The black and white images in highly contrasted lighting glisten like ebony onyx and silver pearls. Enchantment virtually leaps off of the screen as the title characters conquer near insurmountable challenges and ultimately endear themselves to one another and to the audience. Such is Jean Cocteau’s enchanting 1946 film “La Belle et la Bête.”
In Philip Glass’s adaptation of a trilogy of Cocteau films to opera (the others being “Orphée” and “Les Enfants Terribles,” both previously produced by Opera Parallèle), the composer saved his most imaginative treatment for this most uncommon love story. To preserve the spellbinding charm of the source and the visual magic that can only be produced electronically, the movie is projected over the stage, while the soundtrack is stripped. Instead, Glass’s original musical score and libretto are performed live under the backdrop of the electronic images. But the four singers appear variously in the flesh and on the screen. The resulting hybrid is a unique and captivating performance experience. A triumph!
The story itself is better known to most from the Disney film and stage musical versions, both of which were wildly successful. The substance of any version is similar, an admixture of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” “Cinderella,” and “The Frog Prince.” Belle’s father inadvertently triggers the plot conflict by picking a rose for her from the Beast’s garden. The Beast condemns the old man to death, unless the latter sends one of his daughters to live with him. Of course, Belle consents, and so begins the rocky road between the title characters, slowly resulting in understanding, followed by empathy, and culminating in love.
The narrative has endless interpretations and is replete with symbolism in its objects, from mirror to white horse to key. The overarching moral of the story is about inclusion and acceptance for what a person is inside. OP recognized the broader implications of this theme and hosted a recent panel discussion connecting the story to LGBTQ and ethnic issues. This could not be more timely as the Republican party’s culture war rapidly reverses rights of transexuals; treats homosexuality as a deviance that is to be corrected; victimizes immigrants from minority communities; and vilifies legitimate protests of racial injustice such as Black Lives Matter, while turning a blind eye to white supremacy.
Like the composer, OP thrives on innovation. Director and Production Designer Brian Staufenbiel and his creative staff have masterfully combined elements, resulting in smoothly coordinated, multifaceted artistry. The performance of the opera sometimes results in sensory overload, and it can be difficult to absorb everything at once. Endless original projection arrays exhilarate. The one constant is Cocteau’s film, with its light and darkness and its luminous leads, Josette Day and Jean Marais. Meanwhile, the delightful live lead characters, Vanessa Becerra as La Belle and Hadleigh Adams as La Bête, sometimes appear videoed on a screen below the film screen; sometimes are live on the stage; and other times sing in the darkness of the vomitorium (yes, that is a real word!). If there is a formula behind the whys and wheres of these manifestations, I didn’t figure it out. The omnium gatherum male and female singers, Eugene Brancoveanu and Sophie Delphis sit in costume with the orchestra for the greater part. All four singers are superb in their roles.
Philip Glass draws on numerous sources for his musical inspiration, and in many ways is an unconventional modern composer. His score of “La Belle et la Bête” is attractive, full of mystery, menace, and lush beauty. The orchestral lines of repetitive structures pulse with insistence throughout, provided by repeated keyboard pizzicato or percussion or even wind instruments. They reflect specific sounds such as horse hooves or clock chimes as well ambient drive.
Conductor Nicole Paiement leads the orchestra with boundless energy and the absolute precision required to synchronize all of the moving parts of this production. The orchestra of a mere seven pieces – three keyboards, three woodwinds, and percussion maps onto the Philip Glass Ensemble for which many of the composer’s works have been designed. The fullness of the sound produced belies the size of the orchestra, and both synthesizers and winds mimic sounds of a great variety of instruments from strings to brass.
For the patron who is accustomed to the extravagance of fully-staged opera, this clever, mixed entertainment might seem a bit eccentric. But it is a totally engaging, artistically valid, professionally mounted, and highly compelling production.
“La Belle et la Bête” with music and libretto by Philip Glass; performed to the movie created by Jean Cocteau; and based on the story “Beauty and the Beast” written by Jean-Marie Leprince de Beaumont; is produced by Opera Parallèle and co-presented by SF Jazz; and plays at SF Jazz Center, 201 Franklin Street, San Francisco, CA through July 17, 2022.
The sky is fiery ashen orange, reminiscent of the foreboding atmosphere in the Bay Area from the 2021 California wildfires. Fortunately, this post-apocalyptic vision comes not from nature, but rather from the opera stage. Fittingly, San Francisco Opera sets the tale of the morally failed title character in a time of environmental and societal collapse. This is “Don Giovanni” in what could be future America.
