Gateway Opera is like a five-star tapas restaurant; it continues to delight its patrons with superbly delicious bite-sized offerings of that succulent dish -- opera. Pat upon the heels of its recent excellent evening of one-act operas, Gateway blossoms forth with yet another wonderful evening. This time we are treated to two bubbly little aperitifs to get us just a tiny bit tizzled before the presentation of the light and charming entrée.

The provenance of these first brief comic operas is curious indeed. At last season's "Impessario" the walls were adorned with posters for imaginary operas. These were so amusing that the company asked that brilliant lady, Caetlyn van Buren, to construct real sketch-operas to fit the posters. At their February fund-raiser five of these petite comic gems were presented. The audience voted for two to be given a further production. And those winners are what graced the stage last Friday -- "curtain-openers," as it were, for the larger work of the evening. Production values for these are minimalist: no set, just curtains and lights.

The first was Carmen vs. Lucia di Lammermoor. We see these two divas fiercely battling for ownership of the Holy Grail. Carmen (Allison Glass) is in a colorful swirling gypsy skirt, Lucia (Gina Malone) in a lovely white gown. They are visited by the Queen of the Night (Madeline Black) appropritely spangled with stars. Micaëla, the maiden from "Carmen," also appears in the person of soprano Sarah Price.

The voices are all glorious. Ms. Glass displays great passion, dramatic dynamics, and fiercely rattled Spanish "r's," and Ms. Malone meets her head-on with that beautiful soprano voice that has become a favorite at Gateway Opera. Ms. Black decorates her role with those crisply articulated laser-like staccato cadenzas we find in Bel Canto works and Ms. Price shows great vocal beauty and power in her performance.

There's a very lovely duet between the divas. There are bits and pieces from all these ladies' home operas (and perhaps from elswhere -- it's a little confusing).
It's all quite beautiful -- and it's hilariously funny. The action is rather rough-and-tumble as are the new lyrics: "Shut your mouth, scum!" cries one diva to another.
The second aperitif is called LOLCATS teh Oper. (That's not my typo--it was typed by cats.) Six singers take the stage (Madeline Black, Erika Cockerham, Sara Gottman, Darrell J. Jordan, Katie Rush and Keith Wehmeier). They are sketchily costumed as cats. Music director Robert Valentine conducts this sextet with a long baton which has a pink streamer attached. This is to tease the singing felines. Other cat toys are tossed about among the singers as we watch (on a large screen beside the stage) some of the funniest cat videos you've ever seen. A wild variety of arias and songs spring forth--a great patchwork of everything. There was "The Toreador Song," "A Wandering Minstrel I," "Habañera," "That's Amore," "The Flight of the Bumblebee," some "Carmina Burana," "Why Can't You Behave." And did I hear "The Hall of the Mountain King"? We see the death of Pagliaccio; we meet a pirate from Gilbert and Sullivan. Everything! But these musical bits are carefully chosen to exactly fit the hilarious behaviour of all those video cats as they bravely, stupidly, and unsuccessfully attempt one impossible leap after another. "Ave Maria" is beautifully sung as one pathetic pussy lifts her front paws prayerfully again and again to the refrigerator door. Cheap laughs, yes, but oh, so many of them! And the singing is superb.

These two sketches are very much in the mode of Monty Python -- brilliant, superbly trained people having gleeful fun exercising their splendid talents and imaginations.
But these are merely the amuse bouches of the evening. The real pièce de résistance is Lucrezia, a comic chamber opera by William Bolcom. This is perfection indeed. Perfection in its composition, in its clever libretto (by Mark Stephen Campbell), and in the work of every one of the performers, directors and designers involved.

Lucrezia is based on "La Mandragola," the most remembered comic play of Nicolò Machiavelli. (Yes, that Machiavelli.) It's done in the style of a zarzuela -- the Spanish folk operetta that began in the 17th Century and is still being produced. I saw a zarzuela in Madrid some fifty years ago -- and another at Opera Theatre of St. Louis only thirty or so years ago. Bolcom, Campbell and Gateway have given me the best zarzuela ever.

We see a most simple but lovely set: a rose-covered window on our left, an elegant polished wooden door to the right. These pieces later turn and instantly become a romantic bed and a confessional. A vast empty sky rises limitlessly behind -- tinted appropriately by lighting, from a romantic rosy peach to faint lavendar to rich blue. Excellent work by designers Scott Loebl and Mark Feazel.

