The Arden – 74 Seconds to Judgment

Reviewer: Steele

 

The Takeaways

  • Beautiful performances from an ensemble
  • A refreshing jury play that doesn’t become 12 Angry Men
  • Strong design work

 

In my pockets

I know the playwright and expected a good show. I’m Black, so unjustified murders of Black men hit home for me.

 

Design

A prop designer isn’t listed in the program, but the props and the set at large helped set up the world of the play with great detail (set designed by Dustin Pettegrew). Something as simple as the type of tupperware the character Kim (Julianna Zinkel) brought to the jury room told the backstories of the characters outside the single room the audience was able to see. The leftover Chinese food containers in the fridge, the signage on the bulletin board, etc all created a world we can recognize.

The lighting design (Kathy A. Perkins) was instrumental in illuminating the show within the show. The shift in lighting became more dramatic as the characters went from jokingly portraying the people in the trial to fully embodying them. The lighting was a huge part of transforming the space from the jury room to the outside world and circumstances.

Fight choreographer J. Alex Cordaro’s work made the altercations feel realistic, and created a natural buildup that really made the audience feel the tension.

The costuming (Alison Roberts) felt natural and appropriate for each character. This is direction-related also, but I enjoyed the use of the costume pieces (glasses, hoodies, sweaters) as a mechanism to showcase when an actor was portraying their character vs. when they were portraying someone from the trial. The costume pieces also served as a signal for when a character felt comfortable or uncomfortable in a scene, which was really effective.

 

Performances

I commend all the actors on their work. They brought real humans to the stage. Even characters with opinions I didn’t agree with were relatable and felt real. The shifts that the actors made in their body language and voice when turning into people from the trial were beautiful to watch. Each actor played at least two different people, and those differences were clear and intentional.

 

Direction

Amina Robinson did a really lovely job ensuring very distinct differences in character between the actual jurors and the people from the case they portrayed. She also led the actors in beautiful ensemble work. It was clear from the beginning that these characters were in unique relationships with each other – strangers locked in a room together for weeks. You could tell that Robinson worked hard to get the actors to continue to play to the newness of their relationships as they naturally built a better familiarity with the piece and the physical space onstage through the rehearsal process.

 

The writing

This play was written a few years ago and so is relatively new. This is the second time its been produced. It’s extremely timely in this current era when unjustified shootings of young Black men are an issue receiving a lot of visibility.

You can’t help but compare a jury play to 12 Angry Men but Kash Goin’s script holds its own. The dialogue is smart and fast, almost subduing the audience early on into thinking they could be watching a comedy, and then hitting the audience hard with questions and investigations as the story unfolds and the details of the case become more apparent. He writes believable characters with varying opinions who all can stand up against the criticism if each other.

It’s worth mentioning the twist at the end. We’re all left with our mouths open at the end. It’s very effective.

 

Accountability

This play handled representation and inclusion fairly well. The cast was diverse and the representation of their characters weren’t stereotypical – one of the three black characters is a Black male startup founder, which you don’t often see. The play is timely, and plays on unfortunately prevalent questions surround the unjust killings of Black people. It’s a play for anyone with an open mind on the issue, and I believe it is successful in making typical Arden audience members think about perspectives that run counter to their own.

 

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Opera Philadelphia – A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Reviewers: Nan and Linor

The Takeaways

  • Stunning design across the board
  • Gorgeous music and musical performances
  • Excellent direction
  • A (mostly) white cast

 

Unload your pockets

Linor: I walked into the show that night in a rough mood, and not feeling particularly well. But I was excited to see a spectacle.

Nan: I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about it– I tend to come to opera also excited to see big exciting design, but a bit apprehensive since so much opera is rife with antiquated social politics. I’ve also seen Midsummer about a million times as a play so I wasn’t sure if I’d be as bored with it as an opera.

Linor: Yeah, totally. I have a friend who LOVES Benjamin Britten, but I haven’t heard most of his stuff. I was excited to for that reason too.

