Tuesday, June 22, 2010

MOMIX does insects, too

After seeing the incredible OvO from Cirque du Soleil (reviewed in previous post) I went in search of other dancers that celebrate the world of insects and found a Momix video excerpt from their Joyce appearance in May 2009. It is apparent that the world of Entomology still offers plenty of ideas for choreographers and dancers. The one thing missing from the Cirque show was a flying act on bungees with silk wings fluttering which judging from this video would not be that difficult to stage.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Cirque du Soleil brings Ovo to New England: Hartford now, Boston next

Ovo immerses you in a colorful ecosystem teeming with life.

First a little background before the OvO review. Hartford is the seventh city on the worldwide tour of OvO, which began in Montreal in April 2009. It's arrival in Hartford follows the successful runs of Dralion there in 2003, Varekai in 2005 and Kooza in 2008. It plays until July 11 and then packs up and heads to Boston where it plays from July 22 to August 15. So now, the question is, how does OvO measure up compared to the earlier shows?

OvO is simply the best show Cirque du Soleil has ever sent on the road. Written and directed by Deborah Colker, it has moments of sheer spectacle, held together with dance, movement and pure theatrical wizardry. During a performance you may notice subtle references to artists such as Gaudi, Dali and Piazzolla while enjoying performers dressed as butterflies, spiders and even a Ladybug looking for a mate.

OvO (which means egg in Portuguese) is the 25th quirky show from Cirque, created for the company's 25th Anniversary. Currently playing in Hartford, next month it moves on to Boston, then to Washington, DC in September.

Spiders are more artistic than scary.

Even for those who have seen Cirque du Soleil, it is difficult to describe the experience. Those flat two-dimensional televised snippets of their performances don't do it justice, and even in print, how can words describe a basically wordless show?

You don't just see a Cirque show, you experience it. On the way in you may hear some first time ticket buyers complain about the ticket prices (they're not cheap) but you never hear that on the way out. You get a lot for your money. There's more imagination and entertainment compressed into 2.5 glorious hours than you will get in a month on commercial television.

The fun begins the moment you spot their blue and gold Grand Chapiteau (big top) at the Intersection of I-84 and I-91 In Hartford. It seats 2200.

As you push the canvas flaps aside to enter, you notice the subtle smell of grass and hear a cacophony of insects all around you. Scientists in beekeeper-style helmets with nets and specimen boxes patrol the audience, on the trail of insects. A few unfortunate latecomers are examined, magnifying glasses are employed, and Grotowski-esque mutterings and grunts fill the air. The show has no script, but uses a wide variety of the Polish theatre director Jerzy Grotowski's techniques to communicate their surprise, happiness etc. Once in a while you can even make out the word "ovo" or "no" but Cirque's shows are created for multi-lingual audiences. They travel the world.

The scarabs operate at the top of the tent.

As this is happening, insects are slowly hopping, crawling, slithering and otherwise finding their way on stage. Someone is lugging a human sized egg through the audience. On stage is a gigantic egg, perhaps 60 feet wide, dominating everything. In the background is an organic structure reaching from floor to ceiling. Two pods of four musicians each begin playing a samba with tango overtones. All this, and then the show actually begins.

The audience becomes aware that they have shrunk in size and importance and entered a different world. OvO offers a headlong rush into the insects colorful ecosystem. On stage we watch as the creepy-crawlies work, eat, flutter, play, fight and look for love in a non-stop dance of endless energy. Giant flowers open and their scent fills the air. The insects’ home is a world of biodiversity and beauty alternately filled with noisy action and moments of quiet emotion.

The contortionist made the audience gasp at her impossible combinations.

But all this is simply the lavish frosting to introduce the circus acts, albeit using every dance and theatre trick imaginable. Just as Julie Taymor created a special world for the animals of The Lion King so do Deborah Colker and Chantel Tremblay create an imaginary world for the insects. OvO's costumes are not precise depictions of what a cricket or ant looks like, but an interpretation. None of the proceedings will upset someone who might get squeamish at the site of a spider, ant or cockroach. Instead it's like being twelve years old again, looking to see what's hiding under the rocks in the back yard.

