Posts Tagged ‘prototype’

Dog Days: Trust, Betrayal, and That Which Can’t Be Unseen

Dog DaysI wasn’t prepared for the ending of Dog Days. I’d gleaned enough from the reviews that the piece was powerful and unsettling, but I wasn’t prepared. (This might be a good time to say SPOILER ALERT. And apparently the creators have asked critics not to reveal the ending. Read at your own risk. Then again, watch the piece at your own risk.)

But yes. The ending was a surprise to me. A most unpleasant surprise. Not because I couldn’t see it coming, if anything, part of the surprise was because it was TOO obvious. You start the show with a stray dog (or a man in a dog suit), a dad with a rifle, and a hungry family relying on dwindling government rations for food. What do you think will happen? Surely it will go somewhere besides the obvious resolution to that story. And if it does need to go there, surely it will be done in a way that transcends or illuminates. But, (surprise), it does. And, (bummer), it doesn’t.

The most bitter component of that disappointment: I TRUSTED them. Up until that final, miserable tableau, I had complete faith in the creators. They’d constructed a compelling world filled with human characters I cared about. There are a lot of things in the opera which are pretty darn good (feel free to read any of the superlative reviews in the major outlets if you doubt me). There were some questions (If there’s no food how do the boys manage to still have weed to smoke?) and some questionable staging choices (do we really need to see one of the boys jacking off under a blanket?), but I was in it and eager to see where they went. Until they went there.

I don’t need a happy ending, there’s salvation in a well earned catharsis, but if you’re going to bring on the brutal, you better have a damn good reason to subject your audience to the things you’re asking them to endure. And for the life of me I couldn’t figure out what I was supposed to take from this. Is there anyone over the age of 13 who doesn’t know full well that humans will do the unthinkable when starvation is the alternative? If you’re gonna bring the hoary chestnut of savage desperation to the stage, you better be bringing something new to the table besides the novelty of the shock. What’s the angle here? Where’s the insight?

With no answers to be gleaned from the production, I turned to the source material. Reading the excellent story, (take 15 minutes to read it for yourself), I understood the creative team’s impulse to adapt it. It’s great. It all revolves around the dichotomous identity of the dog.

In the opening paragraphs of the story, the dog suit is clearly a shabby affair, held together with safety pins, nothing anyone would confuse for a real dog. But over the course of the story the language changes, as first the mother and then the daughter become complicit with the fantasy. It suits their purposes for him to be a real dog, a loyal protective companion, a harmless neutered Prince, a simulacrum of the normal when the world is disintegrating around them. And so from then on, when the girl refers to him, he is never anything but a dog.

As for the men of the family, they have no use for the fantasy. He is always just a man in a dog suit, sometimes a nuisance, sometimes a threat, sometimes a reminder of what they themselves are a just a few weeks of missed meals away from becoming.

And then in the final paragraphs, the roles are reversed. Now it is the mother who insists that he is a man, as she pleads for his life. And it is the father who insists otherwise. He’s just an animal.

The opera does as good a job one could expect with this dichotomy. Writing a story you use nimble language to align the scene with the point of view of the observer, but with the meaty realities of the stage It’s a challenge to explore the nuances between a man portraying a dog and a man portraying a man pretending to be a dog. Veteran performance artist and dancer John Kelly straddles the line between man and canine, but with his wild hair and sinewy body, always remains edgily human, unlike the chameleonic Prince of the printed word, who could become all dog with a few well chosen phrases.

So why did I finish the short story completely satisfied, yet left the opera feeling utterly violated? I fear the creators failed to account for the fact that moving something from the mind’s eye of fiction to the flesh and blood physicality of the stage turns the haunting to the horrific, the unimaginable to the unwatchable.

The final paragraphs of the story describes Prince’s flight from the father’s rifle in gorgeous prose. The narrator insists on describing him as a dog even as in desperation he gets up to run as a man. Prince is at first “galloping on all fours across the yard, his tongue hanging out like a pink streamer” and then he is “on his hind legs, lurching away two-footedly, front legs pawing the air”. “Two-footedly”. Is there a more perfect word to express both the awkwardness of a motion as well as the awkwardness of the mental gymnastics it would take maintain the willful belief that this dog-man wasn’t actually born to walk on two feet? How do you show that complexity on stage in the brief seconds you have for that action? Not even the great John Kelly is going to come close to expressing what those two sentences communicate brilliantly.