 

The design

Nan: Robert Carson and Peter Van Praet designed the lighting for this production 28 years ago, and Adrian Plaut designed the lighting for this revival performance. I don’t think there was a design element I wasn’t impressed by.

Linor: Agreed. It has stayed with me even this long after seeing the performance. There was one moment when a single doorway of light shone on the stage, illuminating I believe Tytania, that was so stunning.

Nan: Yes! I haven’t seen light used so well as a clear part of the storytelling in ages. The whole section where the lighting indicated the opening and closing door was so strongly evocative of being a kid and being aware of light from outside your room showing your parents coming and going. Wow.

Linor: I also think the lighting had such an effective relationship with the set. The green color being evocative of Oberon’s dominion, and blue for Tytania – I noticed that the white fabric on the bed in Act I changed dramatically with different lighting. The white fabric changed from green to blue with the lighting depending on who was the lead in each scene. It was so pleasant and compelling.

Nan: Agreed. Those huge swaths of single color could have been a big challenge but the color theory between the set and lighting was so elegant and successful in evoking many different colors and moods.

Linor: So good.

Nan: I have to say I don’t really know where the boundary is between the music and the sound design in opera. I need to learn more there.

Linor: That’s a good thing to bring up. I mean, here’s what I’ll say: there wasn’t a lot of sound design, you know, separate from mixing and the orchestra/singers. It’s one of the things that I found interesting about opera – different from a lot of musicals, opera intends that the instruments and voices make the sound of the world around us. Or at least, I assume that’s what it intends.

Nan: True. They also don’t have a sound designer listed in the program. I do feel like the storytelling sounds that aren’t strictly musical are still made by the orchestra and voices. I wonder how much of it is just different delegation of jobs in differently titled positions from what we do in theatre.

Linor: Right. Just showing a little of our inexperience with opera. Maybe we should use this as an opportunity to focus on the singing/music.

Nan: Sure! I was really interested in the vocal aesthetic of the show– the tone wasn’t exactly what I’m used to in opera. It felt a bit more modern, and I wonder if there’s a more “Britten-esque” kind of vocal style that is being used. I think I’m mostly responding to the beautiful sort of tremulous quality of the children’s choir of faeries. But I was also really interested in the fact that Oberon was a countertenor.

Linor: I know! It was such a surprise to me. I didn’t really ever get used to it – every time he opened his mouth to sing, I had to readjust my expectations of that role. But I really loved that. It pushed against my internal assumption about what masculine roles are like in opera.

Nan: Same. But that was such a dramatically useful choice for Oberon. He always kind of made me come out in goosebumps. Definitely the most unearthly Oberon I’ve ever experienced.

Linor:  Definitely. I mean I think in general the music was BEAUTIFUL. I now understand why my friend is so obsessed with Britten. Likewise I loved that Hermia was such a lower part than the other women. Everyone had such specific qualities to their parts, and together it was quite dream-like.

Nan: Yes! I think part of why I loved it so much was that I tend to find that opera is especially interested in tradition, that the love interest is a soprano and the imposing older man is a baritone and whatnot, and I think both with design and other choices they really broke the mold in a lot of ways. It makes me really want to learn more about Britten and his work as well.

Linor: Agreed! I appreciated that Britten stuck with the dreamier bits of the show, and didn’t necessarily try to condense the whole plot into his opera. Like, I didn’t care that the King and Queen showed up at the very end of the show. And I felt like he had weighted the Mechanicals as equally as the lovers, which I know does not always happen in the straight stage play. And I loved that about this production.

Nan: For sure. I think he knew what were the good bits and stuck to them, which I appreciate. I loved that he uses pretty much exclusively Shakespearean text (with only six words in the whole score that weren’t Shakespeare, I believe) but made a smart cut. I was also really impressed with the costumes (originally designed by Michael Levine). I’m not really sure where to begin! There was so much going on. I think a lesser designer would have been tempted to just continue with the “beds” motif and have everyone in some kind of pajama, but I think Oberon and to some extent Tytania were the only ones in pajama-like clothes. Really smart use of very different silhouettes too, especially useful in opera where most of the audience doesn’t get a very close look at what’s onstage.

