REVIEW: Is This a Room

It starts with a foggy, black stage and a spotlight on a woman. That woman is Reality Winner. You may not recognize her name, but you might’ve heard her story. She leaked a document about the 2016 election to The Intercept and was arrested and sentenced to 63 months. However, as she sits in prison, Half Straddle, a New York Based-company, has kept her story alive, and they brought it to Ann Arbor in their UMS debut. 

The premise of the concept itself made the theatrical piece intriguing. With nothing to go off of but an audio transcript and the reported aftermath, I felt like there wasn’t much to the story. 

But boy was I wrong.

The tone, the body language, and the pauses—all of which were purely imagined for the stage—dictated the play more than the verbatim words. Every cough was captured, As the actors walked around the small stage, it shifted from the driveway to the backyard to room to room. And you knew that with every step they took, they were getting closer to the gripping truth. However, due to the bare staging and the nature of the script, some parts of the play were confusing as scenes shifted or we heard simply one-sided conversations. Additionally, the sudden bursts of noise and flashes of lights were unexpected, and while some of them indicated parts of the transcript that were redacted, others were unexplained, leaving the audience wondering what was being left unsaid and why things were staged a sudden way. The disorienting sounds of a synth further enhanced the thrill.

The four actors of Half Saddle conveyed the tense situation and brought the transcript to life in their imagined enactment. Emily Davis captured the nervous chuckles and humor of Reality, trying to lighten up the conversation as Pete Simpson and TL Thompson played the two special agents who acted friendly through small talk but persisted in getting the truth. Becca Blackwell played an unknown male whose role was pretty nebulous, but they seemed to alleviate the tension with their body humor. Their combined presence on the stage—making it a total of three versus Reality—seemed to corner her intimidatingly. When you realize there were eleven agents interrogating Reality in reality, the nerves conveyed in the transcript seem completely reasonable. 

“Is This a Room” is a surreal interpretation of the events that went down on June 3, 2017. And it’s a reminder that the ramifications of that day remain today.

PREVIEW: As Far As My Fingertips Take Me

Imagine what a lonely terror it is to lose your home to violence and instability, and then be cast into a stranger’s land. For most of us, this will never be our reality, but for the 70 million forcibly displaced peoples around the world, it is.

As Far As My Fingertips Take Me forces the subject to take on the identity of the refugee for a couple of minutes, reading the poignant writing on the wall and offering a nervous arm through to the unknown. This innovative one-on-one exhibit design incorporates the poetic and visual artworks of Basel Zaraa.

The work is the brain child of Tania El Khoury, a contemporary live artist known for her productions that illuminate issues that are of both the heart and political machine. This exhibit in particular has toured far and wide, gathering awed reviews from major publications like The Washington Post and The New York Times. 

The exhibit will be shown at the U-M Institute for the Humanities from January 24, 2020  February 2, 2020, tickets: ums.org. Be sure to arrive 15 minutes ahead of your showtime as the schedule is extremely strict.

REVIEW: Stew & The Negro Problem

Stew’s poignant prose accompanied by Heidi’s soulful melodies create songs that encourage and make you think all at the same time. It’s not until after many listens do you fully grasp all the references within the lyrics. Notes of a Native Song is an album meant to train its listeners to analyze every situation. Songs within the album are a clarion call for activism. Stew and The Negro Problem’s performance was an illustration of how songs can shine light on social injustice and inspire a generation to take action.

Stew, feeling under the weather, started by lowering our expectations, stating that the current performance could not nearly be as good as the previous night. However, halfway through the opening song, we knew that his disclaimer was not true. Stew and The Negro Problem kicked off the performance just as their studio album does with a song titled Baldwin CountryBaldwin Country gave the audience background information about James Baldwin. Stew used the song as an appetizer to sate the audience’s initial inquiries as to what the album is about and what kind of music they were about to hear for the ensuing hour.

Stew and The Negro Problem artfully lulled the audience during Istanbul. The song acted like a palate cleanser for the ears. Istanbul was followed by the thought-provoking lyrics of Amen Corner and Proof. “Jesus ain’t no match for jazz and these police.” “When the restlessness of Jesus meets the patience of Job.” “Power is so powerful it can’t afford to pay people to speak truth to it.” “Power looking ugly, Power looking mean, but never painting power so that Power’s ever seen.” These two songs have driving melodies and powerful lyrics.

Florida, Stew jested was the only political song on the album. A song in which the band plays a laid-back Californian beat while Stew compares Florida to other states in the Union. Stew suggests that no state is better than another; each state has pros and cons. But quickly follows up with “It doesn’t matter if the weather is great if I gotta wear a bulletproof vest.” The amusing comparisons and harsh criticism of Florida, made Florida my favorite song in the performance.

I was introduced to Stew last year when SMTD performed Passing Strange. The first act is a feast full of political statements and nuggets of truth not often heard aloud. It opened my eyes to musicals that have a motive other than to entertain.

Without force feeding the audience, Stew and The Negro Problem served up a well-balanced performance—one that left me full all the while leaving me to beg for more. The insightful songs and sounds of Stew and The Negro Problem inspired me, and I am thankful they returned to the University of Michigan to once again share their mighty message of a movement.

