The wonderful Opera Theatre of St. Louis has opened its forty-second season with a deeply satisfying production of Giacomo Puccini's Madame Butterfly. Opera Theatre has grown to be among the world's first rank of opera producers. Audiences and reviewers come from all across America and from five continents around the globe. This production of Butterfly is right up there with their best.

As every eighth-grader knows (or should know) Commodore Perry (attended by several gunboats) opened Japan to European trade in 1854. In the decades following, European arts became virtually drunk with the craze of "Japonisme." Japanese prints, woodblocks, watercolors, kimonos, fans, screens, etc. were wildly popular, and the great artists of Impressionism were, almost to a man, deeply influenced by Japanese art -- Degas, Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin, Monet, Renoir, and especially van Gogh. 

Literature and drama were likewise affected: Madame Butterfly appeared in 1898 as a short story by John Luther Long; in 1900 the great American impresario David Belasco adapted it as a one-act play; and it became Puccini's opera in 1904. 

John Luther Long said of himself that he was "a sentimentalist and a feminist and proud of it." Of course the story would appeal to Puccini, the most sentimental of all composers of opera. Audiences are sentimental too, it seems, because Butterfly is the sixth most frequently produced opera in the world.

You know the story. Lieutenant Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, of the USS Abraham Lincoln, is stationed in Nagasaki. Besmitten with a young geisha, he enters into a Japanese "temporary marriage" with her, never thinking of it as anything but a convenience. But the girl, Cio-cio-san (called "Butterfly"), is innocent and truly in love with Pinkerton. She takes the marriage very seriously indeed--she even becomes a Christian. When Pinkerton's tour of duty ends and he returns to America, Butterfly -- impoverished and rejected by her family -- spends her days dreaming of his return. She also gives birth to his son--the image of his father. In earlier translations the boy is named "Trouble," but more recently he is called "Sorrow" (a wise choice given the wry double entendre of "Trouble"). Butterfly says that when Pinkerton returns the child's name will change to "Joy." 

Set designer Laura Jellinek and costumer Candace Donnelly give us quite the perfect visual world for Madame Butterfly. A small iconically Japanese house -- with sliding panels of paper and bamboo -- sits on a rocky hillside overlooking the sea. In a stroke of genius Ms. Jellinek constructs her hillside out of what seems to be miles of Japanese printed fabric -- or perhaps crumpled Origami paper -- dark gray with a small white pattern a million times repeated. The folds tumble down most beautifully. We breathe in this world and we are filled with that distinctively spare Japanese beauty.

Ms. Donnelly's costumes are beautiful and authentic. (The kimonos are indeed from Japan.) This authenticity drives deep: there are, surprisingly but appropriately, several layers of gown beneath the lovely kimono. And everything is true to period: the Japanese men wear Oriental gowns, but sometimes Western hats--a derby, a topper, a straw boater. Pinkerton's uniforms are precisely correct for the turn-of-the-century American navy officer--unfamiliarly unadorned, nary an epaulette. And Pinkerton's wife, Kate, is a simply striking image in a pristine white traveling suit. Quite wonderful.

What a glorious collection of voices! Soprano Rena Harms, as Butterfly, and tenor Michael Brandenburg, as Pinkerton, are a fine match, and they do glorious service to Puccini's gorgeous melodies. Their love duet, which closes Act One, is weepingly beautiful. Puccini makes it climb and climb -- rather like Wagner's "Liebestod" -- and these two twining voices sing it splendidly. 

At the opening of Act Two Butterfly sings to her servant, Suzuki, of her irrepressible faith in Pinkerton's return. "One fine day" (Un bel di) is the most famous aria in this opera--and perhaps in all of Puccini. It is certainly the one opera melody that I always find myself whistling. Miss Harms triumphs in it. It's a glory.

I do believe, though, that this Butterfly lacks just a pinch of the needed innocence. The girl is fifteen. Yes, she's been a geisha, but that merely means she sings and dances to please men; she is not a prostitute. She is called "dear little baby wife of mine, dear little orange blossom", "poor little creature," "that child, that pretty flower." Yet Miss Harms' eyes are sometimes knowing and flirtatious. But this is a tiny quibble. Her performance is superb.

Now Pinkerton is quite a cad. From the very beginning he views himself as the triumphant "collector"; like all good American sailors he must "capture the flower of every shore." He must possess this butterfly "even if her wings are broken." So it's hard to yield him any sympathy when, after three years, he comes with his new American wife to take Butterfly's child from her. But Pinkerton realizes the suffering he has so carelessly caused and Brandenburg so powerfully and dramatically pours out the sheer agony of his remorse that he quite wrenches sympathy from our hearts.