With 54 performers from 16 countries, there are a lot of insects. For example, five yellow and-red fleas fling themselves through the air and come together in graceful, perfectly balanced sculptural formations. A Dragonfly performs a graceful balancing act. A spider defies gravity and physics on the slack wire earning gasps and applause from the onlookers.

Perhaps the most stunning performance was that of the "scarabs" who operate from perches high above the audience . It is an act that combines several traditional circus skills like banquine, Russian swing and swinging chair. These fly boys leap from the edges of two platforms in the rafters to the catchers positioned on a third. Their physical setup is the largest ever created under a big tent, and requires some 16 people just to set up. They do it in minutes as other action was taking place on the stage.

The fleas cling to each other as they jump about.

The penultimate act was the 25' high Cricket Wall, which has 20 artists running, jumping and walking across its jagged face. Using trampolines and power tracks - plus pure physical strength and teamwork - they leap, jump and spring to the top. The effect is so stunning that the audience can not believe what it is seeing. But there are no hidden wires, nothing but the artists and the setup. A similar effect is used at the close of La Nouba, a permanent Cirque show in Orlando. It is an acrobatic achievement like no other.

Cirque's productions have become so elaborate and intricate that they are becoming more grandiose than Grand Opera. Like that art form, they combine spectacle, theatre and music into a whole new experience. The gold and crystal of the venerable Metropolitan Opera House is even challenged by the KA theatre Cirque created at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas. Instead of monied gilt, that theatre's interior resembles the heart of a giant space ship with a hydraulic stage that arises from the deep.

Everything about this show is amazing, scenery, costumes and makeup included. The costumes for OvO are not only intricate, they are sufficiently detailed to allow close-up scrutiny. (They offered, I accepted.) But what makes them special is they are also truly durable. They are able to take the punishment these circus acts inflict on them. Liz Vandal, who created them, is known for her futuristic superhero costumes, and for recreating suits of armor from all eras. There is little doubt that is why they have such beauty and durability.

In OvO, it is the lighting and sound people who create the magical environment that surrounds the audience. There are four enormous lighting toweres and the same number of giant subwoofers strategically placed under the seating. 100 surround speakers are placed around the arena to immerse the audience in a wall of sound. The effect is stunning. You can feel the action at several points in the evening. And subtle. The chirping and chattering never stops, yet becomes a soundstage on which everything else is overlaid.

OvO, like most Cirque shows, is designed to please all ages and all levels of sophistication. As someone who has seen ten of their 25 shows, the question is when they will begin repeating themselves. Yes,, there are certain elements that appear in all their shows, which might be dismissed as just a bunch of dressed up circus acts.
But like a good meal, where we use the same ingredients over and over, Cirque always creates totally new and different menus to excite our taste buds. This is a company that totally reinvents themselves again and again. Any Cirque du Soleil show makes for a great way to spend an evening. But this is one you should see early. And often.

This is only two-thirds of Ovo's huge cast!

Dates, Performance and Ticket Information

Cirque du Soleil's OvO opens in Hartford June 17 and runs through July 11. It then moves on to Boston from July 22 to August 15 and Washington, DC from September 9 to October 3.

The performances are Tuesdays thru Thursdays at 8:00 p.m.; Fridays and Saturdays at 4:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 1:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. No performances on Mondays. Tickets are available via www.cirquedusoleil.com/ovo or at 1-800-450-1480. A VIP Tapis Rouge™ package is also available.

A slightly different version of this review appeared earlier in Berkshire Fine Arts.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Karen Zacarias saved by Arena Stage Playwriting Program

There was a moment not long ago when Karen Zacarias became sure that her blossoming playwriting career would be lost among sippy cups, baby dolls and field trip forms. Arena Stage made the difference.

Can you have it all? Playwright Karen Zacarias certainly seems to have found the secret. With three young children at home and a blinking computer awaiting, the 2009 Playwright in Residence for Washington, D.C.'s Arena stage is a prolific writer. She finished five plays the year her youngest was born, and the ideas just keep on coming. She has had four of her plays staged in the past year or so. Legacy of Light is one that Arena Stage produced. But the double duties of mother and writer takes its toll. "I haven't slept in years," she says. Thanks to Arena's program, she has found a way to live two lives.