REVIEW: A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Theatre in the round? Kind of. But, like, more than that.

The University Musical Society brought this production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to the Michigan Theatre as a National Theatre Live streaming on Sunday, November 24. 

Director Nicholas Hytner’s take on the classic is comical, enchanting, and the most entertaining Shakespeare I have seen performed. During an intermission interview Hytner stated he began work on the play with some very strong ideas. First was the use of silks and aerial performance, as well as modeling the world of Athens after that of Gilead in The Handmaid’s Tale to reinforce the contrast between the repressive culture of the city and the freedom of the forest. The most effective directorial decision made by Hytner was to switch many of Titania and Oberon’s lines, changing the usual plot so that Titania is the one to trick Oberon, instead of the other way around.

In addition to his role as director of this production Hytner is also the co-founder of Bridge Theatre, a new 900-seat performance venue in London designed with a high degree of adaptability. As director he takes great advantage of this unique space to create the magical world of the forest. Production designer Bunny Christie uses this canvas masterfully as platforms are raised, lowered, and shifted through a standing audience to create an immersive and magical world. Beds that signify actual sleeping quarters in Athens return festooned with moss, vines, and leaves to represent the trees and landscape of the forest. The fairies’ domain is made of flying aerial silks which the actors use to great effect, spinning, twisting, and posing to illustrate their prowess in magic and spellcasting. 

Photo by Manuel Harlan.

The lighting design of Bruno Poet and sound design of Paul Arditti both work with the scenic design to create a wonderful sense of atmosphere. While the lighting in Athens is stark and monochromatic, it shifts to deep greens and ethereal purples once the story shifts to the forest. Poet also does a great job of creating focus on specific areas. While holding Titania in a spotlight, a burst of light reveals Puck, having sprung up on the opposite platform. Arditti’s well-chosen sound combines with these lighting effects to create an almost tangible magic in the air, reinforcing the omnipresent nature of the mischievous fae. His atmospheric soundscape is near perfect. The best sound atmosphere is one that goes unnoticed. It is felt but never inserts itself into the scene. The low synth chords of Athens and the lilting strings of the forest do just that. They imbue the audience with a feeling that not only fits the words of the playwright but also justify the other design elements. 

Photo by Manuel Harlan.

Christina Cunningham’s designs also reinforce the director’s visions. The stark and simplistic grey dresses of the Helena and Hermia in the city, combined with their white head coverings produce a broadly dystopian impression. The plain black suits of Theseus, Egeus, Demetrius, and Lysander are a uniform of masculine power. It is in these elements that Hytner’s inspiration from The Handmaid’s Tale is most evident. The Rude Mechanicals are costumed in jumpsuits, highly reminiscent of the party uniform of Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. However, the most striking Athenian costume is Gwendoline Christie’s first as Hippolyta. Her black gown is beautiful in its simplicity and powerful in its monastic silhouette. She is striking, posed as a stark statue in a glass cage, placed there by Theseus. The costumes of the forest characters present a more fun, whimsical image. Puck flits in and out of scenes in patchwork jeans, graphic tank, and colorful armbands. The other fairies have faces painted with glitter and look more like acrobats or fashion models than beings of nature. Oberon, cast by Hytner as a frivolous playboy, is perfectly gorgeous for most of the play in long flowing gold silk robe, often shirtless underneath. 

The one pitfall in the costume design is Christie’s green gown as Titania. This dress is emerald green, silky, more than floor-length, and one-shouldered. The asymmetrical floral detail on the bust contributes to a hyper-feminine and soft picture. This picture directly contrasts the headstrong, vengeful Queen that arises with Hytner’s line arrangements. What would make sense in a traditional rendering of Midsummer just doesn’t work here. 

The sheer amount of talent, wit, comedy, and spectacle in this show had me thinking back to it constantly. It made me glad to have seen it and glad to be studying theatre. If there’s one major objection I have, it’s that there’s almost too many ideas in this production. The audience participation and reaction is a riot to watch, the aerial work is amazing, the acting top-notch, and the designs gorgeous. But I at times felt lost in the concept of it. While likening Athens to the theocracy of Gilead creates a striking stage picture, the extremely heavy real-world consequences of that dystopia doesn’t seem to fit in the comedic, self-aware romp of the rest of the production. The aerial acrobatics are well-integrated until Gwendoline Christie spends her time as Titania just sitting on a silk, buckled in, drawing attention to the fact that she is not an aerial artist. The comedy is refreshing until the Rude Mechanicals’ performance near the end is so drawn out that people are checking their watches. 

But don’t get me wrong- this is a fantastic production. I haven’t read Midsummer for years and my memory of the plot was fuzzy, so this was a refreshing dip back into the story. And there’s so much more I could write about. Before this my favorite Shakespeare play was Twelfth Night, but Puck may have just bewitched me into changing my mind.