Others in the cast do exemplary work. Tenor John McVeigh sings Goro, the crafty marriage broker. He has the gift of crystal diction. He, alone in the cast, let me understand every word without once referring to the supertitles. 

Christopher Magiera is very strong as Sharpless, the American Consul. Sharpless is Pinkerton's Jimminy Cricket, warning him not to do wrong. At the end he hasn't the courage to give Butterfly the full bad news, and with Pinkerton he indulges in a little "I-told-you-so! I-told-you-so!" But Magiera fills the role with dignity and heart.

Renée Rapier brings a lovely rich mezzo to the role of Suzuki, Butterfly's faithful servant. She makes Suzuki strong and loving, and her suffering as she helplessly observes the unfolding tragedy is heartbreaking.

The Bonze! What an entrance! At Butterfly's wedding her uncle, the Bonze, a priest, bursts in in a fury to curse his niece for having abandoned her religion. Bass-baritone Matthew Stump overwhelms the scene with power. A wonderful job.

Kate, Pinkerton's new wife, sings only eight or nine brief lines, but she is nevertheless an important figure in the drama. Anush Avetisyan is perfectly cast in this role. This Kate embodies the confident New American Woman. (By this time suffrage had been granted to women in four states.) Miss Avetisyan combines this confidence with kindness. Her voice is lovely, but I think that what makes hers a perfect performance is her mastery of that sadly lost art, the art of "carriage." She really knows how to wear that stunning white suit.

You'll want to steal young Master Sam Holder, who plays Sorrow. He's a beautiful treasure.

Stage director Robin Guarino manages her cast beautifully. There's careful, deft attention everywhere. There's only one scene where I felt a lack, but it is an important one. When Pinkerton's ship is sighted Butterfly calls for flowers. The libretto has her tell Suzuki to go to strip blossoms from the garden:

"Ev'ry flow'r, spare not any. Peaches, violets, jessamine. Ev'ry spray you find of gorse or grass or flow'ring tree."

Suzuki returns, embracing a bounty of flowers. Puccini gives the two ladies extended sublime flower music. They should slowly, gracefully, dreamily strew the blossoms about the stage. But in this production the director has Sorrow, the little boy, go to get the flowers. He fetches in a couple bags of flowers which are dumped unceremoniously--like yard trimmings--onto the floor. It's a decision that's hard to understand.

Chorus master Cary John Franklin and his singers merit much praise. The occasional off-stage chorus passages drift in softly, beautifully.

Conductor Michael Christie draws fine work from his orchestra, always supporting, never dominating the voices.

This is the first time I had seen Butterfly in English, and I learned a few things:

  • Pinkerton is really a cad. He boasts arrogantly and callously dismisses any concern for Butterfly. That's always been there, but somehow it's clearer in English.
  • The piece is strongly anti-imperialist. Indeed the blatant American references (Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, and the use of phrases from "The Star Spangled Banner" as a leitmotif for Pinkerton) make it almost anti-American.

But in English or Italian or Swedish or Swahili Madame Butterfly is filled with the most wonderfully lyrical music in all of opera. I would go to it if it were sung in Klingon! And the Opera Theatre of St. Louis production is simply superb. You'll love it! Madame Butterfly plays through June 24. 

 

 

 

 

 

South Africa's dismantling of the system of apartheid included the formation of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a judiciary system established to bring restorative justice to the country. Many of the militants who fought to keep the country segregated came before the TRC to give testimony in return for amnesty consideration in civil and criminal prosecutions. In public opinion, Eugene de Kock, known as "Prime Evil," was among the most notorious of the criminals who chose to testify.

In a surprising turn of events, de Kock requested an audience with the widows of two black police officers who were killed by C10, the secretive police unit he commanded. Surprised by de Kock's frank testimony and request, TRC member Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela interviewed the commander about his experiences. A research professor specializing in trauma, memory, and forgiveness, she was interested in probing both de Kock's memory and his feelings towards apartheid, the trials, and his incarceration. Their conversations, recorded over a five-year period, formed the basis for her book A Human Being Died that Night, which Nicholas Wright adapted to create the play.

