anyone with an interest in theater to take the opportunity to see this unique work, in this unique setting. Music Theatre of Madison’s “Hostage Song” demonstrates how powerful and moving modern theater can be. Perhaps the most impressive aspect of this show is how much emotion “Hostage Song” can address in its fast paced run.

"Hostage Song" runs Thursday - Saturday. This unique theater experience is not to be missed.

Jeff Turk
Fresco Opera Theatre

Ticket Information For "Hostage Song"

Saturday, December 14, 2013

The Fantastic Four Seasons On A Moonlit Night

The Fantasticks! Anna Slate, Robert A Goderich, Jace Nichols, Michael Anderson, John Jajewski and Trevor Bass
Four Seasons Theatre warmed up a very chilly December night with their production of the coming of age story "The Fantasticks" Friday night at the Overture Center Playhouse. The small ensemble delivered a big bang in their performance of this classic.

The Director - And Narrator - El GUY-OH
The director Jace Nichols also played "The Narrator," AKA "El Gallo." In his letter to the audience in the program, he recalls failing at this role in his 20's, and wanting to redeem himself. I would have thought he toured with this show as El Gallo after this seeing this performance. Nichols owned the role of Narrator, and it is obvious he channeled those years of thinking about that past attempt into a wonderful reading on Friday night.

Anna Slate as "The Girl, Luisa," certainly looks the part. Her small frame was deceiving as her stage presence loomed large. Something that occurred to me is that I know Anna, and when I watched her on stage, I never thought "I am watching Anna"... I was swept up in her performance and was thinking "Luisa." For me, that is a testament to what she brought to that role.

Trevor Bass provided a solid performance as "The Boy, Matt," as were the roles of Hucklebee and Bellomy performed by John Jajewski and Robert Goderich. The actors Henry and Mortimer (Mark Snowden and David Lawver) were hilarious. And Michael Anderson's "Mute" was just plain cool.
The Girl, The Boy, And The Mute

I will admit that I was skeptical when I saw the instrumentation was a piano and harp. Harp? I couldn't imagine that. But when the music started, I was blown away. It matched up perfectly, with the harp providing a fullness to the sound that made for a gorgeous backdrop. I believe this could have gone horribly wrong if not executed perfectly. Pianist Thomas Kasdorf and Harpist Elizabeth Borsodi executed the score spot on.

This was my first experience seeing The Fantasticks. I thought it would be fun to take my mom, the biggest theater fan I know, to get her take. I figured someone who dragged me to shows such as "Chapter Two" and "Pal Joey" while in my teens would be able to give me a fair read on it. In her years and years (and years) of experience in the theater she has seen EVERYTHING. I am happy to report that it passed the Theater Mom seal of approval. She thoroughly enjoyed the Four Seasons production (while she made friends with audience members sitting next to her).

I also have to mention the choreography. It was incredible. With the limited ensemble, there is a lot of action and movement. Brava to Mari Borowski!

An insert in the program contained a cautionary note about a word used in the production. Rape. Startling when you look at it or when you hear it. But in actuality, the archaic intended meaning of the word means to seize - take away by force, kidnap and or abduct. Thankfully, Jace Nichols and Four Seasons chose to present the show as originally written. "It Depends On What You Pay" was a highlight for me, and I don't know how could you possibly work around the word rape in performing that piece. Although it struck me at how strange my enjoyment of a song centered around "a rape" (again, not what you think!) was, while sitting next to my mom. I am sure a shrink would have fun with that little scenario. But when you go, remember, rape is "abduction" and it is a fake one at that - a scheme to get the boy and girl together.

Another highlight is the beautiful classic "Try To Remember"... I would not be surprised at all if this song alone is what has kept The Fantasticks running consistently since 1960.

I can't think of a better diversion in avoiding the cruddy weather than to spend a couple of hours in the Playhouse watching this coming of age story. Remaining shows are Saturday 12/14 @ 7:30, Sunday 12/15 @ 2:00 pm, Friday and Saturday 12/20-12/21 @ 7:30 and Sunday 12/23 @ 2:00pm.

