REVIEW: The Pigeon Keeper (Sitzprobe)

In the world of opera, new compositions are blossoming in opera houses throughout the country. SMTD’s own Voice & Opera Department is currently working alongside the Santa Fe Opera (SFO) to workshop a new chamber opera entitled The Pigeon Keeper. Commissioned by the SFO, the score was composed by David Hanlon with Stephanie Fleischmann’s touching libretto. This piece is still in progress here at SMTD and will have select open performances before its final showing with the SFO in March. This open sitzprobe rehearsal was presented at the McIntosh Theater (Moore Building) last Thursday to a small audience of students and faculty.

The opera showcases six main characters: Orisa, Thalasso (her father), The Schoolteacher, The Widow Grocer, Kosmo, and The Pigeon Keeper. Additionally, a women’s chorus (SSA), serving as crooning pigeons and schoolchildren, accompanies them. The Contemporary Directions Ensemble, under the direction of Jayce Ogren, collaborates with this cast comprised of auditioned singers and chorus members from The University.

The opera takes place on “an archetypal Mediterranean island”, following a young optimistic girl named Orsia and her father. They go on a fishing trip together on the anniversary of Orsia’s mother’s death and find a refugee boy in the water. The two take the boy in, but Orsia’s father proclaims he must stay somewhere else, or he will be sent to “the other side of the island”. With great worry, Orsia searches the island to find him somewhere to live, only to be confronted with shut doors and unwilling neighbors.

“Sitzprobe” comes from the German word for “seated rehearsal” an unstaged rehearsal where the orchestra and vocal parts will first come together. There are no costumes or set pieces, and the focus is entirely on the music In the moment. But the music truly lent itself to creating its own atmosphere. I rather preferred the lack of distraction from any technical aspects, leaving me to fixate on the captivating text. Fleischmann’s lyricism is quite prolific: she depicts such reality through an art form that is praised for being boisterous and grand. Likewise, Hanlon’s music is gracefully whimsical, while rooted in truth about the pressing immigration crisis in the United States and abroad.

The SFO website describes the piece as “[an exploration of] how we respond to those in need in a time of hardship and scarcity; and celebrates the kindness of strangers, the power of human connection, and the unexpected places we find family.”

The final performance will be conducted by Kelley Kuo, alongside soloists Laura Soto-Bayomi, soprano; Bernard Holland, tenor; and Aubrey Allicock, bass-baritone. It will be a free fully-staged performance on March 10th at 4 pm in the Stamps Auditorium at the Walgreen Drama Center. The opera will have its professional debut at the Santa Fe Opera later this year.

 

More on the Santa Fe Opera here.

REVIEW: The Grown-Ups

Directing student Leah Block (BFA 24′) presents her senior thesis: The Grown Ups  by Simon Henriques and Skylar Fox. This effortlessly quirky piece revolves around a group of young counselors from a summer camp who are earnestly cultivating the next generation of camp-goers. The counselors all love camp! And all their camp traditions! Except for the racist ones…like the previous Indigenous name of their predominantly white cohort or the exclusionary structure of camp games (lending preference to older kids and men). But besides that, it’s all fine…..right?

New counselor Cassie joins for her first summer at the newly renamed “Indigo Woods” and meets the easygoing Lukas, high-strung (but well-intentioned) Becca, overly excited Maeve, and the odd and hardworking Aidan. The group indoctrinates Cassie, welcoming her and really  wanting her to have a good experience at camp. Each evening the group comes together at the campfire, recalling scary stories of their previous camp years, debating the best tactics to support the campers all while a national online argument is breaking out, shifting the political sphere of the world. Summer camp can feel isolating for some, (especially as their world is crumbling underneath them) and these young adults are now the “Grown Ups” in the face of crisis.

This cast was thoroughly cohesive and enormously charming. Each character was undeniably unique yet eerily resembling someone you’ve met before (probably from summer camp). Becca (Sarah Hartmus) and Aidan (Hugh Finnigan) were house favorites, with electric chemistry and sidesplitting comedic moments. I enjoyed both their attention to comedic timing and thoughtful physical acting. While I was drawn to Becca and Aidan’s characters specifically, I felt deeply connected to each counselor as an audience member. The way Henriques & Fox crafted their intimate dialogues made it feel as though I instantly knew each of these characters. The seamless flow of the actors’ choices among one another further enhanced the sense of familiarity. This ensemble was tight, with a deep-cutting emotional payoff in the end.

When I walked in, I was apprehensive of an in-the-round setting—a notoriously difficult set-up to direct for. But Ms. Block had perfected it and some. Her direction was personable and genuine, I felt like I was involved in all of the camp discourse, and ultimately a part of the demise. The in-the-round choice was brilliant for the storytelling aspects of this show, leaving another theater full of young adults to look inward at our place in a world facing escalating disasters.  Her vision was clear and cohesive, as so many poignant themes made their way out of the writing onto the stage, cultivating a really powerful performance.

