REVIEW: Arbor Falls

7:30pm • Thursday, Feb. 15, 2023 • Lydia Mendelssohn Theater

The School of Theater, Music and Dance’s production of Arbor Falls this last week was a unique and memorable take on faith, community, and change. Arbor Falls tells the story of a small town grappling with change. A traveling stranger has come to town, granted refuge in the preacher’s small, failing church. The stranger’s presence in Arbor Falls resurfaces the old hurts and prides of the residents’ lineages, forcing them to reckon with what it means to preserve one’s history and when to move on. Having grown up in a small town, it was interesting to compare and contrast the world created in the play with my own personal experiences.

For me, the best part of this play was the script, the core around which the rest of the performance was built. The play was written by Caridad Svich, a much-awarded playwright who also translates works of theatre in English and Spanish. For me, it felt like she captured the essential characters and perspectives of a small town, then romanticized them into something altered but recognizable. Arbor Falls was like my home-town portrayed through an Art Nouveau lens, all curliques and flourishes. She wrote much of the dialogue in an unusual syntax, perhaps meant to evoke rural dialects, which engaged my curiosity. I could sort of imagine the script being read by people I grew up around, but those words felt awkward spoken in theatre students’ voices. Real but unreal.

Stylistically, the production felt untethered in time and space. The Arbor Falls onstage was like no small town I’ve ever lived in, but recognizable at the same time. Svich’s treatment of religion in the script merged the mundane with the otherworldly, and the set and costumes materialized this tension. The costumes were a bit bohemian–they reminded me of clothes you would see at a small folky music festival, or maybe a renaissance fair, made new to look old. Not like anything I’ve ever seen anyone wear, but they helped create the unique world of Arbor Falls. Similarly, elements of the set, like the preacher’s pulpit, appeared to in the process of sinking into (or emerging from) boulders. Or, perhaps, they were symbolically embedded in the land as a representation of the characters’ roots in Arbor Falls.

Overall, I thought Arbor Falls was a beautiful interpretation of how we might maintain or fail to maintain our values, how we grapple with the baggage of our heritage to navigate change. I wish I could watch it again to really grasp all of the nuances in the language, but I deeply enjoyed my experience watching this last Thursday.

Featured image from SMTD digital program.

REVIEW: Imogen Says Nothing

The School of Music, Theater and Dance production of Imogen Says Nothing this past weekend was ferociously compelling. The play, written by Aditi Brennan Kapil, imagines the story of Imogen, a character listed in an early manuscript of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing who has no voice and appears to be a printing mistake. In Kapil’s absurdist revisionary take, Imogen (Brynn Aaronson) is a bear passing as a human who travels to London to request that her village’s name be restored from “Quaere” to North Burcombe on a map of the Theatre of the Great British Empire. Instead of the mapmaker, Imogen finds the literal theater in which William Shakespeare works. What follows is a creative, satirical critique of the misrepresentation, silence, and absence of marginalized identities in written word. 

My favorite element of the production was Imogen’s unapologetic, fierce presence. Imogen lumbers, she growls, she is blunt and direct and makes demands. In Imogen’s character, I saw the functioning of “pariah femininity,” a term coined by feminist scholar Mimi Schippers: a form of femininity which is constructed in opposition to traditional, “hegemonic femininity” (forms of femininity which uphold the gender order/patriarchy) and characterized by stereotypical forms of masculinity like authority, physicality and non-compliance made reprehensible by their female embodiment. 

Throughout the play, characters repeat the phrase: “It’s a frightful thing, to be absent.”  Many elements bring forward the idea of absence in the play. Quaere, the village Imogen comes from, is a play on the Latin word for query, suggesting that the mapmaker simply neglected to return to the location and find out its name. This brings to the fore the experience of people from lands which are constantly, often intentionally, overlooked, and the importance of being seen. There is an ongoing conversation which picks up in different forms throughout the play, about the tyranny of “ink,” and the significance and permanence of what is laid down in ink. Imogen struggles with William Shakespeare to be eternalized in the script of Much Ado About Nothing for her appearance in the first act of the play. In the end, her friend and client Henry Condell (Rohan Maletira) re-writes Imogen’s name into the play out of a sense of guilt, but as Kapil makes abundantly clear in the final scene of the play, his choice is not the point. Imogen’s subjectivity is the focal point of the play, and she reclaims her personhood (bearhood?) by meting out justice upon the men who tried to erase her. 

