October 5th, 2015

Milwaukee Film Festival: Song of the Sea

On Sunday morning, September 27th, we went to the Downer Theater to see the Milwaukee Film Festival's showing of "Song of the Sea," a 2014 animated feature by the same group that had done "The Secret of Kells," (2009), which we had enjoyed and admired.

We also enjoyed and admired "Song of the Sea." Unapologetically hand-drawn, two-dimensional, and often highly stylized, "Song of the Sea" is a truly beautiful film.

Contemporary in setting, the story incorporates classic elements of Celtic myth and legend. Bronach (voice by Lisa Hannigan), the wife of lighthouse keeper Conor (Brendan Gleeson), turns out to be a selkie, or seal-woman. About to give birth to their second child, she is compelled to return to the sea, leaving her newborn daughter with her husband. Before going, she exacts a promise from her elder child, Ben (David Rawle), that he will be as good a big brother as he can be. She also gives him a horn or pipe made out of a nautilus shell as keepsake.

Six years later, Ben is experiencing the typical frustrations of a brother with a young sister. In particular, Saoirse (pronounced "Sirsha") is fascinated by the ocean, whereas Ben is morbidly afraid of the element that claimed his mother. Added to his frustration is the fact that Saoirse, though a bright child has never spoken, which gives his grandmother (Fionnula Flanagan) ammunition in her battle with her son, Conor, over taking the children away from the lonely lighthouse to give them a "more normal" upbringing in Dublin.

When Saoirse plays her mother's shell-pipe, magic lights appear that lead her to the chest where Conor has hidden the "selkie coat" that she was born with. She puts it on, and spends a night swimming with the seals, which puts both Conor and Ben into a panic. Reluctantly, Conor agrees to send the children to the city with Granny.

Almost immediately, the children run away, intending to get back home, but are lead by the magic lights to a fairy mound (located in the middle of a Dublin traffic circle!), where they learn that Saoirse will be hunted by the goddess Macha (also Flannigan). Macha was the mother of Mac Lir (here portrayed as a giant). Unable to bear Mac Lir's grief at the loss of his children (in legend, turned to swans for 900 years by their stepmother), Macha stole away his emotions, which had the side effect of turning him to stone. Herself unhinged, Macha sets out to "help" all the spirit beings of Ireland by giving them the same "cure," which can only be undone by the song of the selkie.

The children have but one night in which to evade Macha's clutches, and find a way to get Saoirse (Lucy O'Connell), who still shows no signs of having a voice, to be able to sing the magic song.

What follows is a mythic adventure, as the children try to get home with both help and hindrance from the remaining mystical beings of Ireland. It works out to a beautiful, sad-sweet conclusion.

The artwork is powerful and expressive and does all that is needed to put the story across, amply aided by the voice acting and a sometimes poignant, sometimes rousing musical score.

"Song of the Sea" has our highest recommendation.

The movie was part of the Festival's "kid friendly" programming, and by all standards, it is, though may be intense for younger children.

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Off the Wall Theatre, "Tartuffe"

On Sunday evening, September 27th, we went to Off the Wall Theatre to see their production of "Tartuffe." We were particularly interested in this show, since the script was adapted by producer/director Dale Gutzman, and we had been very favorably impressed by his work on last season's "Odyssey". Not a direct translation, Mr. Gutzman had used as source material some of the better regarded English translations, and then recast the story into rhyming couplets,the form originally used by the author, Moliere.

We found the script as presented very clever and engaging, with the rhyme scheme being very well done, with few strained rhymes. When well delivered, the couplet form was not obtrusive and did not distract from the enjoyment of the play.

In Moliere's play, a well-off business man, Orgon (Randall Anderson), falls under the influence of self-anointed holy man, Tartuffe (David Flores). Orgon (whose name in French means "pigeon") subjects his family to all manner of puritanical austerities dictated by Tartuffe, while behind his back, the preacher allows himself every kind of gross indulgence of the flesh, including thinking lustful thoughts of both Orgon's daughter, Mariane (Brittni Hesse), and his wife, Elmire (Jacqueline Roush).

Anderson's Orgon appears to be a stereotypical buttoned-up Republican type, so its a bit surprising that he falls for Flores' street-preacher, who is crude, unwashed,and unkempt. But, as we find, it is a profound emptiness in Orgon's spiritual life that opens him to Tartuffe's manipulations. Eventually, Elmire and her brother, Cleonte (Jeremey C. Welter) succeed in exposing Tartuffe's hypocrisy, which leads to still more trouble for the family.

It takes only a little updating to bring the issues raised by the play into sharp focus, being as these days, issues of separation of church and state, public morality, self-righteousness, and "selfish-righteousness" are current topics.

The play was very funny, edgy, and we enjoyed it. My major criticism would be in the characterization of Tartuffe, who's such a gross slob it's hard to credit Orgon's enrapturement, even given his spiritual void. I find it more effective when Tartuffe is a Jekyll-Hyde character, able to shift from sanctimonious censor to drooling beast and back in the space of a breath. Since the portrayal is much of a piece with the action and script, I would guess that this is as much due to Mr. Gutzman's imagining of the character as to Mr. Flores' acting, choosing to play the character broadly and make the most of Orgon's foolishness.

