Theatre review: The Mistakes Madeline Made, by Elizabeth Meriwether

Presented by No Name Players
reviewed by Rita Malikonyte-Mockus

Disguised from childhood,
haphazardly assembled
from voices and fears and little pleasures,
we come of age as masks.

R.M. Rilke

More than seventy years ago, a French playwright and theatre director, Antonin Artaud, introduced a dissenting observation: “Sophocles speaks grandly perhaps, but in a style that’s no longer timely. His language is too refined for this age, it is as if he were speaking beside the point.”

No Name Players, a group of professional Pittsburgh actors, seem to have been speaking to the point locally for more than ten years now. They are part of what is now known worldwide as a true-to-life theatre. Nothing exalted or ineffectual gains entrée to their experimental playground: the performances are short, colloquial, witty and based solely on ensemble collaboration and the players’ respect for each other’s talents. No more masterpieces, no more stars, no more lengthy and boastful brochures.

The company’s most recent choice, The Mistakes Madeline Made by Elizabeth Meriwether, directed by Marci Woodruff (Pitt Studio Theatre), is laden with the familiar symbols, realities and rituals of our neurotic age. It takes place in a world of fear and masked identity. All of the main characters are portrayals of knotted psyches, bruised by the unlived unconscious content that is never silent in them. The play can be perceived as an allegory of the debased and vulnerable modern self, the self that is largely atrophied by brutally efficient bureaucratic forces and injured by its own ineffective coping mechanisms.

The setting of the play is an odd kind of office where everybody is running errands for a rich family that the audience never gets to see, a sure breeding soil for all kinds of psychological deterioration. “We are a country of babies and secretaries,” observes the late war journalist Buddy (Todd Betker), parsing the karma of the corporate madness. Buddy’s sister Edna (Liz Roberts), still mourning her brother’s death and also becoming more and more disturbed by the absurdity of the office routine, develops ablutophobia, a fear of bathing – beyond the pale in a culture that fears uncleanness like the Last Judgment. Edna’s boss, Beth (Tressa Glover) is the master tamer of unruly office workers, but, ironically, a highly pitiful character herself. Beth’s extremely adaptive modus operandi is jam-packed with the artificiality of her hackneyed locution of choice: “confirm or deny,” the kind of office slang that forms the limit of her speech. Wilson’s (Don DiGiulio) caricature of the office life is expressed through his compulsive act of imitating the sounds of the copying machine. But Wilson is a romantic geek. His developing love for Edna leads this comedic spectacle of office horrors to a somewhat expected melodramatic conclusion. Ironically, Beth, who clearly lacks love and intimacy in her life, unintentionally fast-forwards the play to its sentimental conclusion: “Life is all about the tiny miracles of love.”

It would probably sound like a serious violation of the humble No Name Players’ intention if I were to praise their professionalism individually. But their merit in the amusing ensembles as well as in the jolting scenes kept the audience on the edge of their seats for the entire duration of the play.

The most obvious criticism of Meriwether’s play may be that it is so eclectic and packed with seemingly unrelated elements, that not even Woodruff’s directorial acrobatics can weave it together into a satisfyingly coherent whole. But is it a fault? Rilke’s lyric describes the human fate as “haphazardly assembled”; this is all the more true of work and leisure in our highly impatient, fragmented, spectacle-driven times.

Opera Review: Euridice and Orpheus by Ricky Ian Gordon

Reviewed by Rita Malikonyte Mockus

Only from the Greek worldview has the genuine artwork of drama been able as yet to blossom forth. — Wagner

Allegheny Cemetery in Pittsburgh, founded around the time when Europe was enthralled by the poetic frenzy of Romanticism, was a fitting location for the three summer evenings (June 9-11) of theatrical lamentation for love lost to death. Each performance started with Schubert’s famous art-song The Shepherd on the Rock—which he wrote in poor health during the last months of his life—and ended with Ricky Ian Gordon’s theatrical song cycle Euridice and Orpheus (originally Orpheus and Euridice), written on commission from clarinetist Todd Palmer at the time when the composer was in agony over his partner’s imminent death. The Arcadian scenery of the cemetery contrasted by its monolithic statuary, reminiscent of antiquity, served as the perfect setting for the pastoral German art-song and the contemporaneously re-envisioned myth of Orpheus’ quest to release his wife from death.

But who represents Orpheus, the musician and poet, in this opera? While writing the piece, Gordon imagined the clarinetist Todd Palmer as Orpheus: “In the books, it was a lute./ But in my dream/ it was a reed./ […]/ he could cry/through that strange instrument.” In Pittsburgh’s production, Attack Theatre’s dancer Dane Toney articulates Orpheus’ excited unrest by placing it inside his moving body, thus turning joy and sorrow into vivifying motion. Perhaps Orpheus is also the composer himself, a poet and musician, drafting the essential shape of his own sorrow to fit the finest of the ancient story’s tragic tissue. Similarly, Euridice is represented both by a singer (Laura Knoop Very) and by a dancer (Liz Chang).

Though sometimes harmonically unsettling, Gordon’s Euridice and Orpheus was essentially melodic and tonal, at times alluding to Broadway pop and Benjamin Britten’s art-songs. But when the tragedy started to show its first adumbration of darkness, the music slowly became suffused with the kind of aching that can be produced by a prolonged melody (the “effect of suspension,” as Schopenhauer would have it), as its duration restlessly created the illusion of dissonance, longing to be anchored back to consonance.

