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REVIVAL OF AN ANCIENT TALE IN DANCE AND SONG

REVIVAL OF AN ANCIENT TALE IN DANCE AND SONG

Via Mark Morris’ Surprising Middle Eastern Foray

BERKELEY—Over the past four decades in  Iran, dancing has been either prohibited or frowned upon by the governing powers. In dramatizing a tragedy in timeless Persian song and dance, Mark Morris and his dance group are injecting new life into an endangered species from halfway around the world.

In his world premiere here, Morris co-created a 50-minute-long Persian-Azerbaijani work of song, music and dance, “Layla and Majnun,” based on one of the oldest stories from that tradition. It tells in poetic form of the ardent lovers driven apart by society, destined to be reunited only in death, much like  “Romeo and Juliet.” It is an international project, with multiple producers and performing sites sprawling over several continents in the overall schedule—but none of the sites in Iran, none of them in the turbulent Middle East.

Like most traditional Azerbaijani music, “Layla and Majnun” is dominated by vocals based on timeless poetry and Azerbaijani sources. Morris supplements the singers and half a score of instrumentalists of the Silk Road Ensemble with a dozen dancers of the Mark Marris Dance Group in his least familiar choreography, constructed of traditional moves, whirls and stances of traditional Middle Eastern performers.  The dances were tightly constructed with unified group movement, several line dances, and some discreet pairing off of the lovers Layla (the heroine) and Majnun; windmilling arm movements and extravagant gesture were an unexpected hallmark of these elegant performers. These dances served as the catalyst for access to the multi-media form, as the (newly arranged) century-old music by Uzeyir Hajibeyli and the foreign-language songs were quite unfamiliar to the attentive but polite sell-out audiences at Zellerbach Hall.

The drama conveyed by singers Fargana Qasimova and Alim Qasimov runs through successive descending steps: Love and Separation, Parental Disapproval, Sorrow, and the Lovers’ Demise. It is as touching as it is tragic. The songs, largely in the minor mode, followed a basic rainbow pattern, with each phrase starting and ending on a tonic as the lowest note. In between, singers used generous melisma, eloquently underlining the desperation of the lovers and their plight.

Supertitle translations of the poems were projected. One line in particular remains engraved in memory: “I need this sorrow, because sorrow needs me.”

The evening under Morris’ direction was elegantly produced, with colorful costumes andd scenic design by Howard Hodgkin. Even with a 20-minute introductory piece of instrumental-vocal music, the entire no-intermission evening ran only an hour and a half, leaving a few patrons muttering unhappily on the way out.

World premiere of “Layla and Majnun” songs and  instrumentals, plus performers of the Mark Morris Dance Group, at Zellerbach Hall, Berkeley, Sept. 30-Oct. 1, presented by Cal Performances. For info on upcoming events: (510) 642-9988, or go online.

©D. Rane Danubian 2016
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D. Rane Danubian has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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WOMEN AT THE FOREFRONT

WOMEN AT THE FOREFRONT

Ojai Fest Is the Latest Spotlighting Their Creativity

By Paul Hertelendy 
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area music and dance 
Week of June 17-24, 2016
Vol. 18, No. 73

BERKELEY—Is this the year of the woman in serious music?

The entire Ojai Music Festival program this year is dominated by women’s creativity, inclluding the major opus, Kaija Saariaho’s “The Passion of Simone.” Joana Carneiro will be one of the rare woman conductors at the San Francisco Symphony next season, Saariaho’s “L’amour de loin” is announced for the Metropolitan Opera, and the newest Pulitzer-Prize-winning composer is Caroline Shaw, a graduate student at Princeton. Marin Alsop meanwhile triumphs on podia on both coasts, completing her 27th year heading the nearby Cabrillo Music Festival.

The innovative northern outpost of the Ojai Festival got off to a ringing start this month with the rare phenomenon of a lobbyful of attendees animatedly staying after opening night, quite spontaneously, to discuss the concert experience.

This reaction emanated from the 21st-century monodrama music-theater piece, “The Passion of Simone” by Kaija Saariaho. The highly esteemed Finnish composer in Paris, Saariaho, 63, is a subtle colorist whose mildly dissonant, enigmatic  orchestrations keep you transfixed, grown out of the nebulous environments  of Debussy, “Pierrot Lunaire”  and early Stravinsky, almost devoid of brass. Instead of highlighting melodies, her scores are textures and effects, constantly shifting like the sunset light, sparkling like vintage champagne. Virtually all of the 20 orchestra members have separate parts to play.