Also, it must be admitted that not all the actors were equally skillful handling the verse. The principals, Anderson, Flores, Roush, and especially Marilyn White as the clear-eyed maid, Dorine, were naturalistic, and ably avoided the pitfall of becoming "sing song" or letting the rhyme and rhythm become too pronounced. Not all the supporting cast were as able, but that is one of the hazards of choosing to perform a rhymed piece.

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Milwaukee Film Festival, "Magicarena"

On Wednesday evening, September 30th, we went to the Fox Bay Cinema to see the Milwaukee Film Festival's screening of "Magicarena," a new film about the Verona Opera Festival. Staged in the city's ancient Roman amphitheater, this is the world's largest outdoor opera venue.

Specifically, the film covers the staging of Giuseppe Verdi's "Aida" as the opening production of the Festival's Centenary season.

Beginning five weeks from opening night, the film shows us the working up of the production, as mainly seen by the rank and file people that make the big show possible. Choristers, dancers, "mime-artists", supernumeraries, and musicians all talk about what it is like to take part in such a venerable yet vital program. We get to see principals, such as the producer/stage director, orchestra conductor, and lead singers in action, but they do not talk to the camera.

"Aida" is among the grandest of "grand operas" and staging it for a hundredth anniversary might tell you it will be a big production, and it is: REALLY big! Not only is there a cast of literally hundreds, this is to be an "Aida for the New Millennium," so the production design by Spanish group "La Fura dels Baus" is quite eclectic. The costumes of the principal singers allude to Classical Egypt, but with light-up accessories. Egyptian storm troopers wear industrial orange body armor, while their Ethiopian opponents wear ragged camouflage. Along the edges of the Nile, mime-artists pose as both crocodiles and banks of reeds. In the scene of Rhadames' triumph, the procession includes mechanical framework camels and elephants marching as cranes construct a giant solar reflector emblematic of the Temple of the Sun. Priests, ranked around the rim of the arena, bear aloft huge flaming occult symbols.

While we were given a very intimate look at the innards of what well may be the most over-the-top production of its type we've ever seen, I was disappointed that we never got to see one whole scene of the opera for its effect. While we got to see substantial parts of some scenes, we never got an idea what it was really like for the audience. I don't know if this was required by the Festival, or if the filmmakers just got so caught up with the fascinating details, there was no time to give the big picture.

Nevertheless, it was a very rare set of glimpses into the making of a truly spectacular production, and we were very glad to have seen it.

In Italian with occasionally amusing English subtitles. (Example: Massimo, the orchestra member, is described as being principal trombone, while he is shown playing the trumpet. "Tromba" is the Italian for trumpet, where as an Italian trombone is --a trombone.)

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Skylight Opera Theatre, "Tosca"

Saturday evening, October 3rd, we went to the Broadway Theatre Center to see and hear the Skylight's new production of Puccini's "Tosca." It was generally considered to be a challenge to "scale down" this popular opera to fit the Skylight's small hall, but this isn't necessarily the case. Puccini tends to write big music for small casts, and "Tosca" is an example, with three major roles in Tosca, Scarpia, and Cavaradossi, a handful of supporting roles, and only one chorus at the end of the first act.

From a scenic standpoint, almost any stage is big enough to portray Scarpia's office in act Two. The section of battlements in Act Three doesn't have to be huge, which leaves the cathedral in Act One. The Skylight deftly got around that one by keeping the chorus offstage for the processional, leaving the visual focus on Scarpia.

Act One was where I had the biggest disagreement with the set design. The large painting Cavaradossi is working on is traditionally a saint if not the Madonna. The one used here was a dancing figure and looked more like a poster for the Moulin Rouge than anything found in a cathedral. Also, the bottom three feet of the painted canvas trailed on the floor and were casually walked on by both Cavaradossi and the Sacristan! (By the time Scarpia got around to treading on it, it wasn't as shocking.) Some of the best scene effects were done with lighting (designer Jason Fassl) in the same act, as, while Scarpia sings, "Tosca, you make me turn away from God!" a subtle shift alerts us that the panels screening the artist's work space form a cross looming over him.

The principal singers were all excellent, with all reviewers admiring Cassandra Aaron Black, who sang Floria Tosca with great power and passion. Her stage presence reminded me of Joan Sutherland. Reviews were more mixed for Chaz'men Williams-Ali as Cavaradossi and David Kravitz as Scarpia. We did not think that Williams-Ali's voice was too "light"; he sang with fine strength and expression. Kravitz was a lean and hungry, though sometimes genial, Scarpia and sang the role very well.

Kravitz may have been somewhat handicapped by his costume, which was described elsewhere as looking like a "Star Wars" villain (I'd have guessed "Buck Rodgers" myself--.) However, by the time we saw Tosca come on for the third act, it was clear the costume designs by Kristy Leigh Hall were intended to be symbolic, since her "traveling" outfit is an impractical but highly dramatic red evening gown that looks like it had been dipped in blood.

Although this was the largest orchestra that could be crammed into the Skylight's pit, it was still far smaller than the usual full symphony used to support Puccini, and it was occasionally, though seldom, evident that they were working hard to make up weight, notably at the end of the first act, when the brasses got a bit sharp in the very demanding processional.

A controversial decision that we had no problem with was to have most of the opera sung in English, as the Skylight usually does, but leave the best known arias in Italian. I thought this worked well and I got more out of some scenes, such as Tosca's second act dialog with Scarpia, than I usually do with supertitles.

All in all, a fine production of which the Skylight can be justly proud.

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