Gordon’s musical intention was adeptly embodied by the lyric coloratura soprano of Very, while the beauty of the “richer, darker, starker” sound which, according to the libretto, only reed instruments can produce, was emanating from the two clarinets played by a native of Pittsburgh, John Culver, and a Carnegie Mellon graduate, Ricky Williams.

Under the mindful choreography of Peter Kope and Michele de la Reza, the dancers of The Attack Theatre (Liz Chang, Dane Toney, and Ashley Williams as Spirit) represented the story in a language of emotive kinesthetics that uniquely employed many of the elements of contemporary dance, including mime, props, and contact improvisation. Even the pantomime (one of the popular forms of entertainment in Ancient Greece, accompanied by a sung narrative and flute) was, appropriately to the event’s purpose, part of the choreographers’ palette.

Nature lent her assistance. The performance began with sunset and serenity, but later stormy weather gathered as the plot grew more tense. The valiant Orpheus attempted to inveigle Hades and Persephone to liberate Euridice from the underworld. Her dancing, which at first had been ecstatic and joyous, began, under the coercion of fate, to gravitate towards the River Styx, represented by the little pond in the cemetery. During lulls in the music, the listeners’ attention was caught by a honking sound that turned out to be an addition by the inhabitants of the pond, a flock of geese warning of the approach of the tragic conclusion.

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Opera Review: Dialogues of the Carmelites by Francis Poulenc

Reviewed by Rita Malikonyte Mockus

“I do not despise the world. I simply don’t know how to live in it,” sings religiously apprehensive Blanche (performed by Amanda Majeski) to her affectionate father, Marquis de la Force (James Maddalena) in the last Pittsburgh opera of the season. In this opera by the 20th century French composer Francis Poulenc, every encounter with the profane produces in Blanche a state of unbearable unease: she must devote her life to the contemplation of the agony of Christ. Amanda’s expressive soprano weaves the harmony of disquiet, as her character Blanche is trying to evacuate every drop of precious strength from her fragile inner nature as she prepares to leave her father’s house for the convent. The emphatic moment finally comes after Blanche is mortally frightened by the noise of the riotous crowd. Blanche retires from the world, takes the veil and joins the Carmelite order. 

It didn’t take a highly sensitive young aristocrat to experience the turmoil and uncertainty in the late years of the 18th century in Paris. All of France was about to be transformed by the terror of the French Revolution. Poulenc, who also wrote the libretto for the opera based on the play by Georges Bernanos, follows the innovative tradition of his operatic predecessors Gluck and Wagner and admits his debt to the Russian composers Mussorgsky and Stravinsky. The appropriately somber tone, at times reminiscent of liturgical music, of the ariosos and recitatives, creates a continuous unity of discourse between the feeling melodies of the musical score and the human drama of religious passion expressed in the lines of existential libretto. All the elements of this opera are seamlessly interwoven, leaving nothing superfluous in its dramatic fabric: no grandiose arias, no virtuoso ensembles, not even an overture that usually opens the operas of the classical period; just genuine dialogues among the pious equals. 

The most puzzling character in the opera is the dying Prioress, Madame de Croissy, who, after a long and somewhat accusatory interrogation, finally gives the blessing to the neophyte Blanche. “I am the prisoner of the holy agony! […]. “Who am I to concern myself with God – let him first concern himself with me,” screams the Prioress in her funereal contralto (performed by Sheila Nadler). Believing that strength, force, suits the realities of nunnery life better than agony, she refuses to accept the young novice’s desire to take the name of Blanche of the Agony of Christ. Blanche de la Force, so it is. 

Shared pilgrimage to the holy site of inner strength forms the focal point of Act II and III. The ungodly revolution declares the practice of religious orders illegal. The desecrated convent becomes a testing ground for fear. Different voices express their meaning of it: “One must risk fear,” “Is fear a sickness?” “Fear doesn’t offend God. Fear is not a sin.” Blanche dreads martyrdom, the vow her holy sisters humbly take. Act II contains an abundance of superb lyrical singing based on Christian worship music (most notably, “Ave Maria” and “Ave verum corpus”). Torn by the exigent choice between life and death, both equally menacing, Blanche runs away. 

The final scenes of great operas are epitomes of bel canto singing. Scene IV of Dialogues of the Carmelites follows this tradition in a way peculiar to its subject matter: the opera ends in a prayer of a true bel canto quality, the Salve Regina, Mater Misericordiae, as the nuns fearlessly march one by one to the scaffold to be guillotined, suddenly joined by Blanche, who finally mounts the scaffold singing a prayer of her renewed faith in God: Deo Patri sit Gloria (All praise be thine, o risen Lord). 

The director, Eric Einhorn, stages a musical drama true to its theme. The endless gripping spectacle reflects the tragic poetry of the plot. The gloomy colors of the scenery are germane to the sacred dialogues’ minimalist stage setting. 

The opera offers excellent performers, splendid directing, and expressive conducting by Jean-Luc Tingaud – it is a tour de force. 

Final performance Sunday May 8 at 2:00 pm.

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