REVIEW: Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World

7:30pm • Wednesday, Nov. 15, 2023 • Arthur Miller Theater

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, a multimedia, experimental theater performance which I experienced last Wednesday, told the true story of iconic Iranian pop star Fereydoun Farrokhzad’s unsolved murder. At the same time, many stories collided to provide context for and complicate the idea of “solving” a murder mystery. The performance challenged the idea of “knowing” itself, contending with the maxim: “The more you know, the more you understand.” 

This performance was the third in a trilogy written by the Javaad Alipoor Company, named for the show’s co-writer and artistic director (as well as performer), Javaad Alipoor, a British-Iranian artist. At the beginning of the performance, Alipoor spoke to the audience and described himself as a bridge between the audience and the reality of the Iranian diaspora, one which would help us better “understand” a reality potentially foreign to ourselves. Alipoor wove his story and his heritage into the fabric of the performance, winding it around that of Farrokhzad. He also brought in another thread through his collaboration with Raam Emami, better known as King Raam, an Iranian/Canadian musician whose podcast, Masty o Rasty, has a cult following among Persian-speakers and has been streamed more than 20 million times. The show used a combination of media, including spoken word, video, and true-crime podcast to bring the three men’s stories together. 

As I referenced earlier, Alipoor prefaced the show by speaking on our constant desire to know things, in order to understand the world better, and how modern technologies like Wikipedia can serve that desire. For a moment of audience participation, Alipoor asked us all to get out our phones and use Wikipedia to look up a word shouted out by the audience: “cuscus,” a kind of Australian possum. He had us skim the page and click on the first link that looked interesting, and continue doing so, for a minute. He then used this activity to challenge the idea that reading anything on the Internet, or gaining any kind of knowledge, will necessarily allow us to understand another reality. By framing the performance in this way, Alipoor challenged the proposition that by watching a multimedia performance about the murder of Fereydoun Farrokhzad, we would somehow “understand” his murder, or the broader set of stories which form the Iranian diaspora. 

I found this performance completely fascinating, and it made me think more deeply about how I consume and use information in my daily life. For me, it highlighted the importance of cultural humility: a balance between awareness and appreciation of other ways of being, and the knowledge that we can never truly understand another’s experiences. In the absence of understanding, empathy is essential. Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World pointed out that even in our highly digital, information-saturated lives, there are some who have been made invisible to us, and it is our obligation to be aware of (and assist in) their struggles.

REVIEW: Orpheus in the Underworld

8:00pm • Saturday, Nov. 4, 2023 • Power Center

SMTD’s production of Orpheus in the Underworld (Orphée aux enfers) this past weekend was campy and aesthetically chaotic. The opera was originally written in 1858 by librettists Hector Crémieux and Ludovic Halévy and composer Jacques Offenbach, and is a humorous, irreverent take on the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In this rendition, directed by Mo Zhou, SMTD chose to extend the opera’s original political critique of capitalist power structures into the 1950s, on the cusp of the Kennedy presidential campaign. The result is a complex amalgam of messages and meanings which I will discuss below. 

The notes provided in the program for this performance were essential in interpreting the many points the creative directors wanted to get across. First, the “About the Authors” section conveyed the point that each of the authors drew inspiration from the politics of their time. Mo Zhou elaborated upon that point in her director’s note, drawing from Offenbach’s “turbulent relationship with personal finance” to develop the opera as a statement on the privileged elite and capitalism. Further, the dramaturgical team focuses on how including Public Opinion as an archetypal character frames and translates the plot for the audience. Finally, the dramaturgs suggest that Offenbach wrote feminist meanings into the opera and subverted power structures by making Public Opinion a female character and focusing on Eurydice’s romantic self-determination.

I would not necessarily have read all of these themes into the opera without the program to point them out. In terms of the political and labor meanings of the production, the set did much of the heavy lifting. Larger-than-life vintage advertisements framed the stage, literally presenting each scene through a lens of consumerism. In the scene where the gods revolt against Jupiter’s rule, they carry signs parodying the labor movement with slogans like “Give Me Generational Wealth or Give Me Debt.” 

Despite the dramaturgical efforts to read feminism and liberation into Orpheus in the Underworld, my perception of the gender relations in this story was more cynical. While the role of Public Opinion as a female character was meant to give “the voice of the collective Greek chorus … to someone who historically was not given a voice,” her comparatively minor role in the story didn’t allow a full development of that voice. Personally, Offenbach’s treatment of Public Opinion as a female character felt more mocking of women as arbiters of social control.

All of that said, this performance was a lot of fun to experience, with all of its wacky, unexpected pop-culture references (Elvis as Bacchus?). There was so much going on that I don’t know if my confusion is a critique or a sign of some complex theatrical genius on the side of the production’s creative team. The set and costumes were beautifully and thoughtfully designed, and the cast performed splendidly. Orpheus in the Underworld was both entertaining and intellectually stimulating, and I thoroughly enjoyed picking apart the creative choices which pulled this performance together.