Linor: Right. The story that’s telling is really that they’re the orchestrators of these dreams.

Nan: I think they did a thing that is one of my favorite design choices in Shakespeare, which is to costume each person in what best helps tell the story of their character, even if it doesn’t necessarily all fit together into one big overarching theme.

Linor: Right! I was SO INTO the lovers wearing costumes from all different time periods. It was SO amusing and really surprising.

Nan: You’ve got the lovers in white, but totally different styles– Hermia in a fluffy, big skirted period number, and Helena in a pencil skirt and sort of “nerdy” 50’s look complete with cuffed socks and saddle shoes

Linor: Demetrius in a 30s three piece suit and Lysander looking like Mr. Darcy.

Nan: And then of course the way they all sort of gradually shred their clothes and pick up smears of green as they continue through the woods, and by the end are only in underwear.

Linor:  It’s really quite clever. And I did love the coordination amongst the boys choir, playing the fairies that I assume are Oberon and Tytania’s children. The striking greens and blues in their clothes really helped tell that narrative. It was honestly really liberating to be watching a performance that made such bold choices in its visual storytelling.

Nan: And it gave them so much to do in terms of supporting the stage picture– like twenty little fairy clones, doing synchronized movement, with the red gloves? So visually interesting and fun. Meanwhile, the set (designed by Michael Levine again) – I loved that they were willing to pretty much cut all ties and start fresh design-wise when it came to the Royals and the Mechanicals’ play at the end.

Linor: Right! All of the sudden we were no longer in the forest. The set was one of my favorite design pieces.

Nan: What a versatile design.

Linor: I keep coming back to the forest and the fairies being the King and Queen of dreams, and how every moment in their realm we were surrounded by or in a bed. The bed in the first act was incredible, with those two GIANT pillows. And the beds hanging from the ceilings! I’m fangirling.

Nan: Oh man. Me too. And the many beds in act two that I think can only have been bed frames with supplementary trampoline rigging in them, they were so dang bouncy. And the moon, in various phases of nearness to us.

Linor: Oh I forgot about the moon! That was INCREDIBLE.

Nan: Just beautiful. And the hanging beds being set down and then coming back up with the blanket floor covering attached to make a kind of curtain, which then sort of related to the curtain in the mechanicals’ play? Man. Likewise, I thought the props were great. I loved the huge, three foot long magical flower with its convenient pitcher shape.

Linor: Definitely. And Hermia’s bag that got progressively more raggedy along with the lovers.

Nan: Yes. Super smart and economical.

Linor: I could talk about this design for hours. I think it was the strongest element of the show. 

 

Performances

Linor: I’m a little embarrassed to say this, but I honestly hadn’t thought that opera might make me laugh. I was totally floored by the Mechanicals’ performances, particularly Miles Mykkanen as Flute. Or George Somerville as Snout/the Wall. The lovers were also delightful. I keep thinking about Tim Mead as Oberon, though! He had a very different energy than other Oberon’s I’ve seen, and it was a really interesting backdrop against the lightness of his countertenor voice. 

Nan: I definitely shiver a little bit whenever I think about Oberon. Whoo. I was also so pleasantly surprised that Puck was not a singing role.

Linor: I happened to be in the lecture preceding the performance, and the lecturer mentioned that Britten wrote that role specifically for an acrobat/clown. 

Nan: I love that Britten deliberately put a non-opera performer into an opera! Miltos Yerolemou (Syrio Forel in Game of Thrones) was such a great choice! I had no idea he was such a skilled clown, a total pleasure to watch. I will also say the four featured fairies were also so much fun to watch. Those kids know how to mug. Big kudos to Cobweb, Peaseblossom, Mustardseed and Moth.

