UrbanArias She, AfterBy David Siegel • Nov 13th, 2013 • Category: Reviews
Artisphere, Arlington, VA
Through November 17th
1:00, with one musical interlude
$25/$23 Students, Seniors (Plus Fees)
Reviewed November 9th, 2013
A noteworthy double bill of two short, musical monodramas is at the Arlington Artisphere. Produced by locally based UrbanArias, She, After speculates on what happens to iconic literary heroines, after the original author put down the pen. As the Urban Arias program notes explain, they are “the imagined lives of two famous literary women – AFTER their moments of notoriety.”
With its unusual rethinking of long-known characters and its compact, small-scale operatic outlook, it is easy to be taken-in by the solid She, After. Each of the 25-minute musical productions present a forceful, dark take; one on Nora, from Ibsen’s A Doll’s House and the other on Alice from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland.
Don’t be put off by those words, “opera” or “arias.” In the case of She, After it means the music and vocals are continuous with little in the way of spoken dialogue. It is sung-through in English. Both feature internationally performing soprano Emily Pulley. In the program bio, she is noted as “a champion of new repertoire.”
The music is provided by a trio of violin, cello and piano playing new compositions by contemporary classical composer Daniel Felsenfeld (b. 1970). He has not only performed at classic venues throughout the country, but has worked with the likes of The Roots, Stew, Jay-Z and Keren Ann. The works were commissioned by the American Opera Project.
The music composed by Felsenfeld is with multiple tempos and plenty of styles. It can be frenzied, and menacing, then contemplative. His compositions underlie the emotional ranges befitting the tough worlds of the two distinct productions. The music pushes and bumps about with an unruly sharp spirit and then finds its way to something almost pensive in mood. Just don’t expect to hum after the final black-out; that is just not its purpose. Forget swelling soft harmony. Felsenfeld writes as an opera insurgent; shaking things up.
The two separate monodramas are Nora, in the Great Outdoors which premiered in NY at Lincoln Center’s Kaplan Penthouse in 2011, and the world premiere of Alice in the Time of the Jabberwock. They are connected though in that both bring the lives of the fictional character into a brooding sequel. Both Nora and Alice are living with the consequences of their actions.
For Nora, in the Great Outdoors the focus is on the repercussions into an uncertain future after Nora’s famous final door slam in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House. Nora confronts her past after she has stepped into the cold outdoors, no longer protected within family and home. The libretto (story and lyrics) is by playwright Will Eno. His Thom Pain (based on nothing) was a finalist for the 2005 Pulitzer Prize in Drama. By spring 2014, his The Open House is expected to find its way to Off-Broadway and his The Realistic Joneses is expected on Broadway.
Some lyrics from Nora include “I shouldn’t be out in here in the cold. But I’m out here in the cold. I was inside, and loved; now I’m outside, and not.” And this; “To be a mother is to suffer love. To be a woman is to be quiet. Don’t cry for me and I won’t cry for you. Like a man, I’ve done what I’ve done and I am not looking back.”
As Nora, Pulley’s soprano vocals can reach into lower vocal ranges with a dramatic flair. She has a way of presenting herself physically as if she is Gloria Swanson slowly falling apart in the movie “Sunset Boulevard.” She has a direct, out-of-focus gaze and theatrical presentation that makes herself appear drawn and worn. She uses her body as a prop. She changes before the audience’s eyes from being prim, proper, and buttoned-up into a woman clearly wanting to be seen and accepted as a sensual being. Her last moment includes walking into the audience while using lipstick to dramatic effect with a shudder.
After a short interlude with music provided by the trio, there is a jump into Alice in the Time of the Jabberwoock with libretto by well-known writer Robert Coover. He is known for a magic realism style of writing. This new Alice is based on one of Coover’s short stories from his book “A Child Once Again.” His premise; Alice has not been able to escape Wonderland. She is now older and much less enthusiastic with her quite undomesticated Wonderland life.
As Alice, Pulley is a woman on the verge of a nervous breakdown of a different sort. She can’t seem to escape her fate as a forever young girl, even dressed in that famous but now forlorn pinafore. From the top of this production, her hair is unruly; sticking every which-way, her skin no longer unlined and puffy pink cheeked. When she stretches out in an attempt to squeeze through an imagined door, but her adult size making that impossible, you want to help push-pull her through.
Who can’t be captured in some way by Alice lyrics: “My teeth hurt, my chest is as crinkly as funeral crêpe, I’m growing a mustache, I can’t remember yesterday.” Or this, “You are old, Mother Alice, and big as a door, And all covered with wrinkles and fat! And yet you still wear your old pinafore, Pray, what is the reason for that?”
Beth Greenberg’s stage direction makes the evening more than a comfortable concert of well sung, well-delivered arias (vocal solos). Greenberg has interests in “the challenges of redefining where, and how opera can be performed” according to her program bio.
There is plenty of movement in She, After for an audience to pay attention to. The minimalist set by Valerie Bart with its floor to ceiling pipes acting as trees, a chair here, a chandelier there, a door at the rear center, with chilly lighting by Dan Jobbins providing visual interest. Costumes by Bart well represent the characters from the disheveled, outgrown pinafore of Alice and the gray checked, Nora’s shirtwaist dress.
A novel invention, UrbanArias’ She, After is a densely packed evening of quality entertainment performed in an intimate, cozy performance space. If you especially enjoy “what-if” banter with friends and colleagues; if you take pleasure in sampling new things or being the first to explore the contemporary, do find your way to the Artisphere for She, After. You will be rewarded.
Note: An absorbing item by Felsenfeld Rebel Music. Nora, in the Great Outdoors was commissioned by the American Opera Project (AOP). Alice in the Time of the Jabberwock was commissioned by UrbanArias and developed in AOP’s First Chance program with generous funding from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Photos by C.Stanley Photography
- Nora/Alice: Emily Pulley
- Violin: Jenifer Kim
- Cello: Sean Neidlinger
- Piano: R. Timothy McReynolds
- Stage Direction: Beth Greenberg
- Musical Direction: Robert Wood
- Set and Costume Design: Valerie Bart
- Lighting Design: Dan Jobbins
- Stage Manager: Erin Patrick
- Assistant Stage Manager: Christopher Anaya-Gorman
- Master Electrician: Alexander Keen
Disclaimer: UrbanArias provided a complimentary media ticket to ShowBizRadio for this review.
This article can be linked to as: http://washingtondc.showbizradio.com/goto/9889.
David Siegel is a freelance theater reviewer and features writer whose work appears on ShowBizRadio, in the Connection Newspapers and the Fairfax Times. He is a judge in the Helen Hayes Awards program. He is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and volunteers with the Arts Council of Fairfax County. David has been associated with theater in the Washington, DC area for nearly 30 years. He served as Board President, Alexandria's American Showcase Theater Company (now Metro Stage) and later with Arlington's American Century Theater as both a member of the Executive Board and as Marketing Director. You can follow David's musings on Twitter @pettynibbler.