Elusive content wrapped in a paradox? Yes, much like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle in physics, which says you can examine and absorb but cannot fully put your finger on it.

Saariaho’s “Passion” is a nebulous poetic allusion and reflection on Simone Weil (1909-43),  a French writer, political activist, factory worker, humanist, mystic and patriot. The work also draws parallels of Weil (who was at various times an agnostic, a Jew, and a Catholic devotee) to Jesus Christ, referring to the 14 Stations of the Cross. The texts, delivered by a “sister”  in song and word, reflect great compassion toward Ms. Weil in reference to this “fragile flame,” one that was largely overlooked until the posthumous publication of her writings.

The piece is built around an actress/narrator/mezzo singer interacting with the orchestra, with occasional interjection by a four-member Greek chorus. Even though her French diction was imperfect, singer Julia Pollock was impressive on a stage with its shifting colored lights, whether standing, emoting or just supine.

Directed by Peter Sellars, who is overall head of music for the 2016 Ojai Music Festival, “Simone” featured the crack New York-based ICE ensemble under the baton of Joana Carneiro, best known around here as music director of the Berkeley Symphony. She shaped the music adroitly and cued components carefully in her model appearance.

The disappointment was the brevity of the 75-minute program, for which adding an ICE-only curtain-raiser would have been very welcome, especially since ICE is so rarely heard on the West Coast. (Footnote: ICE’s artistic director is also a woman, Claire Chase.)

The three touring Ojai  programs which opened here June 16 conclude with Pollock returning for impressions of singer-dancer Josephine Baker, the alluring American expat who had been the toast of 1920s Paris.

Although given in the intimate confines of Zellerbach Playhouse on the university campus, “Passion” required using microphone amplification for the singers. Saariaho had originally taken up the project at the suggestion of the mercurial idea man Sellars.

Ojai Festival in Berkeley, June 16-18, Zellerbach Playhouse. Peter Sellars, music director. For info: (510) 642-9988, or go online.

©Paul Hertelendy 2016
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Paul Hertelendy has been covering the dance and modern-music scene in the San Francisco Bay Area with relish — and a certain amount of salsa — for years.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly) will focus on dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into books (by authors of the region), theater and recordings by local artists as well.
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A THEATER OF FOOTBALL, DANCE

A THEATER OF FOOTBALL, DANCE

 

The SF Playhouse brings another unusual and fascinating play to the stage, the West Coast premiere of Andrew Hinderaker’s “Colossal”.

Several of Hindraker’s works have played in New York and in Chicago, where he is based at Chicago Dramatists. “Colossol” is his most produced play and it is easy to see why.

The on-field team warm-up starts 15 minutes before the production and is a splendid work of football and dance choreography. It’s good to be in your seats 15 minutes early to witness these pre-game movements. The play takes place on all on the green field of synthetic turf ingeniously created by set designer Bill English who is also founder of the SF Playhouse.

The clock telling the score and the time in the background, like those in stadiums, counts down the time with the 15 minute quarters all corresponding to the length of the intermissionless play. The clock seems to add another element of suspense as you wonder what happens in this quarter or how does it end in this limited amount of time. It is all clockwork.

Using a dance company, three drummers, a football team plus a dramatic story of a father, son, lover and a debilitating football accident, Hindraker presents this play on several levels, all of which are timely as well as everlasting.

The story concerns a young man Mike who, in defying his father, signs up to play football. Mike (Jason Stojanovski) has been a member of his father’s (Robert Parsons) dance troupe when he defects to the more manly sport. He is injured so badly that he may never be able to walk again and is in a wheel chair during the entire play.

Watching a video of his mistake, going head first to defend a friend, he manages to bring up images of his former self. These become scenes with his young self played by another Mike (Thomas Gorrebeeck) who confronts him by calling him names, berating him and bringing up many of the details the story of Mike that would make me a spoiler if I revealed them. These dreams continue intermittently with the real stage events that include encounters with his tough therapist, team members and his father.

The play would not be extraordinary if it were not for the three drummers (Alex Hersler, Andrew Humann and Zach Smith), all playing different kinds of drums. These beats give the work a force and momentum that accompany the movements of the players who are six well-trained actors, dancers and athletes: Ed Berkeley, Paul Collins Brian Conway, Brandon Leland, Cameron Matthew and Xander Ritchey).