Linor: Absolutely! I love a show that integrates kid performers. And treats them like all the others!

Nan: I have never seen such attention toward good comedic bits in opera. The whole section in which Bottom (Matthew Rose) is asking the fairies to do all these tasks is usually cut from the play because nobody wants to hire people to play fairies with two lines each, but they really made a meal of that scene.

 

Direction

Linor: So, correct me if I’m wrong, but Robert Carson also directed this production 28 years ago?

Nan: Looks like he directed the original staging, but this revival was directed by Emmanuelle Bastet. There are a bunch of different credits that I assume reflect the original design and the designers for this revival.

Linor: Yeah, I don’t know how touring productions like these work. In any case, I think the direction for this production was so smart. It brought out the dreamy qualities of Britten’s composition with a kind of wit and levity that I don’t always see in this story.

Nan: Agreed. Not only the stuff that likely carries over from the original production but things that can only happen in the room, like the acting coaching with the kids. This production made me love Midsummer in a way I hadn’t since I was a kid.

Linor: Such a feat!

Nan: It really is. I was incredibly impressed. I also saw some kids in the audience and wished there were more. What a great way to be introduced to opera. In the program chat with the director it says that part of their intention with the design was to create a forest without having to make an actual forest onstage, and I think the creation of that sense of wonder and magic is really unusual and a pleasure to witness.

Linor: Oh yeah, I mean, it’s brilliant. And totally successful.

 

Accountability

Nan: I tend to have a decent amount of side eye for productions that have been running this long but I was so glad to have seen this. All that said, it was a pretty white group of leading performers.

Linor: I’ve only ever seen one other Opera Philadelphia show before, and I saw POC performers within OP’s chorus that filled in casting, but that was also an nearly all white cast, with no POC performers in leading roles.

Nan: Yeah. I don’t mean to inadvertently gloss over any POC that I didn’t recognize, but it’s not like there is any dramatic reason why the show would be so devoid of POC. The fairy choir definitely had a pretty diverse group, at least?

Linor: Right, and those were Philadelphia Boys Choir performers, so I feel like Opera Philadelphia can’t really take credit for that. I should also say though that I believe (though I cannot 100% confirm) that the woman who played Tytania is POC. But I think our criticism still stands.

Nan: I do appreciate the fact that Opera Philadelphia does foster the creation of a lot of new work, and a decent amount of that these days does include POC, but why hasn’t it reached the big mainstage productions?

Linor: Right. I guess something that’s worth mentioning, as I sort of work out where the burden of responsibility is is that I don’t know whether this touring show is cast by Opera Philadelphia, or OP is presenting it and it was cast by another organization. In either case, I agree with you, that there is work to be done to bring the investment in new work and POC artists into the more classic works of opera, in particular to POC performers.

Nan: That’s a good point. I guess I assumed it was a fresh cast because this is an American premiere for the production and at least six of the cast members have worked with Opera Philadelphia before. But it’s possible it’s touring; I know Miltos Yerolemou has been wth the show for awhile.

Linor: I mean, I don’t say that to cut OP any slack, I just have to be honest and say I don’t know much about this process. But whatever the process is, there’s absolutely no reason the main cast has to be all white. (Or mostly all white.)

Nan: I guess I’m still just trying to figure out where I’m at– I loved this show so much, but it was so white (and so straight, and cis, in terms of visibility) and I don’t know if I can say much good about who it is for. Still kinda parsing through that personally.

Linor: The thing that was so amazing for me was the design – and the spectacle. We talked about it the night of the show, but because of the theater industry, I feel like we’ve had to scale down our performances so much. There’s intimacy in a black box, but it was honestly so liberating to see a performance that was that enormous and striking. I know the opera industry is “dying” as much as theater (if not more), and going through the same conversations that we are about race, gender, and representation, and so I agree with you that if we’re not populating this show with people who look like most of the world, it’s not as effective. BUT I do think this production is gorgeous and I would want people to see it. I’m right there with you in the murkiness.

