May 1st, 2011

Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, "The Lion in Winter"

Easter Sunday afternoon, we went to the Broadway Theatre Center's Cabot Theatre for MCT's production of "The Lion in Winter," a play we are both very fond of. This was a co-production between Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Marquette University, so we had the somewhat unusual situation of college theater students sharing the stage with seasoned professionals Brian Mani, Tracy Michelle Arnold, and Marcus Truschinski, all veterans of American Players Theater and other professional groups. The difference in experience was generally noticeable although not equally so.

Of course, the play generally belongs to the characters of Henry (Mani) and Eleanor (Arnold), so as long as you have two skilled actors to carry those loads, you are going to have a pretty good show. Mani was very good as the growling, roaring, demanding, manipulative Henry, although I thought he could have done a bit better on some of those scenes where he is shown to be vulnerable. Tracy Michelle Arnold was excellent as Eleanor, playing chess against Henry with their children and desperately trying to make a stalemate out of her losing position.

Oddly enough, it was two of the professionals, Truschinski as Richard Lionheart, and Lenny Banovez as Geoffrey, that I was least satisfied with. Truschinski's Richard was comparatively one-dimensional and very stone-faced, as though the portrayal were based entirely upon Richard's line that he had no sense of humor and extrapolated to having few other feelings as well. Banovez' smiling and smarmy Geoffrey was a distinct departure from other portrayals, and, not, I think, a good one. It made Geoff lose his dangerousness and resentment, which is important to this character. Since these were very fundamental decisions about how the roles are played, I wonder how much of this should be laid at the door of director C. Michael Wright, rather than the individual actors.

J. Patrick Cahill as John was the standout among the student actors: his snotty and surly prince was very naturalistic and fit in well with the characterizations given by Mani and Arnold. Alexandra Bonesho, whom we had seen and enjoyed as "Cherry" in The Beaux' Strategem, was a bit too declamatory delivering her lines as Alais, but otherwise not bad at all. Joe Pichetti in the admittedly difficult role of Philip of France, needed to ramp up his emotions a notch on all fronts. Being tall and handsome is all to the good, but we really needed to see more charm, more fire, and more spite from him

MCT provided a monumental set that had the apparent heaviness and solidity of genuine Norman castle architecture and played really well. Costumes and makeup were generally period appropriate and good-looking, if you accept that Richard's ring-reinforced jerkin (an antiquated style for noblemen even then) was intended to be more decorative than functional. The one exception was the costume given John (inspired by the recent television production starring Patrick Stewart and Glenn Close). Although we are told in the script that John has poor personal hygiene (Alais: "He smells like compost!") and he might well be careless in his dress, I can't believe that would come to a royal holiday celebration dressed like a stable hand and with obvious dirt on his face.

Overall, the strengths of the production greatly outweighed it's faults, and we enjoyed it very much.

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Burrahobbits, "The Lyre of Orpheus"

Tuesday evening, the 26th, our fantasy book discussion group, The Burrahobits, met at the home of Sue Blom to discuss Robertson Davies' novel, The Lyre of Orpheus.

The Lyre of Orpheus fits marginally into the fantasy category due to its mystical element (the ghost of E.T.A. Hoffman comments on the action) and its Arthurian connection: not only does the book deal with the making of an opera based on the legend of King Arthur, but the events of the Arthurian canon begin to have parallels in the lives of the characters. Besides, we just like Robertson Davies--.

The novel is an entertaining look at the continuing lives (this is the third of a trilogy) of a group of people part of, and associated with, Davies fictional Toronto University, and, in particular with the decision to mount a full production of a "new" opera based on unfinished music composed by Hoffman, as reconstructed by an eccentric graduate student, and all that that entails in the way of artistic, academic, and interpersonal maneuvering.

Davies' work is very good for those of us who appreciate a low-keyed comedy of manners, particularly in an academic setting. (We have two professors in our group, who found The Lyre of Orpheus amusingly true to life--.)

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Cirque du Soleil, "Dralion"

Wednesday evening, April 27th, we drove to Madison to the Alliant Energy Center Coliseum to take in Cirque du Soleil's show Dralion.

(Yes, we are crazy. For those of you keeping track, within seven days, we will have seen a straight play, a circus, a musical, and a variety show. We've also had a book discussion group meeting, a roleplaying game session, and an APA collation. A week is not usually this packed, but this was one of those times everything happened at once. On the eighth day, I updated this blog--.)

We adore Cirque du Soleil, so it was worth the drive, the late return home, and the cramped and vertiginous seating in the Madison Coliseum in order to see one of their shows. Dralion ("Dragon/Lion") is one of their simpler shows with a less pervasive theme than some, and closer to "traditional" circus, hence it is suitable to be doing the one-night-only traveling thing, and of hitting smaller markets like Madison and Green Bay. Nevertheless, we have not yet seen a Cirque show that did not have our jaws dropping at least once, and Dralion was no exception.

Dralion is an explicitly multi-cultural show, combining elements from different continents/cultures as symbolized by the four principal dancers who represented African, South Asian, and Western styles, and one that was either South American or Chinese--hard to tell from the costume which could have been either. There were also loose elemental connotations.

As ever, Cirque du Soleil, which uses no animal acts, pushes the boundaries of human performance in sometimes astonishing ways, and often using very simple or minimal equipment. Such an act was the hand-balancer in the first half.  She "merely" performs a one-handed handstand clutching a doorknob-like pedestal well off the ground, but then proceeds to spend five minutes doing things like holding her entire body out at a ninety-degree angle to her arm, and gracefully going though other evolutions and contortions that require muscular strength of steel cables and a gyroscope-equivalent balance system. Whomever says that women are the weaker sex has not encountered female acrobats--.

Other acts based on the simplest things have the power to astonish, such as, oh, jumping through hoops--a performance of marvelous complexity--or, skipping rope. Who would have though that you could make a circus act out of skipping rope? Well, who would have thought that you could have eight men side-by-side skipping rope in unison? Or that they could do that with four men standing on their shoulders? And one man standing on their shoulders for a three-man-high pyramid? Some genius did, and made it happen.

Of course, there were the trademark beautiful acts as well, the aerialist's pas de deux suspended by flowing ribbons of fabric being a case in point. Gorgeous costuming and atmospheric music are to be expected.

One thing I actually realized about this show is how small the cast actually is and appreciated the fact that the sometimes long-seeming clown acts are there in order to give the acrobats time to peel out of one layer of Lycra and get into another. This is since, unlike a regular circus where one act is one bunch of people, in this case, the people diving through hoops dressed as aborigines are the SAME people who came out a few minutes later dressed as hipsters to skip rope. I realized that this is actually true of the other Cirque shows we have seen--with the exception of a few principals and specialists like the jugglers, the same group is doing all the acts--which makes it all the more marvelous. Amazing!

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