Here Comes The Sun
Jeff Turk
Fresco Opera Theatre

Sunday, October 27, 2013

A Rare Opportunity: The Passion Of Handel LIVE!

Friday night I had the pleasure of attending the opening performance of University Opera's production of "Ariodante" by George Frideric Handel.

My only experience with a Handel opera to that point were pieces here an there (most recently in Fresco's "Paranormal Playhouse") and the recording of "Alcina" featuring Renee Fleming and Susan Graham. So Ariodante was my first experience attending a full fledged live Handel Opera.

The set was simple but perfect. Given the limited space of the Rennebohm Auditorium, the hanging portraits set against the woodsy backdrop gave the illusion that the actors were either inside or outdoors without having to move many props. And the portraits were gorgeous.

But onto more important business, which is the singing. I never realized how challenging Handel is for the singer. And this youthful cast sparkled. I particularly loved Lindsay Metzger and Anna Whiteway as Ariodante and Ginevra respectively. They were the lead roles so it seems obvious that I would gravitate towards them, but I truly felt their voices were sublime and a perfect match for this gorgeous music.

The UW Chamber Orchestra, conducted by James Smith was tight and spot on. Handel is intricate music, and the players performed in marvelous fashion.

Full disclosure here: Director William Farlow recently became an advisor to Fresco. So within the past few months, we have become fast friends.

Bill is in his last year at UW, and what impresses me the most about his style is his obvious passion for the music. I know it may sound weird, but I have met too many performers and directors in my life who didn't seem to like music that much. It was more of a job for them. Music is not a job for Bill - it is a part of his being, and this is one of the reasons I am grateful for his involvement with our organization and friendship.

Bill's passion for this music and production certainly comes through on the stage. University Opera's production of Ariodante is filled with love of the music, and that starts with the director.

Ariodante is not an opera that is performed often. I would highly recommend to all you early music fans, people who are curious about Handel, and those who are passionate about music to attend one of the final performances at Music Hall directed by William Farlow. There are two more performances, today (10/27) at 3:00 pm and Tuesday (10/29) at 7:30 pm. This is an opportunity not to be missed.

Jeff Turk

Monday, September 16, 2013

Hollywood Help For Paranormal Make-Up

Paranormal Playhouse requires some serious make-up work, so we knew we had to pull in some big guns to see our vision come through.

Lyn Marie has been fortunate enough to follow her bliss across the country in pursuit of furthering her life both professionally and artistically.  Her drawings, paintings, and sculptures have been shown internationally and have found homes with stars of both theatre and film.
At the tender age of 5 her grandfather took her to see “The Creature of the Black Lagoon” which began an odd love affair with a world of not so cuddly creatures.  After encasing her younger brother in a plaster head cast at the age of 10 to make a “scary mask” she convinced her parents to purchase some instruction books on theatre make-up.  Lyn Marie later attended UW Madison and then spent two years at the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design studying sculpture and illustration. This path led ultimately to a freelance job doing restoration work for the “Vision of Jim Henson” a touring exhibit paying tribute to one of her most profound influences.  
Lyn Marie currently works as a special effects make-up artist and sculptor, creating characters and creatures for Broadway and Movies.  Her artistic hand has lent designs to The Jim Henson Company, Harley Davidson, MGM Films, Universal Studios, and Home and Garden Television.  She has most recently been honored to work with American Idol Taylor Hicks on the National Broadway Tour of Grease as well as on the Civil War Film “Seeing the Elephant”.   Other familiar faces include Richard Chamberlain, Petuela Clark, Rob Reiner, MarkHamill, Sally Struthers, Rod Steiger and Vice President Al Gore.

You'll be able to see Lyn's work September 27 - 29 in Fresco Opera Theatre's Paranormal Playhouse. Fresco Opera Theatre - voted BEST OF MADISON 2013 in Madison Magazine!