And then the closing line of the story: “They run across the lawn, the pack of them, and fall upon him snarling.” The transformation is clear, succinct, beautiful. Upsetting, disturbing even, but not repulsive.

Consider instead seeing three men returning from offstage, faces and hands stained a shocking bright red with slick blood, meaty organs dangling from their mouths, shaking and convulsing while a shrieking orchestra blares out the same crunch that’s been crescendoing non stop for the past ten minutes. It’s garish, harrowing, and merciless. It’s beyond all proportion. Why?

And if that’s not enough, there’s more death, and a completely unrelated ritual involving yet more body fluids that has absolutely no basis in the source material. It’s like the creators, knowing that staging this would be uncomfortable, chose to double down on the horror. We’ve gone from post-apocalyptic coming of age parable to torture porn. It’s Grapes of Wrath by means of GWAR. Why? Why is this happening? What are you saying? What do you want from me? What did I do wrong? I TRUSTED YOU!

There are so many things one can take away from this short story: our ambivalent coexistence with animals as both food and companions, humanity’s capacity to devolve to animalistic behavior in the absence of structured society, our need to cling to the remnants of the familiar in stressful times, gender roles, the dissolution of the nuclear family… there’s a lot there. The opera manages to keep the remnants of many of these themes, or at least give them lip service, but then by ending with a sequence so abruptly discordant and severe, so aggressively hard to endure, it eclipses everything that’s happened before. The entire opera is about whatever the hell those last few minutes are about and nothing else. And… I’m afraid I just don’t know what that is. They’ve managed to take a short story that’s about a lot and reduce it to a grim spectacle that’s ultimately about nothing. An audience deserves better.

Heck. A dog deserves better.


Jan 2016

Review: Prototype Festival – Thumbprint

ThumbprintOne of the larger productions in this year’s Protoype festival was the world premiere presentation of Thumbprint, an earnest and righteous account of the first Pakistani woman to prevail in a court of law against a group of tribal elders responsible for her “honor rape“. It’s the sort of subject matter that dares you to say anything bad about it. How can one object to the story of a powerless, illiterate woman bravely overcoming all odds and prejudices to find a justice that is almost unheard of in that part of the world? What are you? Some kind of woman-hating rape-supporter? Gulp…

The work starts out strongly with a bustling scene lifted from the middle of the opera (a structural conceit that seems likely to have been made fairly late in the game). An international press corps is strafing an overwhelmed woman with questions about her life, her story, and her strength. The music is exciting, melding instruments, sonorities, and modes from western and eastern traditions, a sort of exotic minimalism. It is exceedingly pleasant to listen to. After this brief non-linear prologue, we settle into the real beginning of the story, an idyllic scene at home with our protagonist Mukhtar (beautifully sung and sensitively portrayed by the work’s composer, Kamala Sankaram) and her mother and sister (the also excellent Theodora Hanslowe and Leela Subramaniam). It’s a charming scene, filled with likable people enjoying the simple pleasures of family and love and weaving. This pastoral setting is interrupted by a pair of powerful elders who have accused the young son in the family of having physical contact with a girl from another tribe. To atone for this crime, they must send one of their own women to a tribunal. Ever brave, ever noble, Mukhtar volunteers herself to plead for her brother’s release.

There is somehow a compelling forward momentum in these early scenes, despite the fact that we know exactly what’s going to happen. This remains true through the sensitive and powerful staging of the rape scene, the dramatic and artistic high point of the evening. However, the remaining 40 minutes of the opera seems overlong and somehow both inevitable and arbitrary. We know Mukhtar is going to ultimately prevail against her assailants, but we’re not given any insight into WHY she prevails. We’re told over and over again that no one will listen to a woman, and a disgraced one at that, but suddenly a judge seems to be sympathetic to her situation. Who was this judge? Why did he break with precedent? How did her case even get to court? What role did western influence and pressure play? Exploring these questions would have taken more stage time, but in the absence of such exploration, much of the last half of the opera seemed repititious. The climactic trial itself was mostly just a restating of things that we already knew.