With brisk efficiency and the toss of a rose we dive right into the plot. Young Lorenzo has caught the eye of the beautiful Lucrezia. He's immediately in love! But she's married! Her doltish husband wants a son but thinks his wife is barren. Lorenzo's clever servant, Chucho, devises a scheme to satisfy everyone: Lorenzo is to disguise himself as a doctor and offer the husband a magic potion compounded from mandrake root. This elixir, when taken by a woman, is guaranteed to make her pregnant. But there's a catch: the next man to sleep with her will die instantly. So:

1. A fall-guy must be found to bed the girl and take the hit. (Lorenzo disguised again -- as a wandering fool with a huge moustache.)
2. Lucrezia must be pursuaded that it is morally right for a young wife to go along with this scheme, so Lorenzo disguises himself as an approving priest and Lucrezia's mother is recruited to press her daughter into the game. Lucrezia is eager already, so she needs little persuasion.

Lucrezia is sung by soprano Emily Moses. She's a stunningly beautiful young woman with very stageworthy eyes and a most alluring smile. She has a heavenly coloratura voice, lucid diction and such easy access to power.

Anthony Heinemann brings a soaring, clear tenor to the role of Lorenzo. A handsome young man, he's the perfect match for this Lucrezia. There's an innocence to this Lorenzo, yet his comic sense is most professional. I loved his turn as the phony German Doctor. The opera is, of course, sung in English, but here "Dr. Hermann" speaks a nonsensical German. In this bit we are given absurd translations in projected old-fashioned magic lantern subtitles.

Bass-baritone Robert McNichols, Jr., sings Chucho, the clever servant. His voice is rich and powerful and he's a natural comic. A sturdily built man, he can scamper about the stage with great agility, occasionally swinging into a few tango steps. His glee is radiantly apparent as he is promised one bag of gold after another should his scheme be successful.

Sarah Price sings Annunciata, Lucrezia's mother, who is desperate for a grandson. She does wonderful work. Her duet, "We women . . . " with Lucrezia is one of the high-points of the evening.

Lyric baritone Darrell J. Jordan shines as the husband, Ignacio. He hits just the right tone in making Ignacio a handsome, clueless dork -- who happens to have a beautiful voice.

One of my favorite scenes is when Lucrezia meets Lorenzo-the-"priest" at the confessional. The Priest assures her that it's OK to sleep with another man as long as she doesn't enjoy it: No pleasure/no sin! Lucrezia pours out her dreams of passionate love. It gets pretty steamy in that confessiona! And in the end she leaves with the Priest's final word: "God sayeth it's OK-eth!"

Stage direction, which is most graceful, is by Mark Freiman. He keeps it lively and points every laugh beautifully.

Music director Nancy Mayo has led her singers into great, great beauty--and contributes much to the comedy as well.

The show is quite simply perfect. It's a gem!

The pace is brisk, the comedy is bright and modern and beautifully made. Dramatic surges of Spanish music sweep into the score from time to time. There is a lovely sense of melodrama. Once, as Lucrezia sings at her window, framed by its curtains, there is a definite sense of a Punch-and-Judy show. There is lovely balance and economy throughout. Truly this compact, swift comic opera makes all those things by Mozart and Rossini seem so very, very long-winded.

Gateway Opera, with its focus on short, lighter pieces and with its very high level of quality makes an ideal introduction to the art form. I strongly recommend it!

 

One of the great things about the Humana Festival of New American Plays is the valuable exposure it gives to new playwrights. Their work is sometimes rough around the edges or even, as is the case with Brendan Pelsue's Wellesley Girl at this year's festival, a bit of a mess. But as far as artistic growth goes, there's just no substitute for the experience of seeing one's work performed by a professional company for a paying audience.

The concept behind Wellesley Girl is intriguing, especially during our fractious political season. Set in the year 2465, the play takes place in a walled enclave in New England whose 435 inhabitants are, as far as they know, the sole surviving population of the United States of America. They're all members of Congress, and the Supreme Court is now one woman -- the only one with legal training and the books to back it up.

Their stable if limited world is threatened when an army from Texas suddenly and inexplicably shows up, insisting that they are the real US government and making a list of impossible demands. The population soon splits into two camps, one insisting on negotiation and another on "scorched earth," which appears to mean abandoning the enclave and fleeing into the wilderness. Neither alternative makes much sense, though, since the invading army appears to be invincible and the water supply outside of the enclave is supposedly poisoned. Only the enclave's filtration system makes it drinkable.

This setup has the potential to offer a satirical look at our current political dysfunction and possibly an examination of how people behave when there are no good choices. Unfortunately it offers neither. The arguments among the enclave's residents become little more than shouting matches and the moral dilemma they face becomes buried in political maneuvering.

The plot also doesn't hold up to much scrutiny and much of it simply makes no sense. If the water is poisoned, what are the mighty Texas forces drinking? How did they even find out about the New Englanders in the first place, given that there appears to be no communication infrastructure? If the army has them surrounded, how will they escape to the woods?