Jacqueline Thompson transforms herself into the captivating and persistent Gobodo-Madikizela. With a spot on accent and reactions that reflect her character's changing perspective, she remains curious and nonjudgmental -- a surprise to both de Kock and the audience. She wants to know what happened under de Kock's leadership, how it made him feel, and, as importantly, why de Kock asked to speak with his victims' widows. There's an effortless empathy to Thompson's performance, ensuring we see the process and emotions Gobodo-Madikizela experienced. When she twitches with remembered pain, you wonder why she doesn't strike out. When she pointedly bites her tongue, you wonder where she finds the courage to continue. Thompson imbues every line with a sense of urgency and personal power, resisting the natural desire for retaliation with grace and refusing to be intimidated by de Kock. 

Christopher Harris is equally strong and filled with ambiguity as Eugene de Kock, easily moving from disturbing description to reflective thought. Though he is chained to his chair as well as locked behind bars, his mind is unencumbered. He casually describes his former reality in ways that seem at once callous and deeply convicted. Harris doesn't shy away from de Kock's ambiguities, making it clear that, despite his many crimes, he relied on an internal moral compass of sorts. This persistent, if flawed, morality leads de Kock to turn on his commanders and the resulting conversations are all the more fascinating for the apparent dichotomy, which Harris deftly conveys.

De Kock is inherently unsympathetic, but his intelligence and acknowledgement of his crimes is compelling, willing the audience to listen and asking us to suspend judgment without facts. In contrast, we expect Gobodo-Madikizela to be angry and accusatory, even vengeful, towards de Kock. Instead, Thompson fills her portrayal with genuine interest and a deep need for understanding over retribution. She truly seems to operate without a personal or political agenda.

Gobodo-Madikizela's story is presented in the form of a lecture with flashbacks that dramatize the conversations between her and the imprisoned de Kock.  Her lecture is enhanced with video projections, designed by Michael Dorsey, of scenes from South Africa. Some show the natural beauty of the country and its people, others remind us of the very real destruction and horror of apartheid. The video screen is actually a sliding wall, a part of Patrick Huber's effective set design that opens to reveal the visitors' room at the grey, colorless prison where de Kock is incarcerated.

Director Patrick Siler brings clear vision and a sense of purpose to the story, ensuring that each perspective is delivered with a smart, nonjudgmental touch. In light of recent history in a region that not so long ago felt the sting of racial disparity in very real and violent terms, it can be hard to be open to this story. Wright's script conveys historic and personal significance that reverberates without feeling preachy and Siler and the actors respond to spectacular effect. 

Unless we approach the lessons of history with a sense of shared humanity, we are doomed to repeat them. And perhaps the most important lesson we need to learn is that each of us, no matter our actions or motivations, are human beings first and foremost. Gobodo-Madikizela communicates this point in her poignant and moving book and Upstream Theater brings that story to life in fully connected performances that resonate with truth. Unsettling as it may be, A Human Being Died that Night, running through May 28, 2017, offers important insight into a tragic history in a fascinating, thought provoking show. 

 

 

Humans are curious, pernicious animals, incredibly resilient and capable even as their lives spiral in and out of their control. We experience a full range of emotions and can be as profoundly moved by pain as by beauty; but just as often, we hide behind convention and seek comfort and the familiar over the genuine. Playwright Tennessee Williams explores the insistence of human nature in the deeply confessional and occasionally unsettling Small Craft Warnings

Set in Monk's bar, a rundown dive on the coastal shoreline, the story introduces us to a cadre of broken individuals who nonetheless retain the will and fire to connect with others and experience the fullness of life. These are not the lives of the comfortably well off or aspirational working class, but rather the perpetual struggles of people who live on the margins. The crowd at Monk's on this particular night includes high functioning addicts, the displaced, and the underemployed. People you pass by on the street and try not to notice for fear of being asked for a contribution or ending up on the barstool next to them yourself.

Peter Mayer's pleasantly gruff Monk does his best to keep the place up, but he's slowly losing ground and there's a palpable sense of loneliness in his demeanor. He's generous to his customers and perhaps too softhearted to do much more than get by. He moves slowly and deliberately, wanting to keep the peace among his regulars and almost suspicious of newcomers to his little hole in the wall. Mayer gives the barkeep a tender disposition, but he's tough when he needs to be and knows just how to smooth things over with the local police.

Elizabeth Townsend's deeply troubled Leona is the center of the story simply by force of personality. By turns prodding, cruel, and inconsolable, she's on a bender to mark the anniversary of her bother's death and no one escapes her aim. A transient hairdresser, she's also come to the conclusion that she's spent too much time in this town and bar, but she's not leaving until everyone hears what she needs to say. Townsend gives Leona steely determination, acerbic wit, and a "take no prisoners" attitude that is at times abrasive and unkind, but filled with an undercurrent of need. 

