May 20th, 2013

Next Act Theatre, "The Mystery of Irma Vep"

On Wednesday evening, May 15th,we went to Next Act Theatre to see the mystery/farce, "The Mystery of Irma Vep, A Penny Dreadful." "Irma Vep" was written by Charles Ludlam for his "Ridiculous Theater Company" in 1984, and is scripted for two actors doing seven parts.

Two of Milwaukee's veteran actors, John McGivern and Norman Moses, performed the show, which requires something on the order of thirty-five costume/character changes in the two-hour show. The main plot takes off Alfred Hitchcock's "Rebecca." Lady Enid (McGivern) is the new bride of Lord Edgar (Moses), whom he brings home to his ancestral manor, "Mandercrest". The old homestead is haunted by (at least) the memory of his deceased wife, Irma Vep; their dead son, Victor; and all-too physically by Irma's pet wolf (also named Victor) running loose and terrorizing the countryside. Jane, the housekeeper (the "Mrs. Danvers" role)(Moses) resents Lady Enid and works to undermine and sabotage her. The fourth mamber of the household is Nicodemus (McGivern), the man-of-all-work, who nurses his own set of grievances.

Once this pot is set to boil, it winds through most of the gothic conventions, including bleeding portraits, vampirism, werewolves, imprisoned mad wives, and an excursion to Egypt in search of the secret of resurrecting the dead.

It's all pretty good fun, with a major part of the entertainment being the cleverness and speed of the costume changes. The major set, representing Mandercrest's drawing room, is well done and fun to look at. The change to "Egypt" is cleverly done. Costumes were fascinating considering they had to be rigged for quick changes, but there were no obvious tricks (the stage crew/dressers were given a well-deserved curtain call). Incidental music was provided by the "Mad Gothic Organist" Matt Zembrowski, who underscored some of the play's roots with an entre-acte that included the Monty Python "Liberty Bell March" and the "Addams Family" themesong.

Both actors did yeoman duty and were generally fine. McGivern made good use of his rubbery features as the growling Nicodemus, smoothing them out as the vapid Lady Enid. Moses' more regular features worked well for the stone-faced Jane and stiff-upper lip Lord Edgar. The one flaw I noted was that Moses' accent as Jane wandered all over the map, but this was a minor issue.

Very enjoyable!

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Milwaukee Ballet, "Swan Lake"

On Sunday afternoon, May 19th, we saw a fascinating and very entertaining re-imagining of the classic ballet "Swan Lake," as done by the Milwaukee Ballet, under the direction of Michael Pink.

As noted in my review of the Bolshoi "Swan Lake," there isn't really a single definitive version of the "Swan Lake" story, and this re-working was quite radical in a number of ways. For one thing, the original four acts were pared down to two (with two scenes each, plus a prologue); which is a good thing from the plot point of view, but does result in a lot of classical dance (including the trademark "Dance of the Cygnets") being cut.
For another, generally good, thing, the villain Von Rothbart, is given some human goals and motivations, instead of being merely a "force of evil".

The stage was dimly lit during the overture, and we see Rothbart (Timothy O'Donnell) summon Odile, the Black Swan (Annia Hildalgo) from the waters of the mystic lake. Throughout this production, Odile accompanies Rothbart as his demonic assistant.

In the prologue, Prince Siegfried (David Hovhannisyan) is attempting to study near the shores of the lake, accompanied by his tutor. Young women of the court, lead by Odette (Luz San Miguel), enter larking along the lakeshore. They induce the young prince to join them, which he does, eventually dragged away by his tutor and by Rothbart,the Queen's counselor, who summons him back to court. After the prince leaves, he attracts the women with a gleaming bauble, and then, once they are under his power, drives them into the lake, where they vanish. (A particularly nicely done effect.)

In the next scene (Act 1, Scene 1, proper), it is the day before Seigfried's birthday, and he and his friend, Benno (Alexandre Ferreira),
partake of the people's celebration honoring him. As night draws on, Rothbart separates the Prince from the party, gives him a drugged drink, and sends him stumbling into the wilderness alone.

Rothbart guides Seigfried's steps to the lake, where he encounters the enchanted swan-women, and recognizes Odette among them. He learns of the curse that they are under and that it can be broken by Seigfried pledging his eternal love to Odette. Odile scatters the swans, and Rothbart, having set his hook, draws Seigfried away before he can do any more.

Act two begins with the grand ball the following evening celebrating Seigfried's majority, and at which his mother insists he choose a bride. He declines all of the princesses, until Rothbart enters with his "daughter" Odile, whom Seigfried sees as Odette. Seigfried vows he will marry none but her, which triggers Rothbart's plot. The reproachful image of Odette appears, causing confusion in all and dismay in Seigfried. Seigfried flees, and when Benno attempts to follow him, he is felled by Rothbart's dagger.

Seigfried finds his way to the lake. He begs Odette for forgiveness. She begs him to forget her as they can never be together. The Prince declares that he would rather die than leave her. The cruel Rothbart enters, and attacks Odette and mortally wounds her, while Odile holds Seigfried off. Seigfried carries Odette to the lake's edge where they both plunge into a watery grave. Rothbart and Odile do not have long to exult in their victory, as the enraged swans swirl around them, the mystic lake engulfs the two and drags them to their doom. The spirits of Odette and Seigfried, freed, are seen rising up toward heaven.

Michael Pink excels at choreography for story-telling and character interaction, so much of the ballet is his, with classical dances set like jewels, notably the grand ball dances. Pink's swans are the most swan-like we have ever seen, continually grouping together in birdlike flocks, and scattering in sudden flight when intruded upon.

All the dancers danced with grace, power, precision, and great expression, which made it a very exciting ballet to watch during the critical scenes. The set pieces, such as the villager's dances, and the grand ball, were beautiful to look at.

A major addition to the beauty of the ballet was the costume design by Jose Varona. All the humans' costumes were rich and colorful. By contrast, the swans' costumes were very austere. There were no feather headdresses or stiff tutus. Instead, the swan-women's hair was long and loose, and their costumes shift-like, with plain tops and short, ragged skirts, which gave the impression that the women were captives or castaways and reduced to living in their underwear. Nevertheless, we still felt that these were the most swan-like dancers we had experienced.

The orchestra, Pasquale Lorino conducting, gave an excellent rendition of Tchaikovsky's music, cut and reordered as it had been.

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