Mike’s best friend on the team Marcus (Cameron Matthews) plays an essential part in the story and until he disappears from the stage, he and Mike form a very close bond that is subject to ridicule by the macho players. The theme of homosexuality is part of the intrigue.

Much of the play is choreographed as a modern dance and the players are as adept at dance as they are in football maneuvers. Even the father creates his own dance movements as this is his best way to communicate his emotions.

The play raises the timely questions about brain injuries from football and the homo-erotic interactions of the players, whether they know it or not. The questions of why anyone would want to play football in the first place or even watch the slaughter are probed, but not answered. And this is theater in the best sense. It is not preachy, it doesn’t solve problems. It’s purpose is to expose them.

Jon Tracy’s direction is superb. He is in charge of actors, fight and choreographer consultants, musicians and continual movement that invites excitement as well as pathos.

“Colossal” is a play to see as it pushes the boundaries of conventional theater and is one of the best shows in town. It runs through April 20 at SF Playhouse, upstairs from the Kensington Park Hotel, 450 Post, one block west of Union Square. 415 677 9596 or sfplayhouse.org.

ERKELEY — through July 9. Call (510) 845-4700.
“Shockheaded Peter” runs through July 16. American Conservatory Theater, Geary at Mason, San Francisco. Call (415) 749-2228 or go online.
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© Carol Benet 2016

Carol Benet is a regular theater reviewer for artssf.com.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly)focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region)as well.
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NEW TWISTS IN BOY-GIRL MUSICAL

NEW TWISTS IN BOY-GIRL MUSICAL

“Dogfight” at the SFPlayhouse is a “Musical Love Story,” the old-fashioned kind of American musical where boy meets girl, there is a crisis and then they re-meet and everything is perfect. But this has a twist and even though it is placed during the Vietnam wartime in 1963 it feels very modern.

The music is modern as well. The music and lyrics of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul come from the school of Steven Sondheim or even Leonard Bernstein with their bouncy syncopation, experimental harmonies and always clever lyricism. Even one of the characters is called Bernstein in homage to the great American composer for whose “West Side Story,” Sondheim wrote the lyrics.

The love story opens when 6 Marines have the night off in San Francisco before they report to duty and are sent off to Vietnam. They are ready to let loose, drink, womanize and paint the town red. In fact this is the same story, sort-of, of Bernstein’s “On the Town.”

The marines play “Dogfight,” a game where the guy who has a date with the ugliest girl wins the pot that they pool together. Eddie Birdface (Jeffery Brian Adams) is the character we follow closely. He is dour, feisty and ready for a fight. He’s also shy, sensitive and inexperienced, although he tries to disguise this.

Adams is the same character we recently saw in the SFPlayhouse production of Sondheim’s “Promises, Promises,” in which he starred as the blasé, uncaring, hard to catch cad. Maybe he is being type-caste, but it is to our advantage because Adams in these roles demonstrates one of the best voices and acting on the local musical stage today.

His character Eddie meets Rose Fenny (Caitlin Brooke) in her mother’s modest restaurant where she is a waitress. Rose fits the role as his date for she is overweight and awkward. Eddie invites her to the wild party with the others. Before going she is so excited and nervous that there is a whole scene in her tiny bedroom when she is trying to decide what to wear as she sings “Nothing Short of Wonderful,” one of the most Sondheim type songs in the play. Brooke too has a beautiful voice throughout and she creates a sympathetic character.

The excellent music runs through the entire two act show. There is a fine seven piece live band placed above the stage behind a screen. Michael Gene Sullivan sings to the party goers and encourages them to dance close. He and others in the cast play multiple roles from the time of the marines’ departure until the return during the height of the hippie era.

At the party Rose finds out about the cruel “Dogfight” game in which she unknowingly a contestant. She leaves heartbroken. Eddie comes to his senses in the second act after the real fight scene in Vietnam whose outcome I won’t reveal. This is a musical that is as funny as it is sad. It is similar to Paul Taylor’s famous ballet “Company B” where midst all the merriment, the World War II soldiers start disappearing one by one.

The rest of the cast is multi-talented in their acting, dancing and singing abilities. Marcy, (Amy Lizardo) wins the dogfight contest but Sally Dana and Kathryn Fox Hart are not far behind. The other Marines, Jordon Lee Bridges, Nikita Burshteyn, Brandon Dahlqvist and Andrew Humann, are equally effective in their roles.

