Sunday, August 23, 2009

It's Not All Greek To Me, But The Fat Lady May Not Have Sung Just Yet - Dido and Aeneas & The Bacchae - Theatre Reviews

Dido and Aeneas - Underground/Opera at the Winchester Street Theatre - Toronto, ON - **** (out of 5)
Written by Henry Purcell, Directed by Patrick Eagen Young
Runs until Aug. 29th 2009

The Bacchae - Delacorte Theatre - Central Park - New York City, NY - ** (out of 5)
By Euripedes, Translated by Nicholas Rudall, Directed by Joanne Akalaitis
Runs until Aug. 30th 2009
Note: Both reviews based on preview performances

Sometimes it's just the WAY you tell a story and not the story itself, isn't it?

I've tried and tried to like Opera and Greek theatre before but I've just never really been into it, but Toronto's newest Opera company is taking a fresh and modern approach to classical opera and may just be the youthful spin that may help change my mind. Meanwhile, the latest Public Theater's free offering in Central Park may have just confirmed that I'm just not that into Greek Theatre.

Opera/Underground, a combo of Opera Erratica and the Classical Music Consort have joined forces to present classical operas with period instruments (conducted by Ashiq Aziz) and staging the performances with modern touches like video projections that meld into the storytelling that freshens up Opera for a newer audience.

First off, I won't say I'm a complete opera convert yet, but I thoroughly enjoyed Dido and Aeneas with help from the very cool and symbolic projections that worked along with the live actors playing with their "shadows" that made it both viscerally exciting and thematically intriguing (and sometimes very very surreal)! It also allowed for the sometimes usually static operatic staging (that I usually associate opera with) to breathe with some sort of "action", letting the performance "show" more, instead of simply "telling" us the story.

Add in the really cool period instruments in the orchestra, creating an authentic sounding score, and a superb young cast whose vocal operatic singing was astounding, made me appreciate the beauty of opera. While the entire cast was excellent, including leads Susanne Hawkins as Dido and Olivier Laquerre as Aeneas, I wanted to specifically mention Charlotte Corwin and Sarah Whalen as the witches, Andrew Pickett as the Corceress, and John Bacon as the Sailor who all practically stole the show with their scenes. In fact, the 70 min. show speeds by and I left actually wanting MORE. I KNOW. Me? Opera? More? They must be doing something right! I simply loved the voices and the sound of the period instruments and with the modern staging, it kept it all interesting enough for me to stop dismissing Opera fully. If they were all done this way, I may return.

Meanwhile in Central Park NYC, The Bacchae continues the Greek tragedy tradition of telling the story but not really showing anything, as character after character walks onto the stage, retells the same story over and over again. Yes, that's what Greek theatre is, but the way director Akalaitis stages it, it gets kind of boring and I found my mind wandering through most of the 3 hour long play (oh wait, it was only 90 min.? but it sure FELT like 3 hours).

My Spring Awakening love Jonathan Groff (also in Taking Woodstock) stars as lead Dionysus and even with him changing in front of the audience (while people are still being seated) wasn't enough to convince me. I enjoyed the tragedy part of the show, as things only FINALLY got moving near the end when Agave finally arrives with the head of her son, but the way the story was TOLD, I just couldn't get into any of it.

I know the chorus is the essential part of Greek Theatre but I found it just didn't work here and became really annoying. I did however like the simplicity of the set, a sweeping staircase that disappears into a crumbling platform, however, the director didn't utilize the sweeping stairs or the pool of water as much as she could have.

The play also seemed mightily sanitized despite its themes of debauchery and despicable acts, not aided by Philip Glass' original score which does not enhance things here.

The cast, including Anthony Mackie (above) and Andre de Shields, tries as they might, aren't enough to save this show which just confirmed reasons I don't enjoy Greek Theatre. Maybe Undground/Opera can come up with a new way to stage it that may make it more palatable?

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