Local lothario Bill gets a confidant swagger from Eric Dean White. He's on the prowl, looking for solace and sexual sympathy after a falling out with Leona. Magan Wiles' Violet needs a drink, a meal, and a place to stay. Though she's much abused by Leona, it's clear her own choices have landed her here, all her belongs in the suitcase at her feet and all her hopes in the sympathy of the other regulars. Jared Sanz Agero, as Steve, openly pines for Violet, but is resigned to playing second-fiddle to her whims. John Bratkowski's Quentin and Spencer Milford's Bobby share a different romantic disappointment, one masked in vaguely defined expectations and mistaken pretense. 

Finally, there's Doc, played with the mannerisms and predilections of the playwright by Jeremy Lawrence. The good doctor has lost his license but that doesn't prevent him from administering to the local population, most of whom are too poor to afford reliable care. A man with a deep appreciation for the miracles of birth and death, he continually finds bits of wisdom at the bottom of his shot glass. Together, these companions share the drama that's found on the edges of existence, where a drink may be the only bright spot in a day of struggles.

These are not the most sympathetic of characters, each is full of faults, but their stories resonate with genuine realism. We may not like them. We may look at them and consider ourselves lucky not to be in their position. But deep down, we recognize them. The need for connection, the desire to live life fully, and the contrasting fear of the pain -- these feelings are frequently unpleasant, but absolutely necessary to our existence. The ensemble finds the poetry in Williams' hard luck stories and makes us care what happens even as we thank our lucky stars that these situations are far from our own.

Director Richard Corley skillfully guides the actors, peeling back the carefully constructed masks they wear for the rest of society and revealing heartbreaking truths. Though we only see one side of their personas, we quickly get the sense that some of these characters are more able to blend in than others. It's a subtle demarcation that results in an unstated hierarchy -- one that works to fantastic effect. The rundown dive bar, designed by Dunsai Dai, has a recognizable quality to it; when combined with Michael Sullivan and Michael Perkins' lighting and sound design the result is a space filled with a haunting loneliness and sense of authenticity.

Small Craft Warnings, running through May 14, 2017 as part of the second annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, openly questions our will and ability to continue to press on no matter the circumstances. The characters are compelling if not always appealing, and buoyed by excellent performances and strong direction from Corley that brings their stories to life.  The result is a surprisingly intimate and moving production that captivates even if it occasionally makes you cringe. 

 

 

Most fans of esteemed American playwright Tennessee Williams will quickly agree that his characters are among the most interesting aspects of his work. Unmistakably complex and often existing on the fringes of "acceptable society," they frequently feel more profoundly and see and understand much that is unseen by others. Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis? pushes this idea with an interconnected narrative that blends the real and imagined in convincing fashion.

The primary story presents the three stages of woman: burgeoning sexuality; marriage and motherhood; and aging widow. There's a twist in the plot however, as Louise, the mother, is also a young widow. Louise is doing her best to maintain a proper household for herself and teen daughter Gloria, but it isn't always easy. Nora, their neighbor and a widow herself, tries to help the two as best she can, sharing food, gossip, and an interest in the spirit world with Louise. Still beautiful and in her prime, Louise nonetheless seems lost within herself and fundamentally stuck in meaningful repetition.

Both women long for the comfort of companionship that neither can provide for the other, and while Nora seems resigned to the idea that opportunity has passed her by, Louise clings to hope. The widows spend their evenings conjuring ghosts as Louise awaits the return of Mr. Merriwether, a handsome boarder that has captured her heart in desperate fashion. The two often compare notes regarding their spiritual visitors, apparitions that impart wisdom, poetry, and aesthetics with an air of authority even as they amiably question why they've been called forth. 

Louise does her best to control her daughter's need for attention, particularly from young men, but a part of her aches for that same touch. Her nerves seem frayed, but she carefully keeps up appearances as she waits for the return of her suitor. Her daughter, filled with hormones and a thirst for something more, spends her free time at the library writing essays for class and flirting. While her mother pines for a love far away, Gloria is motivated by an infatuation with a particularly handsome, but shy, young man. Their enthusiasm cannot be contained as they fumble and explore their bodies in a sensual pas de deux. 