Worse yet, the feeble final scenes seem to indicate that the playwright simply wrote himself into a corner and couldn't find a way out. When the final blackout came, nobody clapped because it wasn't clear whether or not the play had actually ended.

The show isn't without its moments. A scene in which Donna, The Supreme Court (Lynda Gravátt) hears arguments at her kitchen table with a hand-made "SCOTUS" sign in the center have real charm. And Barney O'Hanlon's robot Hank is a wonderfully precise piece of acting. Indeed, the cast as a whole is quite good, even if some of the characters they portray are a bit one-dimensional. There's also some real comedy in the public meetings before they descend into chaos. But ultimately this play's reach far exceeds its grasp.

That said, this is still an interesting first effort, for all its flaws. Mr. Plesue is clearly an original voice, and given that he is still working on his MFA, it's reasonable to assume that he might have a bright future ahead of him. Very few creative people get everything right the first time, after all.

Wellesley Girl runs through Sunday, April 10 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium at Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the 40th Humana Festival of New American Plays.

 

Every edition of the Humana Festival features a program of short one-act plays organized around a common theme and performed by the students of the Actors Theatre of Louisville's Acting Apprentice Company. This year's show, Wondrous Strange, focuses on ghosts and the supernatural and takes its title from Horatio's exclamation of astonishment after seeing the ghost of Hamlet's father, "O day and night, but this is wondrous strange!"

"Kentucky's supernatural lore fills anthology after anthology," writes Jessica Reese in the program book, "and every year, thousands of visitors head to the state's haunted landmarks, from posh hotels and mansions to dive bars and Civil War sites. . . . This season, four fearless writers -- Martyna Majok, Meg Miroshnik, Jiehae Park, and Jen Silverman -- have been invited to venture into the spirit realm and examine the unexplained and the uncanny."

The resulting short (70 minute) collection of nine plays, sketches, and "blackouts" is a bit uneven but taken as a whole it's great fun and performed with skill and versatility by a company of 20 talented young actors. Even though we saw it at a 10:30 a.m. matinee, the show still created an appropriately spooky atmosphere, punctuated with moments of inspired comedy.

Most of the comedy comes from Jen Silverman's two contributions. "Ghost Bros" is a hilariously on-target send-up of supernatural "reality" TV and juvenile machismo as the titular "bros" (Alejandro Hernandez, Jayson Speters, and Addison Williams) blunder their way through a long-abandoned insane asylum in unsuccessful pursuit of a ghostly little girl (Walls Trimble). "The Bonnets," which concludes the show, is an enthusiastic celebration of murder and mayhem by the female members of the company, dressed in modest nightgowns and bonnets.

Martyna Majok contributes one of the best pieces, a touching little character study about an inexperienced prostitute (Glenna Brucken) who advertises herself as a psychic to stay ahead of the law, only to discover that her customer (Mr. Hernandez) is really only interested in a reading. Instead of playing this for laughs, Ms. Majok makes it a charming portrait of two troubled people looking for comfort in a cold world.

One of the creepiest entries is Meg Miroshnik's "The Holler," about a group of friends who have made the mistake of trying to turn part of a former abattoir into an apartment -- with unpleasant results. Her zombie tale "Bug" is a close second, but I thought its predictability spoiled it a bit.

Jiehae Park's "Something Like" takes the ghost story into cyberspace as a young woman (Tracey Green) becomes addicted to interacting with an artificial intelligence program (Adenike Thomas) modeled after her deceased lover. It downplays the supernatural element to deliver a moving illustration of how we deal with loss.

Directors Marti Lyons and John Rooney make good use of the Bingham Theatre's versatile space, assisted by Paul Toben's dramatic lighting and Christian Frederickson's sound, both of which go a long way towards establishing a disturbing atmosphere.

Wondrous Strange runs through Sunday, April 10 at Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the 40th Humana Festival of New American Plays.

 

"Having been unpopular in high school," observed Fran Lebowitz in her 1978 essay collection Metropolitan Life, "is not just cause for book publication." If she had seen Sarah Ruhl's For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday, the world premiere of which is part of the 40th Humana Festival of New American Plays, she might have added that a death in the family is not just cause for play production.

As the play opens, five adult siblings are gathered in the remarkably large hospital room of their comatose father George. (The oldest, Ann, is 70; the others are in their 50s and 60s.) In what feels like the strongest of the play's three scenes, the siblings ruminate on death, the afterlife, and what it means to really be an adult. The tension of waiting for the end that they both dread and anticipate is palpable and believable.