Camp Counselor Leah taught us many things throughout our time at Indigo Woods: “Just because it’s the way we have always done it does not mean that it is the best way”, “comfort is the death of progress”, and “We can’t let resentment of not getting the world we want to stop us from leaving it better than we found it (Directors Note)”. She brought us all inside an idyllic summer camp and from there we were abruptly shot back into reality—perhaps that was the point of camp all along.

 

[Photo above depicts Sam Smiley as Lukas.] Photo thanks to SMTD’s Theater & Drama Dept.

REVIEW: Arbor Falls

Kicking off the 2024 season for the SMTD Theater & Drama department is Caridad Svich’s Arbor Falls. It is a more recent piece, premiering in 2022 at Illinois State University. Directed by Tiffany Trent, this reflective and quiet play invites the audience to reflect on themes of community, fear, and change. According to newplayexhange.org, this is the fourth time the play has been fully produced onstage.

Arbor Falls is one part of Svich’s seven-play cycle entitled American Psalm. The plot revolves around the members of the dwindling members of a church within a small unnamed town. The preacher of the church allows a passing traveler to stay in their church, and the town unforgivingly reacts with gossip and rejection. The traveler exposes the spiritual and moral values that lie within their society’s foundation, as a juxtaposition to their seemingly neutral spirituality. The town members pressure the preacher to send the traveler away, as the traveler does not immediately fit into the community. Each character is unnamed and un-gendered, named “Preacher”, “Traveler” or “Churchgoer”, so the presentation of characters in this show is quite flexible. The freedom of dialogue and character presentation within the script was apparent, and I can appreciate how each production of Arbor Falls would have its own nuances based on the performers and community.

Set of Arbor Falls, Lydia Mendelssohn Theater

The set of the play didn’t entirely establish the environment of the town of Arbor Falls. I understood the simplicity of the townspeople’s viewpoints, their closeness to each other, and the dedication and importance of faith in their community, but I didn’t know exactly where we were (physically, or in time) from the assorted colors and textures. One enchanting aspect of the set was the courteous lighting shining through the top window. It functioned, to me, as the ounce of faith and hope left in the town. Which, is dwindling dimmer and dimmer, until a grand event near the end swoops the piece away.

The dramaturg team describes the play as “..an exploration of love, life, and the mess of all things human.” In my own reflection, this is an accurate description of the overall play, with the humble and morally conflicted Preacher, as well as the judgemental and pious Churchgoers. But moments after the curtain call, I found myself parsing through my memory of what actually had happened the last two hours. Svich’s poeticisms often fell short in terms of plot—their stillness and reflection were often lost to the audience. The story depicts itself at a lull through Act I, until an abrupt scene near the end, where the Traveler turns into a ghost(?) or eagle (?) flying away, absorbing the top of the window fixture. This abrupt moment made me question everything that happened before. This moment felt abstract for the groundedness that was created in the hour and a half before. The scene is still simmering in my mind—possibly the only moment that stuck.

Although, Svich’s blatant messaging regarding how communities treat outsiders was clear. She often explores stories of wanderers and the disenfranchised in her plays, connecting to her roots as a child of an immigrant. This relevant messaging shined through the rather monotonous performance.

The Department of Theater & Drama will present Anton Chekov’s The Cherry Orchard in the Arthur Miller Theater later this spring. Shows will run April 4-14. Tickets are available here.

 

 

Photo thanks to University of Michigan SMTD.

REVIEW: Gershwin Centennial Celebration

The University of Michigan’s School of Music is the world’s leading institution for the study of the work of the Gershwin brothers. SMTD partnered with the Gershwin family in 2013, and since then the team behind the Initiative has continued to educate and deliver George and Ira Gershwin’s iconic music to Ann Arbor community and beyond. Gershwin’s most beloved piece, Rhapsody in Blue, is enjoying it’s centennial this year, and the Initiative hosted a concert at the iconic Michigan Theater last Sunday to honor it’s legacy.

The concert featured SMTD’s Contemporary Directions Ensemble (dir. Jayce Ogren), along with a quartet of singers and pianist Kevin Cole, a member of the Initiative and a Gershwin brothers superfan. There were several speakers interjecting throughout the performance with information on The Gershwins including Editor-in-Cheif Mark Clauge, PHD stuent AJ Banta, Dean of SMTD David Gier and other presenters who work with the Initiative.

Four singers from the SMTD Musical Theater program performed songs from musicals the Gershwin’s wrote: Aquila Sol (BFA 25′), Keyon Pickett (BFA 25′), Alex Humphreys (BFA 24′), and Sam O’Neill (BFA 25′). The four were outstanding individual singers who nailed the pieces stylistically and dramatically while ensembling beautifully during their group numbers. Many of the musicals they were singing were not from the mainstream, including Of Thee I Sing, Sweet Little Devil, George White’s Scandals of 1924, and Lady Be Good. 

The concert closed with the iconic 1924 Rhapsody in Blue, a classic piano and jazz band piece that is always a hit with audiences. Kevin Cole was a fabulous soloist with the Contemporary Directions Ensemble and played with humble virtuosity and conviction. It was a thrill to see the piece performed in person. The concert was a hit, deeply appreciated by the Ann Arbor community.

 

More about the Gershwin Initiative here.