Before the pandemic, San Francisco Opera decided to package Mozart’s three greatest Italian-language and Italianate-style operas, “Marriage of Figaro,” “Cosi Fan Tutti,” and “Don Giovanni”” into a trilogy. They also happen to be his three collaborations with the great librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. The common thread of the adaptations is not just that they take place on American soil, but literally on the same plot of earth. For the first installment, it was a Revolution-era home that in the second had been converted into an exclusive club in the 1930s. In the final opera in the series, the stately Greek Revival edifice is crumbling in the dystopia of the year 2080.
The dark comedy “Don Giovanni” holds a place as one of the greatest operas ever composed. In the hands of a world class company like San Francisco Opera with a great orchestra and the ability to attract some of the best artists to grace the stage, the production is as musically rich as it is professionally performed.
Based on the oft-told Don Juan legend, the title character is a womanizing libertine of low moral character, whose only positive trait is his charm, which acts as the fuel for his ability to seduce and rape women with lies and abuse and betray his loyal manservant, Leporello. Among the latter’s less dangerous chores, he actually keeps a log of his master’s thousands of conquests, revealed in the servant’s humorously-delivered signature aria “Madamina, il catalogo è questo.” The Don and Leporello are Etienne Dupuis and Luca Pisaroni respectively, and both give apt portrayals with powerful vocals spanning the bass-baritone range.
Mozart himself loved women, and da Ponte’s libretto offers three very satisfying female roles of fairly equal importance. Although their incidents with Don Giovanni are unrelated, the women’s paths cross and they become collaborators, like a posse hunting down a perpetrator.
Adela Zaharia is Donna Anna, whose steely determination to identify and punish the killer of her father, the Commendatore, is a key driver to the action. Her clear and concise voice reaches its heights in Act 2 with a beautiful coloratura in “Non mi dir,” when she tells her suitor, Don Ottavio, that she is not ready to wed quite yet after the recent tragedy. As Donna Elvira, Nicole Car shares her dramatic vocalization in two ensembles with Don Giovanni and Leporello, “Ah! chi mi dice mai” and “Ah! taci ingiusto core.”
Christina Gansch plays Zerlina, who as a peasant is relegated to lesser treatment. However, she is vocally equal to the other female victims, and she shares with the Don the most memorable music in the opera, the classic duet “Là ci darem la mano.”
This staging of “Don Giovanni” is problematic. On the one hand, it can be accepted as random design and virtually ignored, since the captivating music and complex drama can still be fully appreciated. On the other hand, Director Michael Cavanagh did conceive this as the last piece in the American trilogy. But other than abundant damaged remains of U.S. flag motifs, nothing seems especially American. And although the costumery is supposed to symbolize the repurposing of haberdasher leftovers in this grim futuristic world, that notion doesn’t come across unless the viewer has read the director’s intent. Further, when an orchestra appears on stage, gray-wigged players are in period European uniforms, which is confusing given the time and place of the action.
Separately, the treatment of the Commendatore is undramatic at the outset but stunning at the end. The performer, Solomon Howard, is not made to look old and distinguished, and rather than having some stage time, perhaps as an apparition to establish the sense of the character and situation, he simply descends a staircase and promptly gets killed, making the whole action seem perfunctory and insignificant. Conversely, at the closing, a 24-foot high bust of the Commendatore moves slowly upstage to dramatic music, as clever lighting morphs the ghostly sculpture. A ragged chasm down the center of its face splits open, and a fiery inferno appears in the divide. Quite a spectacle!
As previously noted, it is easy to quibble about the strengths and weaknesses of the production design, however, the bones of this opera will always stand tall, and the fine cast and orchestra deliver a fine experience.
“Don Giovanni,” with music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, is produced by San Francisco Opera and plays at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA through July 2, 2022.
Certain classic stories have legs. Orpheus and Euridice, one of the most famous stories from Greek mythology, is one that has been interpreted frequently into various forms of performing arts. With themes that include fateful love, loss of faith, temptation, free will, and the cost of disobeying rules, it has broad appeal.