The production was imaginatively staged, making good use of a minimalist set consisting primarily of three versatile cots creating various spaces over the stage. The projections, however, seemed under baked and over literal. I don’t think I need to see video of slow motion smoke ever again, whether projected in an opera, a nightclub, or a warehouse rave. Similarly, I could have done without a giant thumbprint hovering over several stretches of time. The performances themselves were uneven, vocally and dramatically. The women were all significantly stronger than the men, with Manu Narayan standing out as the most consistently malevolent of the bunch.

This is a theater of certainty, of absolutes, of archetypes in place of humans, of conclusions already made. The good characters are all good all the time. The bad characters are all bad all the time. There is no room for moral ambiguity, no space for an idyllic family scene where a tribal patriarch comes home and acts as a loving and supportive father to his daughters hours after participating in a gang rape of someone else’s daughters. Nor was there any space to reflect upon the death sentence given to the accused. Does Mukhtar wish them dead? Would it change the way we feel about her if she does? These are questions about humanity that are unexplored. Instead we learn that she uses her newfound confidence to build a school for other victimized women. This is a noble and heartwarming conclusion, to be sure, but at the risk of being called a woman-hating rape supporter, this reviewer would prefer a smidge less Oprah in his opera.


Feb 2014

Review: Protoype Festival – Paul’s Case

Who wants to live in a world too serious for snow angels?

Who wants to live in a world too serious for snow angels?

The Prototype Festival, a multi-week festival dedicated to showcasing new works of opera for reduced forces in smaller, more flexible spaces has garnered a lot of press in recent months. Last year’s inaugural festival has made it into several top 10 lists of 2013 and producer/ cheerleader/ impresario Beth Morrison was recently profiled in the New York Times (apparently her striking neo-goth rockabilly style confounded the photo editors, believing her to be too hot for the classical world).

This year’s festival largely followed the successful model of last year’s: a world premiere, some productions brought in from around the country (and world), some works in progress, and a couple of cross genre cabaret acts. Over the past two weeks I was able to see almost all of the works presented in the festival (I had already seen Visitations at its premiere at Stanford last year, and the one night only co-presentation of Elizaveta at Joe’s Pub was sold out). I’ll post brief reviews of the pieces in the days to come.

Gregory Spears’s Requiem is amongst my favorite pieces composed in the past 5 years, so I was very excited to hear the New York premier of Paul’s Case, his operatic adaptation of Willa Cather’s morally ambiguous tale of a young man who bristles against the values, expectations, and responsibilities of industrial society. Though it predates the Requiem, it shares the luxurious tonal sonorities and ornamented vocal lines of the later work. With the exception of the opening scene, the libretto is largely expository, the characters saying what they are doing and thinking and feeling, as if we are watching an omniscient narrator speaking through their characters. The repetition of lines and phrases plays an important role, as several characters are often singing their text simultaneously, creating shimmering vocal harmonies and requiring the listener to tease out the text from the mass of sound.

The voices in this production were uniformly gorgeous and particularly well suited to the material. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a cast of voices so strong in a theater so small. Jonathan Blalock‘s Paul would spin delicately earnest and precise tenor lines though a half smile/half smirk that made you half think he was laughing at you in front of your back. As Paul’s business minded father, Keith Phares used his powerful baritone to assert a compelling authority that only the hardiest of fools would ignore, yet could color his phrases with shades of loss, evoking genuine sympathy when betrayed by his son. In a smaller ensemble role, Melissa Wimbish was a standout for her brilliant soprano, as well as for her tawny mane tightly bound in an up-do that, at times, seemed poised to explode. (It is at this point that I feel compelled to mention that the members of this cast, in addition to being fantastic actors and singers, were all REALLY good looking! Certainly the kind of cast that makes one thankful for small, intimate theaters. But… I digress…)

The story is a fascinating one, and I very much appreciated the nuanced handling of the moral ambiguity of the tale. Yet as the piece progressed, I felt an emotional distance, an inability to comprehend or sympathize with the main character’s choices or ultimate plight. This may be inherent to the source material and its rubbing against my own belief in one’s responsibility to those around you, but it seems to have been exacerbated by the expository distance and static, tableau-like nature of the scenes. However, in the final moments, though a lovely convergence of stagecraft, plotting, and a no-net performance of breathtaking vocal acrobatics, I finally felt all the emotions that had been missing rush in at once, sadness, loss, and elation… transformed by the relentless and unapologetic beauty of the past hour of music, and judging from the 30 seconds of hushed silence that separated the fade to black and the enthusiastic ovations, I was not alone.


Jan 2014