And as for direction, again founding director of SFPlayhouse Bill English stars. He also designed the clever set with a large Golden Gate Bridge tower and images of San Francisco of like the Painted Lady Victorian houses, John’s Grill and Tommy’s Joynt. Tatiana Genser’s costumes, Steve Schoenbeck’s sound and David Lee Cuthbert’s lightings and projections make this a superb production.

But I have one big complaint. I don’t know why the SFPlayhouse decided to mike the singers. The theater is not that big, at least not like those barns of empty space on Market Street where the Best of Broadway plays run. The microphoning of singers in these monstrous theaters drive me insane as you can never tell from where the singing comes as it bounces off the walls.

SFPlayhouse is intimate enough and the singers are so well-trained that they do not need to be amplified. The chorus numbers become so deafening in the small space that I had to reach for my earplugs.

Otherwise, this is a wonderful production with a meaningful script, beautiful music and outstanding performance. “Dogfight” won the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Musical plus many other honors.

“Dogfight” runs through November 7, 2015 at SFPlayhouse, 450 Post near Union Square, San Frfancisco. For info: 415-677-9596 or go online.

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© Carol Benet 2015

Carol Benet is a regular theater reviewer for artssf.com.

These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly)focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region)as well.
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SHIFTING SHOALS, SHIFTING FAMILY TIES

SHIFTING SHOALS, SHIFTING FAMILY TIES

New Play at Berkeley Rep

By Carol Benet
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area theater
Weeks starting May 5, 2015
Vol. 17, No. 53

BERKELEY — Tarell Alvin McCraney’s “Heads of Passes” is a faith-based play with a topline cast about family conflicts in the Deep South, loosely based on the Biblical “Book of Job.” With added rewrites after its Berkeley Rep run, it will be headed to New York City.

Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney is big news in the Bay Area currently. This MacArthur Genius Award winner will have two plays in two theaters this spring. June 4 “Choir Boy” starts at the Marin Theatre Company. Presently his “Head of Passes” runs at the Berkeley Rep.

“Heads of Passes” is the land where the Mississippi River runs into the Gulf of Mexico and it is made up of muddy, shifting and highly unstable terrain. It is said that Louisiana loses an acre of land every 33 minutes as this changing wetlands are constantly dumping into the Gulf. Who would build their home there? Who would stay there knowing that hurricanes are constant? We in the Bay Area understand well this gamble with fate.

The play starts in the well-tended and lovely bourgeois house of the widow Shelah (Cheryl Lynn Bruce). Her servants, the father Creaker (Michael A. Shepperd) and his son Crier (Jonathan Berke), are dressed up in ties, white shirts and black pants for serving at the upcoming gathering of the family. The elderly mother Shelah insists that this is not a “party” but still they string decorative lights from the ceiling. The three children are returning home at their mother’s invitation.

First comes Aubrey (Francois Battiste), a well-dressed, successful adult. From the conversation with his mother we find out that the other two grown children are not doing as well as he. Spencer (Brian Tyree Henry) comes in to a barrage of criticism because he did not properly oversee the new roof through which the rain is leaking into the living room. Cookie (Nikkole Salter) is an angry and combative woman who needs money even to pay the man who drove her the 75 miles to the remote location.

A family friend Mae (Kimberly Scott) is part of the gathering that the servants are preparing. She with Creaker provide almost hysterical interludes of dancing, joking and merry-making to the otherwise grim story unfolding on stage. The rain persists and soon the buckets are unable to keep it out for long. Storming wind (sound by Robin Milburn and Michael Bodeen) accompany occasional power failures. The nervous weather reflects the agitation among the characters on stage. The only white member of the party is Dr. Anderson (James Carpenter) with whom Shelah shares a few secrets, one of them about her deteriorating health. She has gathered the family to discuss her will.

Before she can do this though, family dynamics unexpectedly take over. In the hurricane, the house, brilliantly engineered by set designer G.W. Skip Mercier, starts to deteriorate. Throughout a mysterious and ever-present Angel (Sullivan Jones) accompanies Shelah in her alone times where she is ready to meet her maker.

The play is roughly based on the Book of Job, a work that the Steppenwolf Theatre Company, where the play originated, read thoroughly. Tina Landau, ensemble colleague of McCraney’s , worked with him on the creation of this play and here she is its masterful director.

