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Capsule Stage Reviews: Un ballo in maschera, A Picasso, Thunder Rock

Un ballo in maschera If Puccini's Tosca is the early 20th century's most compact opera, then Giuseppe Verdi's Un ballo in maschera (1859) is the 19th century's. This adaptation of a Eugene Scribe play about the killing of Sweden's Gustave III was radically changed by the Italian censors; the setting and the plot about a royal assassination were moved as far away from Naples politics as possible — Boston! And it is so tightly constructed that there's no room for any more changes. This intimate, three-character study (Count Riccardo, his best friend Renato and Riccardo's "lover" Amelia, who is married to Renato) supplies Verdi with more than ample space to sing. And what beautiful songs he composes. The opera is a feast of melody. Verdi spices his own tasty stew with additional characters, of course, like the fun-loving coloratura Oscar, the page and the rich contralto role of Ulrica, the witch who prophesizes Riccardo's death at the hand of his best friend. Opera in the Heights, which has produced some excellent work lately, outdoes itself in the casting department. Ballo's Emerald cast (there is an alternative Ruby cast) sings and acts exceptionally, especially Kirsten Hoiseth (Amelia), Jonathan Hodel (Riccardo), Douglin Murray Schmidt (Renato) and Kristin Patterson (Ulrica). The other lovely surprise is the economical, highly dramatic staging by Matthew Ferraro, who eschews complicated sets and lets us use our imagination. This stripped-down new look is just what OH needs in its intimate venue, where anything more complicated than a small chair and a desk causes unnecessary traffic jams. The orchestra is playing better, too — the cellos sounded particularly sweet and mellow — and maestro William Weibel keeps this dramatically focused Verdi work percolating just so. Through February 6. 1703 Heights Blvd., 713-861-5303. — DLG

A Picasso In Jeffrey Hatcher's darkly seductive A Picasso, we meet the great Spanish artist in a Parisian basement during the Nazi occupation, and he is nothing if not confoundingly complicated. At times he is a difficult, cowardly, chest-thumping ass. But wait for the moment to shift ever so slightly, and he becomes passionate, sexy and scary-smart. This wonderfully rich portrait of the artist is the result of a fearlessly bold performance by James Belcher, who plays the "nobody fucks Picasso" beast of an artist in the Stages Repertory Theatre production of Hatcher's terrific script. The story imagines what happened during an alleged 1943 interview between Picasso and a Nazi art collector. In Hatcher's tale, the collector forces Picasso to authenticate three drawings. The story is that there's to be a private showing for some of the folks high up in the regime. Of course, the Germans hated Picasso. They thought art should be pictures of "kittens." So Picasso is right to be suspicious of Miss Fischer (Carolyn Johnson) and her Nazi bosses. But what happens over the course of the play is infinitely more surprising and complicated than the situation suggests. Hatcher's plot is full of tingling twists, but none of it would work without Belcher's complex portrayal of Picasso, which is helped along by Johnson's equally hard-to-pin-down Nazi, who is neither good nor altogether evil. There is a quiet urgency to the entire piece that director Matt Huff modulates and shapes into a stunning piece of art that anyone who loves the creative mind should not miss. Through February 21. 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — LW

Thunder Rock If there's such a thing as a jack-of-all-trades, surely writer Robert Ardrey, whose 1939 fantasy polemic Thunder Rock is currently on view at Company OnStage, easily fits the bill. His credentials as a playwright begin with NYC's legendary Group Theatre, that agitprop company founded in the early '30s to bring leftist politics onto the stage; his film career encompasses frothy romantic comedies, historical romances and epics like Khartoum (1966), which won him an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay. Then there are his books on anthropology and social science, African Genesis (1961) and Territorial Imperative (1966), still hotly debated to this day and said to have influenced cerebral Stanley Kubrick and twitchy Sam Peckinpah. Thunder Rock is a fantasy using politics as the magic wand. Charleston runs away from a despicable, war-mad world to take a job as a lighthouse keeper far out in Lake Michigan. Haunted by the ghosts from an 1849 shipwreck, he must confront his isolationist views. This very social-conscious play often sounds as if it were written in quotation marks and etched in granite, yet it's strangely affecting in its singular call to get off our asses and do something. Ardrey's helped by the naturalistic acting from Steve Finn (Charleston), Carl Masterson (Captain Joshua), Heather Gabriel (Miss Kirby) and John Patterson (Streeter), who make smooth whatever rocky piles Ardrey strews in the way. Through February 20. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG

 
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