REVIEW: Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal

Last night, Hill Auditorium hosted the Orchestre Métropolitain de Montréal with singer Joyce DiDonato.  The concert started out with the overture to Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito.  They performed this work with a smaller orchestra that only took up about half the stage.  The instrumentation consisted of strings, a few winds, a couple trumpets, and timpani.  Once Ms. DiDonato joined the orchestra, the trumpets and timpanist left and a clarinetist made their way to the front of the stage to be featured alongside her.  I had heard of Ms. DiDonato many times, but I had never actually heard her sing live.  She was incredible.  Her voice sounded exactly like you would expect an opera singer’s to sound.  This is likely because she has set a standard in singing that others strive to match.  The interplay between her and the clarinetist was fascinating the watch as they alternated similar phrases.  She was able to perfectly match the articulation and timbre of the clarinet using just her voice.  In addition, she mimicked the other winds flawlessly, especially in the first aria.  There was a moment where she had a run of doubled notes that the flute played at a different time where she embodied the character of a flautist to a T.  As an encore, she joined the orchestra for a rendition of “Voi che sapete” from The Marriage of Figaro.  She used an iPad for the arias from La Clemenza, but she had this one memorized.  It was clear she had performed it many times.  She really took control of the stage by incorporating some acting into her performance and having some fun with Maestro Nézet-Séguin and the assistant principal first violinist.  Overall, the first half of the concert was great, especially for those who are big fans of opera.  On the second half, the orchestra played Anton Bruckner’s Fourth Symphony.  Bruckner’s music is best known for it’s epic, massive moments and this symphony had plenty of them.  The size of the orchestra seemingly doubled between the first and second halves with a full brass section, a timpanist, and about half a string section joining the chamber orchestra from the first half.  I thought the orchestra performed the piece very well, overall.  There were some questionable moments where the horns might have had an off night or the timpani might have been too loud for my liking, but mistakes happen in performances and everyone has their own opinion as to what sounds best.  The piece seemed to follow a structure of peaks and valleys which, honestly, gets pretty old in a symphony that’s over an hour long.  We’d hear a couple minutes of really loud, awesome music, followed by some softer, prettier stuff.  I feel like most great symphonies have a few moments that are really special and people immediately think of them when they think of that symphony.  This one had so many big moments that I can’t remember any of them because, even though they were awesome when I heard them, they all blended together.  None of this is the fault of the orchestra, of course.  They played it in a very convincing manner and Maestro Nézet-Séguin commanded the podium with an incredible energy.  They closed the night with a really cool encore by Violet Archer, a composer I had never heard of.  I really enjoyed the piece and was grateful that Maestro Nézet-Séguin exposed the audience to it.  I have seen him perform twice at Hill now, and he has been fantastic both times.  I will surely be going back if I see his name on the UMS schedule again next year!

REVIEW: Vivaldi’s Four Seasons / Max Richter’s Vivaldi Recomposed

Musically directed by the award-winning British violinist Daniel Hope, the Zurich Symphony Orchestra brought the Hill Auditorium to life in a stunning performance of Antonio Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons, and the UMS premiere of Max Richter’s Recomposed: Vivaldi – The Four Seasons.

Without a conductor, I was stunned to see the synchronization of this ensemble as the passages of the music would swell and subside. I observed the seamless communication of the ensemble members and the dynamics that flew to the auditorium ceiling and rolled like a broken wave to the very farthest row of the top balcony, captivating us with every note.

Upon the opening of Vivaldi: Recomposed, Daniel Hope encouraged the audience to enter in, saying “Mr. Richter’s reworking meant listening again to what is constantly new in a piece we think we are hearing when, really, we just blank it out.” From stage he shared the hopes that Richter had shared with him back in 2012: since Vivaldi’s music can be so oversaturated, he dreadfully wanted to reclaim its majesty through a new and awe-inspiring frame.

With a dreamy splash of lighting on the stage, Richter’s creative imagining of Vivaldi’s work cascaded into the audience. I caught myself almost laughing for joy in a state of sheer wonder-struck incredulity. This music lifts one up from themselves and draws them into something deep and grand. While Vivaldi’s Four Seasons was played with only one pause for applause, Richter’s Vivaldi: Composed was swept through without one. In the moments of break in between movements, you could hear thick anticipation hanging in the air.

The evening concluded with multiple standing ovations, so many, in fact, that Daniel Hope led the orchestra through three encore pieces that delighted the audience. We were given the ending of a movement from Vivaldi’s Concerto in A Minor, George Gershwin’s I’ve Got Rhythm, and a warming piece from Kurt Weill’s Knickerbocker Holiday. Each time an encore piece was finished, Hope would walk off stage, only to return with a shrug and a smile. Finally, amidst the grand applause, Daniel Hope played a charming solo rendition of Brahm’s Lullaby, delicately nudging the audience to take a hint and go home. This was a heart-warming moment, however, as each audience member began to gently hum the tune back, filling the auditorium with a wholesome glow.

As I was leaving the auditorium, I overheard an audience member beckon another to exit first as he jokingly remarked, “That’s what Vivaldi does to me.” This nearly imperceivable moment demonstrates exactly how the beauty of music strengthens the benevolence of our souls and encourages the virtues of the heart. My spirit was absolutely lifted by the music of Vivaldi and Richter, reminding me of exactly what a showcase of the arts should be about.