Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Stormy Next Wave

It’s been a rough season at BAM (a.k.a. Brooklyn Academy of Music).  My theatre-going buddies and I expect a dud or two in the course of a good Next Wave festival, but fall 2011 has been different. 

It started well in September with an extraordinary performance by Kronos of their show, Awakening.  Kronos used found objects to make music the way sculptors use found objects to make visual art. It was an exhilarating evening.

Then the season started its downhill trend.  We’d looked forward to something exciting and new from the young Beijing Dance Company in their three-part program called Haze. Alas it was hazy. The first third was almost excellent, young dancers leaping to the floor and springing up, bounding across and around the stage.  The energy they created bounced off the walls and enveloped us.  Unfortunately the second two pieces were tepid, old-fashioned, and overwrought. Beware of the director/choreographer writing her intentions in the program — if you must explain, it isn’t working.

Then there was the betrayal of 69 Degrees South by Phantom Limb. We were excited for what promised to be an innovative piece, and came away disappointed. The recorded background music was Kronos; live music was by a talented yet often jarring band called “Skeleton Key.” The light show enlivening the still and moving photography on the back wall of the Harvey Theatre was quite beautiful, and sometimes frightening. The miraculous survival of the majority of Ernest Shackleton’s crew after their ship, Endurance, was iced in, crushed, and then sank in Antarctica is a fascinating and heroic story. But if you didn’t already know it, what appeared on the stage was meaningless. There were strange red-clad not-dancers rolling around in the beginning, their existence a mystery, and when the marionettes finally came on, they were slowly manipulated by creepy-looking people on stilts with costumes reminiscent of jellyfish. Shackleton deserved better.

That was the good, the bad, the ugly. Then The Infernal Comedy broke the bad streak as it broke the mold. More on that anon.  Last weekend Canyon, a total disaster choreographed by John Jasperse, seemed to revive that nasty streak.  Initially the dancers energized me enough to make me want to go home and exercise.  Within twelve minutes, they made me just want to go home. 

And now for Anon:  I am not an opera fan, although I try it out once or twice a year in my ongoing quest to understand the continued survival of the form.  The Infernal Comedy is not an opera but it is operatic.  That is, three sopranos sing fantastical arias (a little Mozart, a little Beethoven, some Hayden, Vivaldi, and Gluck) most of which appear to be about their poor to atrocious taste in untrustworthy men and subsequent suicidal thoughts. 

These women — Marie Arnert, Kirsten Blaise, and Louise Fribo — are brilliant sopranos, but they don’t just stand there singing opera.  They created characters who feel, react, throw themselves to the floor and roll around, one crouches under a table. These women were alive, full of emotion, needs, responding to their surroundings as well as their memories. This was exciting theatre.

The 32-piece Orchester Wiener Akademie was onstage and the conductor Martin Haselböck played along with the evening’s conceit, that Jack Unterweger, a dead Austrian serial killer, was on a posthumous book tour.  Stage director Michael Sturminger wrote the libretto based on an idea developed by Haselböck and Birgit Hutter, the insightful costume designer.

John Malkovich as Jack Unterweger oozes onto the stage, uncomfortable with the formal proceedings. Everything is apparently the idea of his editor or his publisher. He is beguiling in a creepy way, talks directly to people in the orchestra section of the BAM Opera House.  He engages us in his afterlife on his final book tour. Only after life, he pronounces, might the truth be told, since certainly none was told in his lifetime by him or journalists or anyone else.  This the lying serial killer himself tells us.  What should we believe?

A tall woman with short blonde hair in a bright blue strapless dress sings of her child. Malkovich’s Unterweger is mesmerized and ever so slowly approaches her. He embraces her on his knees, his lost mother, and then he reaches up to fondle her breast. OK. All three women (who are legion) are angry with Unterweger and yet drawn to him, as if he exudes pheromones. The real women in Unterweger’s life after his first stay in prison found it hard to believe this charming man was a serial killer even after the evidence was laid out and he was convicted of eleven more killings. He had that kind of unctuous savoir-faire. He tells the audience what a man must do with a woman, for a woman: Listen to her.  And he does listen to each of the three women, intermittently hawking his book to us, returning to his enthralled women, then slyly acknowledging his audience.  It’s an audacious bit of theatre.

So apparently opera works in snippets in a dramatic production that’s not an opera.  Alas for audiences, this show was three nights only (four sopranos switching some of the roles over the three nights), so I can’t tell you "run to see this show, take standing room, anything," although I really would. The Infernal Comedy was imaginative, quirky, and on top of all that, brilliantly executed, so that I have forgotten my disappointment with the rest of the season and am once again filled with hope and anticipation for the remaining productions of the Next Wave in December. 

~ Molly Matera, signing off, relishing the memory of operatic highlights, even though she still doesn’t like opera.  

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