Today news came that the path that Zacarias has blazed will soon be joined by two additional women playwrights Lisa Kron and Amy Freed, who will each start their three-year residencies in July 2010, and then Katori Hall and Charles Randolph-Wright, who will begin in January 2011. It's all part of The American Voices New Play Institute. The Institute—integral to Arena’s mission as a leading center for the production, presentation, development and study of American theater—isdesigned as a center for research and development of effective practices, programs and processes for new play development in the American Theater.

In addition to the first round of Resident Playwrights, the Institute will also host Project Residents Lynn Nottage and David Henry Hwang, who will be commissioned through the Institute to write a play that Arena Stage will produce.

In addition to the residencies, the American Voices New Play Institute operates with a suite of interrelated programs, including the New Play Producing Fellowships, Theater 101 Audience Enrichment Seminar, administration of Round One of the NEA New Play Development Program and major convenings of American artists and arts administrators around issues facing the new play sector.

Under the leadership of Arena Stage Artistic Director Molly Smith, the Institute is guided by Arena Stage Associate Artistic Director David Dower and works in partnership with Georgetown University’s Theater Department, led by Dr. Derek Goldman. The American Voices New Play Institute is made possible through the keystone gift of $1.1 million in support from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

"With the launching of the residencies for the American Voices New Play Institute under the visionary funding of the Mellon Foundation, we at Arena Stage are eager to support and help transform play development around the country,“ said Smith. “These writers are so different; my mouth is literally watering at the thought of what each may write. From major dramas to musicals, comedies, one-person plays and interview-based stories, the range is exhilarating. Now the writers will have the time, support and finances to be able to do their best work. Each writer is splendid and has the talent and insight to surprise us all.”

The primary purpose of the residency is to write plays and to advance professional outcomes for the participating writers, as well as to help Arena Stage test and develop best practices for such residencies in theaters around the country. The playwrights will determine their individual involvement in the life of the theater company. Ultimately, Arena Stage hopes the Institute will make the case for the power, practicality and impact of resident playwrights in regional theaters nationwide.

"This first cohort of playwrights is going to really advance the inquiry here at Arena Stage,” shared Dower. “They come at it from so many different perspectives on form, process and story, and they have all grabbed hold of the opportunity to help develop the role of the playwright in the institutions of the regional theater. So I expect we'll not only see work they write popping up on stages around the country, but I hope through their leadership we'll see increased opportunities for playwrights' residencies around the field."

This is one of the most exciting initiatives by any American theatre company. The nurturing of playwrights is essential for the theatre's future.

For more information regarding all of the American Voices New Play Institute programs please visit www.arenastage.org/institute.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

"Carnival" at Goodspeed Musicals has Acrobats, Jugglers, Puppets and Magicians

The original cast album design for Carnival.

Carnival is one of those classic book musicals that tells a heartbreaking love story surrounded by the color and vibrancy of a traveling troupe of artists. With a gorgeous score by the almost forgotten Bob Merrill, it is a musical I actually saw on Broadway with Anna Maria Alberghetti in the lead role of Lili, a young innocent.

Scheduled to run from July 9 – Sept 18 at the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Conn. This production will officially open on August 4, 2010. The last time I saw this musical was at the Berkshire Theatre Festival in 1979 or so. It's been a long time waiting for a top notch production, which the Goodspeed name always promises.

Lauren Worsham
The magical and heart-warming tale of a naïve young woman who eagerly joins a traveling circus. Surrounded by a riot of acrobats and jugglers, music makers and clowns, she is dazzled at first by the troupe’s manipulative magician. In the end she finds happiness with a disillusioned puppeteer who can only express himself through his delightful puppets. Based on the film Lili and with songs like “Love Makes the World Go Round” and "Her Face," Carnival! casts a romantic spell over the entire audience.

In addition to the Music and Lyrics by Bob Merrill Carnival's book is by Michael Stewart, based on Material by Helen Deutsch with Revisions by Francine Pascal.