REVIEW: DakhaBrakha

7:30pm • Friday, Nov. 3, 2023 • Hill Auditorium

Seeing DakhaBrakha last Friday night at Hill Auditorium was a unique musical experience. DakhaBrakha is a Ukrainian folk-punk quartet composed of artists Marko Galanevych, Olena Tsybulska, Iryna Kovalenko, Nina Garenetska, that blends genres and sounds to create a musical signature which the band refers to as “ethno-chaos.” Their work derives from and pays tribute to Ukrainian folk music while existing in its own space of reinvention and joyful experimentation. Friday’s performance was dedicated to the bravery and resilience of the Ukrainian people, a message which the band conveyed through both their music and the visual representations which played behind them as they performed. 

The performance followed a soft narrative arc, moving from a serious depiction of Ukraine in the midst of war to a hopeful glimpse at what a post-war Ukraine might look like. At first, the tone was almost solemn. The great destruction and loss faced by the Ukrainian people were juxtaposed with the resilience and vibrance of the culture and nation that empower them to continue fighting. Animations created by Ukrainian artists depicted stylized warriors swirling around the band as they performed, or eagles transforming into warplanes as they flew across the stage. For me, the most powerful imagery was during a song dedicated to those who are fighting for Ukraine’s freedom. The song featured a compilation of videos depicting dozens of Ukrainian soldiers in what seemed like small moments of lightness: smiling for the camera, laughing together, putting up peace signs and throwing their arms around one another. The last few songs looked forward into a future where Ukraine has peace and freedom. As the artists put it, after the winter comes spring, which they captured in a beautiful song that opened with startlingly realistic bird calls. 

This was my first time listening to music with Ukrainian roots, which made the concert particularly exciting for me. The range of vocalizations employed by the artists was fascinating, and paired with their complicated, unfamiliar harmonies, I found myself completely absorbed in the aural experience of the performance. The song “Vynnaya Ya” exemplified this range: I loved how Galanevych’s voice bounced between growling bass and high, trumpet-like scatting. 

In conclusion, I am so grateful that I had the opportunity to see this spectacular group perform in Ann Arbor, and admire DakhaBrakha’s commitment to uplifting Ukrainian voices and culture. 

REVIEW: Tiger Stripes

7:30pm • Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2023 • State Theater

Directed by Amanda Nell Eu and brought to Ann Arbor by the annual Halaloween film festival, Tiger Stripes follows Zaffan, an 11-year-old girl living in rural Malaysia, and her friends Mariam and Farah. When Zaffan has her period, drastic changes begin occurring in her body and she becomes a social pariah, only to discover her own power.  Tiger Stripes captures the fraught experience of adolescence through a combination of thoughtful character development and body horror. 

In the beginning of the movie, scenes where Zaffan dances for TikTok videos in the school bathroom and rough-houses with her friends develop her feisty, rebellious nature. At the same time, Farah’s disgust and Mariam’s admiration for Zaffan’s behavior set the stage for the relational conflicts which occur later in the story. Something I thought was brilliant in the way Eu portrayed the friends’ responses to Zaffan’s rebelliousness, and then her period, was how they hinted at the process of socialization and the intergenerational transfer of beliefs and values. Farah’s story about how mad her father was when her older sister bled on the couch revealed how Farah’s personal experiences informed her understanding of menstruation. 

Also brilliant was the way that Eu projected beliefs and values about purity and cleanliness present in Zaffan’s community directly onto her body. When Zaffan gets her period, the first thing her mother says is “You’re dirty now,” shepherding Zaffan into the shower. Later, Zaffan’s former friends bully her, saying that she smells and questioning whether she is taking showers. Zaffan becomes afflicted with angry red rashes all over her body, her nails peel off, and her hair begins falling out, a physical manifestation of her friends’ teasing. Zaffan’s fear and disgust at the changes occuring in her body reflected the feelings many girls experience during adolescence.

Even in the midst of all of these horrors, Zaffan remains true to her bold, joyful identity, emerging from the trials of adolescence as a powerful, liberated new version of herself. Eu brings moments of levity into the story using tongue-in-cheek special effects and comedic jump-scares that seem to infuse the movie with Zaffan’s bright personality. I loved the way Tiger Stripes brought joy and humor together with horror to portray adolescence and coming of age. It was a new experience for me to embrace horror as a genre that can be playful, even funny, and made me ask new questions about the balance between serious subjects and making fun out of their representation. I cannot recommend this movie enough, and encourage you to watch it if you have the opportunity.