REVIEW: The Zone of Interest

[TW: This review contains information and descriptions of film content surrounding the Holocaust.]

Inspired by the 2014 book with the same title, The Zone of Interest  takes us into the political landscape of 1943 Poland. The film follows the journey of Rudolf Höss (Christian Friedel), and his family of six living a seemingly ordinary life inside the walls of the most horrific area on the planet. Framing the film through Höss’ character is an adaptive choice by director Jonathan Glazer and is based on a real person: a high-ranking S.S. Commandant whose contributions to the Nazi regime propelled significant advancements at the concentration camp Auschwitz I. He was the longest-serving commander at Auschwitz, and the film primarily revolves around his family’s life in a villa within the camp.

The movie first depicts the Höss family living a blissful life filled with trips to the nearby lake, picnics in the sun, and small gatherings in their beguiling backyard. His wife, Hedwig (Sandra Hüller), and five children reside in their idyllic house only a 10-foot, barbed wire-lined wall away from unimaginable horrors. Their pristine home is lined with a blossoming garden and filled with a herd of anxious servants attending to their every need. While the family lives in comfort, sounds of screams, trains, and gunshots are consistently murmuring in the background. Hedwig remains dismissive of the disruptions, choosing to ignore the truth behind her privilege, but her guests often question the blazing fires surrounding the sky at night and the smoky cough-prone air. The title, “Zone of Interest”, comes from the German word “Interessengebiet”, which was a term used to depict the restricted zone around Auschwitz. (Much like the family’s eerily cultivated lifestyle.)

The shots in the film are very matter-of-fact. We see moments in their life as they happen naturally, without a direct opinion from Glazer. The audience is fitted as bystanders, set up to observe the observers. We were left to parse through the morally uncomfortable life of the family individually, making the content even more unsettling. Glazer gracefully dances around the known violence that is occurring within the camp, but there is an implication that the audience is aware of the nightmares beyond, limiting the voices of the victims to sounds from outside and alarming innuendos. This choice haunts us and leaves us waiting for the terror that the audience never directly faces. Almost like the remaining five members of the Höss family.

The film briefly features music from the University of Michigan’s own Dr. Patricia Hall’s research, who founded the project “Music From Auschwitz”. Dr. Hall brings to life lost music written and performed by Auschwitz prisoners. The music is accompanied by a deeply painful context, but a firm reminder of history and a memorial to millions of lost lives. Her group has toured Holocaust memorial centers throughout Michigan and New York, and this summer will be traveling to Vienna to perform a concert of her manuscripts.

The film stands as a reminder of the horrors behind violent perpetrators and ignorant familial bystanders, along with all the art-deco bells and whistles. Zone of Interest  is playing in theaters now in Ann Arbor.

 

More on Music from Auschwitz.

105 minutes. Rated PG-13. German and Polish with English Subtitles. 

Image thanks to Cut & Run.

REVIEW: For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow’s Enuf

Basement Arts presents their first show of the season: For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide / When The Rainbow’s Enuf  by Ntozake Shange. The 1976 piece is presented as a choreopoem, a unique collection of spoken poems that intertwines staging and fluid movement. Director Sarah Oguntomilade works alongside choreographer Gilayah McIntosh to navigate Ntozake’s lyrical prose to create a piece illuminating the complexities of Black womanhood, friendship, and identity with unwavering grace and power.

In the show, each character is depicted as a color of the rainbow with the addition of brown. They perform some poems alone, but in other moments come together to deliver a unified story, creating a mural of emotions. Characters were acutely aware of one another, offering solidarity when some were delivering heavy-hearted monologues and experiencing saturated joy together for others. The performers breathe life into the individuality of their roles, showcasing a kaleidoscope of personalities that are both vivid and distinct, yet reminiscent of Ntozake’s personal experiences and emotions. Oguntomilade clearly holds a deep understanding of theater and poetry, as her direction was fluid and honest, capturing the essence of each moment poetically and dramatically. Accompanied by McIntosh’s seamlessly exciting choreography, the piece was aesthetically magnificent.

The authenticity of the choreopoem form shines through Ntozake’s meticulously crafted words, breathing life into the performance while speaking radiant visions of her experiences to the audience. The ensemble expertly navigated exhilarating highs and heartbreaking lows with unwavering conviction, leaving the audience both beaming with love and holding back a rush of tears. The poems fearlessly take on topics such as abuse, sex, and emotional trauma—it is a show to be emotionally prepared for while inviting audiences to confront the complexities of the African-American experience with unflinching honesty and empathy. The show humbly forms a mosaic of poetic brilliance that lingers long after exiting the theater.

For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Suicide / When The Rainbow’s Enuf  is a deeply touching piece about the resilience, bravery, friendship, strength, and beauty of African-American women, and went out last week with roaring success. Basement Arts will perform two more shows during the Winter season: Collective Rage: A Play in 5 Betties directed by Brynn Aaronson and Falsettos directed by Naomi Parr. Auditions and performance dates are posted on @basement_arts on Instagram. 

 

More about Ntozake Shange and her legacy here.

Image thanks to Basement Arts. Performed in the Newman Studio on North Campus.