Julie Layton is emotionally compelling as Louise, almost feverish in the belief her love will soon return, but she moves with purpose and dogged certainty. Kelly Weber's Nora is a doting mother hen with a comically long list of spiritual visitors and Molly McCaskill is filled with blossoming sexuality and a hint of rebellion as daughter Gloria. The three are also the only characters in the play that we're certain are real. Jacob Flekier, as the handsome young man, speaks with a stutter but finds confidence in Gloria's attention. Terry Meddows, Sophia Brown, and Bob Harvey are delightfully varied as multiple visitors from the spirit world; and their appearance as the three crones is earthy, comic, and telling. The apparitions, delightful characters from history and mythology, add texture and interest to the play, though their purpose remains vague. The performance is punctuated by Jack Wild's banjo, an instrument that adds voice and emotional texture to the complex story.

The story winds its way through the rooms of the Stockton House, the setting for the play, and the spirit visits interweave with Gloria and the young man's sexual exploration in a way that feels like an artfully choreographed dance. Director Jef Awada creates an atmosphere where the real and conjured characters insect without distraction, giving the entire production an ethereal dreaminess. The approach underscores the layers of emotion and need inherent in the script, creating a satisfying visual and sensory tapestry without sacrificing the plot.

A sense of ambiguity and spiritual curiosity is ever-present in the entertaining Will Mr. Merriwether Return from Memphis?, as is the sensuality of young love. The story moves effortlessly through a world that is not fully corporeal, yet remains authentic as it examines the emotional impact of loss and longing. The play, running through May 21, 2017 as part of the second annual Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, presents characters that society would often prefer to ignore and imbues them with a fragile grace that begs our attention. Without judgment or criticism, Williams questions prevalent morality and asserts the very human and fundamental need for the love of a companion.

 

 

This glorious old play by Garson Kanin was the vehicle that launched Judy Holliday into stardom in 1946. She played that archetypical not-so-dumb blonde, Billie Dawn. (Her reprise of the role in the 1950 movie won her the first Golden Globe.) Born Yesterday was revived in 1989 with Madeline Kahn playing Billie, then again in 2011 with Nina Arianda in the role. (Miss Arianda had wowed the world the previous year in Venus in Fur.) 

So that's some pretty tough competition for anyone taking on the role of Billie. But Heather Sartin carries it off with the same level of sheer perfection that stunned me two summers ago when she played Sabina in The Skin of Our Teeth. Vocally it's as if she were channeling Judy Holliday; the Bronxy, bright, energetic voice of this former show-girl just grabs you and swings you along into the story.

The story takes place in a posh hotel suite in Washington, D.C. Harry Brock, a rough-and-tumble junkyard mogul and multi-millionaire, has come to Washington to make sure that the senator he has bought comes through on some de-regulation that will allow Harry to reap mammoth profits on all the scrap iron cluttering up Europe after the war. Of course Harry brings along his doxy, Billie. Now Billie ain't exactly the most refined of ladies, and in order to polish her up a little so they can mix with the appropriate powerful folks Harry hires a nearby journalist to give her lessons in "couth". Big mistake! Paul Verall, the journalist, helps Billie to understand the newspaper, then books, then art museums, then more books. And there's a dangerous chemistry between these two. Now Billie had always thought that after she had two mink coats there was nothing left to wish for; but now she becomes addicted to thinking! And she's smart! ("Smart"! That's the word that best defines Miss Sartin's whole performance.) 

But Miss Sartin is not alone on the stage. She is wonderfully supported (well, maybe "battled" would be a better word) by Joe O'Connor as Harry Brock. Mr. O'Connor is a native New Jerseyite, and his accent is perfectly reminiscent of all those movie mobsters. Harry has "lived his life at the top of his voice," and Mr. O'Connor lavishly embodies that. What a tour de force! He bullies and bosses with wonderful power. Yet at moments he makes it heart-breakingly clear that he truly loves Billie. 

Now Harry, for complex tax purposes, has made Billie the legal owner of much of his empire. She normally just signs whatever papers he puts in front of her. But what's to happen when the now-enlightened and conscientious Billie realizes that much of that empire is corrupt, immoral, and perhaps illegal? 

The casting of this production is sublime! Mark Neels, a fine actor (and director) plays Paul. Tom Moore plays Ed, Harry's subtly boozy consigliore with just the right touch. Will Shaw, as Senator Hodges, looks every inch the part -- and really makes us believe this demoralized politician.

All in all, director Sam Hack has created a resounding success. Occasionally the pace could have been pumped a bit, but it was a happy evening of most solidly gratifying theatre. I thank the Clayton Community Theatre and its founder Sam Hack for bringing us quality productions of great American plays. I hope that many young theater-lovers will attend Born Yesterday to see what a truly well-made play, splendidly produced, is really like.

 

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