Nan: Well summed up.

EgoPo – Three Sisters Two

9

Reviewers: Janae and Linor

 

The TakeAways

  • Great ensemble work
  • Lively soundscape
  • Incredibly flawed characters
  • Thoughtful and thought-provoking work

 

In our pockets

Janae: I’ve been directed by Brenna before, I’m friends with most of the ensemble, seasonal depression was looming, and I was actively grieving the loss of a loved one.

Linor: I have nothing in my pockets other than the cold and a dear friend onstage.

 

The design

Janae: I felt like Thom Weaver’s lights and scenic design evoked a sense of Heaven and hell and a rapidly deteriorating doll house in between. To the left Heaven being a sleek red dream of a salon in Moscow. For me it felt like the past, a ghost space that could never be attained. The dollhouse in between was slowly being stripped and prepared unconsciously for military occupation. To the right Hell was a a slice of modern military engagement. Filled with vomit and bringing torture/future to the piece.

Linor: Okay, to be honest though, the scenic design felt the most difficult for me. I loved that the primary playing space for the actors was flat and wide, which made all of the action feel like it was trying to burst out of a cartoon background. And yet the most frequently and reliably used part of the space felt unfinished to me. I was frustrated that the more dynamically lit and designed portions of the space were sort of resting rooms for the actors, and that I couldn’t look over to them and see part of the play there. But I agree, the lighting in those rooms was spectacular.

Janae: Interesting. To me it felt as if it former glory had been stripped away over time to pay for necessities. I thought Chris Sannino’s sound was affecting, and certainly helped tell that story. There were real moments when the sound effects made me jump, which helped place me in the action. The soundscape was seamless, to the point that the sound bleeds of Philly actually felt in world. I loved the slick use of reverb denoting shifts in storytelling.

Linor: I agree about the sound bleeds of Philadelphia. There were genuine moments when I didn’t know if what I was hearing was part of the play or on Spring Garden, and I believe that helped make the play feel more immediate. And yes, the reverb was very arresting.

Janae: Natalia de la Torre’s costumes created clean silhouettes, quick shifts, and provided a reminder of how an accessory can define class distinction when underneath it’s all the same basic patterns of humanity that connect us. I frankly would’ve been more interested in a neutral androgyne uniform for all to really fuss with gender but that’s just me personally wanting to smash the binary.

Linor: Mmm. I hear that. I was interested in Natalia’s costumes, but honestly I was thrilled to see actors with really obvious tattoos playing in these characters, and it not feeling like a source of shame or concern. It’s nice to see a costume designer working without feeling the need to cover those up.

Janae: There were a few props (Em Arrick) that grabbed my eye and gave me visceral pleasure. The lotto game and Igor’s oversized suitcase in particular.

Linor: Yes! But the dollhouse in the center of the space to me felt like a HUGE red herring! I saw light-bulbs inside the dollhouse and was positive that they were going to turn on at some point during the play. When they didn’t, I was bummed.

 

The performances

Janae: Wow talk about an ensemble. Love me some good breath work and caring for one another. I was particularly taken with the sisters: Jahzeer Terrell as Olga was attentive, empathetic, and steadfast. Lee Minora’s Irena was earnest and overflowing with whimsy. Colleen Corcoran as Vershinin was a conflicted, complex, hot mess (I mean that in the best way). Such wonderfully flawed creatures. Ugh…aren’t we all. Ross Beschler had some exquisite clown moments.

Linor: I honestly have never enjoyed a performance from Andrew Carroll more. I was delighted by Maria Konstantinidis and her portrayal of Natasha. I was surprised to find Natasha the most sympathetic character of all of them – she’s just trying to run the house, and her husband freaking sucks! I think the most radical thing about this play to me was that the “gender-bending” didn’t serve any plot device, and simply asked the actors to play the truth of their character with no reservations and no twist or subversiveness. The actors did an excellent job of getting me to forget binary divisions.