The remaining two scenes are less impressive. In the first, Ann and her brothers and sisters gather in George's house for an impromptu wake. Fueled by liberal doses of Jameson, they tell stories from their childhood, share jokes, and engage in political arguments which, given the play's setting during "the Clinton era," feel rather dated. Meanwhile, the ghost of George wanders in and out, repeating the routines of his daily life -- and generating some of the funniest moments.

Finally, everyone toddles off to bed and Ann, who serves as the play's narrator, dreams of repeating the role of Peter Pan -- the part she played at a local theatre before heading off to college -- with her siblings as the Darling family and brother Jim as Captain Hook. Like the previous scene, it has no real dramatic shape and doesn't really go anywhere. A final scene between Ann and her ghostly father suggests that she is coming to terms with his departure, but it essentially comes out of nowhere, dramatically speaking.

Kathleen Chalfant leads a strong cast as a sympathetic and engaging Ann. There's good work here as well from Keith Reddin as Michael, David Chandler as Jim, Lisa Emery as Wendy, and Ron Crawford as the spectral George. Barney O'Hanlon was a late substitution in the role of the youngest brother, John, but you wouldn't have known that from his assured performance.

Les Waters directs with a sure eye for both the comedy and drama in the script, but even so For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday is a bit too specifically autobiographical for its own good. It feels less like a play for a general audience than a home video. Ms. Ruhl is a highly regarded playwright with a string of frequently performed and justifiably praised shows, though, so I'm inclined to cut her a little slack with this one.

For Peter Pan on Her 70th Birthday runs through Sunday, April 10 in the Pamela Brown Auditorium at Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the 40th Humana Festival of New American Plays.

 

The poor are a frequent topic of American political discourse, receiving compassionate concern from the left and righteous hatred from the right. But our shredded social safety net has left the middle class in precarious straits these days as well -- a fact which, while not discussed overtly, is nevertheless a recurring theme in Laura Jacqmin's comedy/drama Residence.

As the play opens Maggie, a new mom, has just checked in to an extended-stay hotel (the "Residence" of the title) in Tempe, Arizona. She's selling a portable ultrasound system to local doctors, hoping to earn enough in commissions to get her family out of debt and her life back on track. In the process she encounters Bobby, the hotel's all-purpose "gofer" and Theresa, the ambitious manager trainee determined to give her a "five star experience."

Bobby and Theresa couldn't be more different in some ways. He's a slacker pothead avoiding commitment with his ex-girlfriend and she's a perky college student determined to get ahead at pretty much any cost. And neither of them appears to have much in common with Maggie, who just wants her life to be less crazy.

As the play progresses, though, it's clear that what unites them is that they're just one bad break or wrong choice away from personal and economic disaster. That constant sense of life on the high wire gives Residence a sense of dramatic urgency, even while individual scenes are often extremely and very believably funny. Sometimes they're even a bit of both, as in the alcoholic seduction scene between Bobby and Theresa, which suddenly turns confrontational when Theresa realizes Bobby has a daughter with his former girlfriend.

As is so often the case at Actors Theatre of Louisville, the cast of Residence is impeccable. Leah Karpel and Alejandro Rodriguez play off each other beautifully as Theresa and Bobby, and Danielle Slavick makes Maggie impressively sympathetic -- not an easy task, given what a very disturbed person Ms. Jacqmin has made her.

Avery Glymph shows considerable range as all of Maggie's doctor clients plus husband Ben, who appears only via Skype. And Amelia Workman is on stage all too briefly as Bobby's ex Nita. She's an intriguing character, but the script makes her something of an enigma. It's not at all clear what she sees in Bobby, who simply can't seem to find a way to take his life or responsibilities seriously.

In fact, the sketchiness of nearly all the characters is one of the script's major weaknesses. The principals are not quite shallow enough to be simple stereotypes -- although Maggie comes perilously close to being little more than a psychiatric diagnosis -- but neither are they fleshed out enough to feel entirely real.

In addition, the issues raised in Residence are, perhaps, a bit too specific to our current social and economic situation here in the USA to have much resonance beyond it. I think this is likely to be one of those pieces that perfectly captures a particular moment in time and then quickly fades.

Still, it's a well-made piece overall, with a shrewdly observed critique of the petty ways in which those with a little bit of economic power seem compelled to throw their weight around and make life miserable for the rest of us. Barbara Ehrenreich described that phenomenon in detail in her 2001 book Nickel and Dimed, but it is perhaps time for a reminder. And Hal Brooks's sharp direction serves the play well.

Residence runs through Sunday, April 10 in the Bingham Theatre at the Actors Theatre of Louisville as part of the 40th Humana Festival of New American Plays

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