Now to the cast. Lili will be played by Lauren Worsham whose gorgeous voice I heard up at the Weston, VT Playhouse two summers ago in Adam Guettel's Light in the Piazza. She broke my heart with her acting.

Adam Monley
Paul will be played by Adam Monley who appeared on Broadway in Mamma Mia! . Mr. Monley played Dominque in The Norma Terris production of The Baker’s Wife.

Marco will be played by Mike McGowan whose Broadway credits include Ragtime, Grease, The Apple Tree and The Producers. Mr. McGowan previously performed in Goodspeed’s 2001 production of They All Laughed.

Rosalie will be played by Michelle Blakely who performed the Broadway revivals of Annie Get Your Gun and Grease. Jacquot will be played by Nathan Klau. Schlegel will be played by Laurent Giroux whose Broadway credits include The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Dancin’ and Pippin. Mr. Giroux returns to Goodspeed where previously he played M. le Marquis in The Baker’s Wife.

Joshua Dean
The ensemble will include Joshua Dean and Ben Franklin, co-founders for New York based aerial theatre company Suspended Cirque. Mr. Dean has performed around the world as a ballet, modern, and musical theater dancer. Mr. Franklin has performed all over the world as an actor/singer/dancer. He has worked in numerous regional theatres, national tours, world cruises, Off-Broadway, and Lincoln Center.

Price Waldman from Broadway’s The Little Mermaid and Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! joins the ensemble. Mr. Waldman returns to Goodspeed where he previously performed in Sweeney Todd and Amour.

Other members of the ensemble include Timothy Hughes, Kara Kimmer (Goodspeed’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum), Robin Masella, Clifton Samuels, Amy Shure, Justin Urso and Dana Winkle (Goodspeed’s Pippin and Mack & Mabel). The swings will be Miguel Edson and Melissa Steadman.

Carnival! will be directed by Darko Tresnjak, who directed Goodspeed Musicals’ Amour and A Little Night Music. Carnival! will be choreographed by Peggy Hickey, whose previous Goodspeed Musicals credits include Brigadoon, King of Hearts, Amour, On The Twentieth Century, and A Little Night Music.

Scenic designs will be by David P. Gordon whose New York Credits include String Fever, Cheat, and Princess Turandot. Mr. Gordon also designed the Goodspeed production of A Little Night Music.

Costume Design will be by Fabio Toblini. Mr. Toblini has served as Assistant Costume Designer for Broadway’s Triumph of Love and assisted Costume Designer Ann Hould-Ward with her Broadway sensation Beauty and the Beast . Mr. Toblini served as Assistant Costume designer for Goodspeed’s revival of Man of LaMancha in 2000.

Lighting design will be by John Lasiter whose designs for Goodspeed Musicals include Annie Get Your Gun, Camelot, Big River and 1776. His off-Broadway credits include The Seagull, Common Vision, and Make Me A Song.

Puppet designer for Carnival! will be Robert Smythe. Mr. Smythe is considered one of the foremost puppet artists in the United States. As the founder and Artistic Director of Mum Puppettheatre, the only regional theater in the United States devoted to puppetry, he wrote, directed and performed over 20 original productions using puppets, masks and human actors.

The Music Director for Carnival! will be Michael O’Flaherty. He is in his 19th season as Goodspeed’s Resident Music Director. F. Wade Russo will be Assistant Music Director. Orchestrations will be provided by Dan DeLange, who provided the orchestrations for Goodspeed Musicals’ Annie Get Your Gun, Camelot, 42nd Street, Half a Sixpence, High Button Shoes, Singin’ in the Rain, The Boy Friend, Red Hot and Blue, Call Me Madam, and Babes in Arms. Carnival! is produced for Goodspeed Musicals by Michael P. Price.

Performances and Tickets

Carnival! will run July 9 through September 18, 2010. Curtain times are Wednesday at 2:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., Thursday at 7:30 p.m. (with select performances at 2:00 p.m.), Friday at 8:00 p.m., Saturday at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. (with select performances at 6:30 p.m.). Tickets are available through the Box Office (860.873.8668), open seven days a week, or on-line at www.goodspeed.org.