Janae: Interesting – I did not sympathize with Natasha in that way, though Amanda Schoonover played an excellently weak, miserable, palpably pathetic Andrey.

 

The direction

Janae: I really dug the composition of the vocal soundscape as a transport vehicle through time, matters of the heart, and mind of the characters. The balance of gesture and tableaus had me quite engaged. I found myself leaning forward more than once.

Linor: I think where Brenna Geffers’ direction really shone here was in her commitment to the emotional truth of the story. I’ve never read Three Sisters Two, and I’ve also never read or seen Three Sisters. But someone could have packaged this as Chekhov’s Three Sisters and I would have believed it, because Brenna worked so successfully with the text to tell a story that felt really grand and Chekhovian and Russian.

 

Why this play now?

Linor: Like I was saying before, to me this felt like such a quintessentially Russian play, full of these dramatic, inevitably flawed and failing characters. It’s really interesting to me to understand the context in which the piece was written, and the choice to bring the play back now. I want to commend Three Sisters Two’s dramaturg for providing some much-needed and welcomed background information that really helped me frame the play. It is an interesting exercise to imagine this play as serving some sort of vehicle for oppressors losing their privilege to – what, reflect? Bemoan? Wail with catharsis? If Reza de Wet wrote this in a moment when white people in South Africa were adjusting to a newly established set of priorities, it feels a little bit like a space for white people to tear at the hair about not being on top anymore which I guess I’m not as interested in. I think a little bit about the intended or unintended consequences of programming this in EgoPo’s South African season – most of the target theater-seeking audience in the house the night I went to see it were too stuck on the role of gender in the casting to be able to think critically about what it might mean to program a story about an aristocratic family no longer wielding the privilege that it’s used to. I like the play a lot, though I do wonder whether the play itself succeeds as a thought exercise, and I do question whether Brenna Geffers’ direction played to that larger dramaturgy. I don’t know, thoughts?

Janae: I feel that this production is being specific to the interwoven levels of power dynamics that we here in Philadelphia are grappling with: race, gender, class. Could each of those themes be dug into deeper? Perhaps focusing on just one theme would have been more effective in theory, though I still feel like I got it. To me it seems we’re all casualties of a war machine and the sooner that we acknowledge the unnecessary segregations that place us “above” one another and agree that were on the same level (this planet) the sooner we can confront said war machine instead of “soldiering on with the old ball and chain.” All that said I agree that there was a contingency of folks in the audience who were fixated on gender unnecessarily and that’s just telling of how far we have to go.

Linor: Totally.

 

Accountability

Linor: Like I said before, casting masculine-presenting bodies in female roles and femme-presenting bodies in male roles for me did nothing to accentuate the story, and I loved that. During intermission, I overheard one of the older women next to me talking to her friend and grumbling about how the “gender-bending doesn’t really do much for the play,” and to be honest, I think she’s right. But all of the actors played their parts beautifully, and isn’t that kind of the point of gender being the dumbest, most arbitrary construct? It felt a little liberating to be watching, for example, Colleen Corcoran play Vershinin as the character was written, and do it really well. My one accountability question is on the subject of race. I just can’t forget that this play was written by a white South African and in a time in South Africa just after apartheid has ended. Race in this play was as fluid and unsubstantiated as gender. We weren’t really supposed to notice which actors were white and which were not, just as we weren’t supposed to notice which were women and which were not. But I do question whether that choice continues the conversation the play started? Although, on the other hand, I wouldn’t necessarily want a South African play written by an Afrikaans playwright to be produced in Philadelphia without people of color in the room – I don’t know. What do you think, Janae?

Janae: I think the casting was more color conscious than color blind, though I wouldn’t be opposed to a bit more color onstage. That said it wasn’t anemic. The piece feels to me like an offering to acknowledging preconceived notions within oneself without it overtly pointing a finger at bad behavior. A question I would pose though is that does anything have a hard end date? Did apartheid really end? Did the civil war in America ever really end?

Linor: Ugh, so true. You’re right.