In the “Book of Job,“everything is perfect until it the moment when it suddenly starts to unravel. When everything is lost at the end Job cries out to his lord. And at the end of this play Shelah faces the similar predicaments as disaster is piled upon disaster. She wonders whether there is a divine order? And like Job she asks, “Where are you?” and cries out “I want to know why.”

This is a play that does not provide any answers. Shelah’s last monolog is a rant, one that is difficult to maintain for the length of time required. But otherwise the play is well-constructed, fast-moving and fascinating. It lasts 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission.

The entire cast except for Carpenter makes its Berkeley Rep. debut. This work has has undergone several re-writes since its Steppenwolf opening and will be polished further before going to the Public Theatre in New York. As it is, it is almost ready.

“Head of Passes” runs through May 24 at the Berkeley Repertory Theatre, Berkeley.
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© Carol Benet 2015
Carol Benet is a regular theater reviewer for artssf.com.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly)focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region)as well.
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‘TARTUFFE’ ANEW AT THE BERKELEY REP

‘TARTUFFE’ ANEW AT THE BERKELEY REP

Timely Hypocrisy, Pomposity, Comedy

By Carol Benet
artssf.com, the independent observer of San Francisco Bay Area theater
Weeks starting April 5, 2015
Vol. 17, No. 49

BERKELEY—Molière’s satirical comedy “Tartuffe,” first performed in 1664, remains one of the most timely scripts ever written despite the vast time gap since it appeared, it. In it, Molière makes fun of excessive religiosity, yet this new interpretation at Berkeley Rep by Dominique Serrand and Steven Epp, who plays Tartuffe, is both hilarious and scary. Scary because the effect of religious extremism is so frightening.

Orgon (Luverne Seifert) is a domineering bourgeois husband and father who happens to have been bitten by the super-religious bug. The first crisis in his family is that he demands that his daughter Mariane (Lenne Klingaman) marry the older fop Tartuffe rather than her beloved Valere (Christopher Carley). Mariane’s faithful servant Dorine (Suzanne Warmanen) does all the reasoning and arguing for her charge and what a loud-mouth she is. She, like all of the servants in Molière, is the wisest person on stage. She is also one of the funniest.

The next crisis involves Orgon’s son Damis, played expertly by the understudy Benjamin Ismail, who has also disobeyed his father. Then comes Tartuffe (Steven Epp), the super arrogant, super pious suitor to Mariane. He and his two henchmen take over the house, one that has been decorated like the inside of a church with it’s high windows and religious holy water font. Take over is a mild term for how Tartuffe has manipulated Orgon and by the end of the play all of the latter’s possessions now belong to this slippery and bigoted fake.

The scenes with the false religious ceremonies, including incense, tinkling bells, choral music, and even worse – crucifixes, are amplified by Tartuffe’s costumes that look like they come out of a chic Buddhist monastery reminiscent of David Mitchell’s far-fetched books. These scenes with all the accoutrements of devotion are creepy and omnipresent in many religious orders. Tartuffe and his men pray on rugs facing in one direction, make hand signals and motions of genuflecting that Orgon sometimes imitates during his pig-headed spiritual devotions.

In the second act, the stage comes alive when Orgon’s wife Elmire seduces Tartuffe in order to show Orgon that Tartuffe is nothing but a snake. (Elmire is played by a sexy Sofia Jean Gomez with hair so short and blond that it must have been patterned after Robin Wright’s in “House of Cards.”) At this point, the plot takes a nose-dive. Not until the very end does Molière do what the French call a “Volte Face,” that the plot really reverses itself. In the playwright’s obeisance to the reigning King Louis XIV (The Sun King), he concludes with an act signaling the wisdom of the state, and therefore the king.

Despite this happy ending, the play was written and is still re-written and re-played because it is a critique, not only of religion but of state dominance. And that is why it remains timeless.

Try to see this excellent 2 hour, 40 minute play with one intermission at the Berkeley Rep, a theater that has welcomed Steven Epp and director Dominique Serrand several times in the past. “Tartuffe” is a co-production of the South Coast Repertory and The Shakespeare Theatre Company in Washington, D.C. It is worth getting over there to see it.

Molière’s “Tartuffe” at the Berkeley Rep. Closes Sunday night April 12. For info: (510) 845-4700, or go online.
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© Carol Benet 2015
Carol Benet is a regular theater reviewer for artssf.com.
These critiques appearing weekly (or sometimes semi-weekly, but never weakly)focus on theater, dance and new musical creativity in performance, with forays into recordings by local artists, and a few departures into books (by authors of the region)as well.
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