In the original myth, Euridice died from snakebite and was consigned to the underworld. Under protection from the deities, Orpheus is allowed to retrieve her, but Hades issues the proviso that she walk behind him when departing and that he never look back. Of course, he disobeys, and the price is that Euridice is returned to the underworld and that Orpheus will never see her again. This theme of violating divine edicts recurs in literature, but at least in this case, the man takes responsibility. Conversely, in the often misogynistic Bible, women are assigned guilt. Eve takes the rap for eating the forbidden fruit and causing the first couple to be evicted from Eden, and Lot’s wife (not even granted a name) is turned into a pillar of salt for defying the stricture against looking back at Sodom and Gomorrah as the cities burned.
From this play’s outset, it is clear that “Hadestown” will have a distinctive style. Although the musical’s auteur, Anaïs Mitchell, comes from the folk world, she developed a unique musical amalgam for the show with elements from blues, jazz, and pop in addition to folk. Her orchestration is as unexpected as it is brilliant in providing a magnificent background sound. A seven-piece orchestra is dominated by strings with only one wind-blown instrument, though it adds surprisingly colorful accents throughout the score. While the music is compelling, the lyrics are even better – penetrating and revealing with great clarity. The storyline and overall production are equally captivating, making for a standing ovation theatrical experience.
When charismatic Levi Kreis, as the narrator Hermes, takes the stage at “curtain up,” he hushes the audience. The silence at that time and in other pauses during the performance is remarkable. Then the blast begins, quite literally. Audrey Ochoa’s powerful, slurred, bluesy trombone leads Hermes’ rhythmic railroad song “Road to Hell” that foretells the fateful path that the protagonists will take. Those hot licks set the groove for the entire performance. This opening is followed by Euridice and The Fates “Any Way the Wind Blows,” about the disappearance of spring and fall, which is making life on earth hellish – a clear comment on climate change unique to this adaptation of the myth.
In the central love story Orpheus loves Euridice. He is poor and downtrodden, yet optimistic. As a fine musician, he claims that the song which he is working on will bring back the spring and win Euridice’s heart. Nicholas Barasch portrays Orpheus, whose singing is distinguished by repeated shifts between a powerful countertenorish falsetto and a common tenor-baritone chest voice. He carries off this pyrotechnic challenge with seeming ease.
Euridice is lured instead to Hadestown by Hades’ false promises in the stunningly contrasted duet “Hey Little Songbird.” Kevyn Morrow is Hades, and he induces Euridice by dismissing her life as it is. He does so in a jaw-dropping basso profundo that retains sonority in a range that is about as low as a human being can go, while conveying his character’s unrelenting menace. Meanwhile, Morgan Siobhan Green is Euridice, and she sings with plaintive beauty as she is ready to give in, feeling that Orpheus, whom she has come to love, has failed her in her time of need.
The final principal is Persephone. Hades enticed her to become his partner because of his great love and willingness to make concessions to her. Kimberly Marable sings Persephone’s signature “Lady of the Underground” with great power as she reveals that she can control the seasons. Yet, she is a complex figure who will induce Hades to free Euridice from Hadestown.
The single set has a somewhat-worn New Orleans nightclub look with wrought-iron balcony lace and plantation shutters above, plus elevated platforms on either side of the stage for the split seven-piece orchestra. Since much action takes place in venues other than the club, the show might seem semi-staged. And since most of the principles are attired in dressy clothes, it may even look like a concert version. But the effective use of high-contrast lighting and darkness; movement; and other costumery stimulate the viewer’s imagination to fill in the blanks. One example of a symbolic look is the depiction of dreary underground laborers in dirty work clothes, trudging on a rotating stage lit only by miners’ head lights and a few dim swinging lamps.
It seems that many theatrical works these days can be seen through a political lens, and particularly as a comment on Trumpism, whether that was the intent of the respective playwright or not. There is no obliqueness in “Hadestown.” Act 1 closes with “Why We Build the Wall” which could not be a more explicit indictment of Trump’s border wall efforts. The lyrics given to Hades are especially damning: “The enemy is poverty; And the wall keeps out the enemy; And we build the wall to keep us free.” In Act 2, Orpheus and Hermes’ “If It’s True” condemns the institutionalized lying by Trumpians (“And it isn’t for the few; To tell the many what is true”) and the cheating that benefits the rich against the poor (“ ‘Cause the ones who tell the lies; Are the solemnest to swear; And the ones who load the dice; Always say the toss is fair”).
“Hadestown,” with music, lyrics, and book by Anaïs Mitchell; developed with and directed by Rachel Chavkin; is produced by Broadway SF; and plays at the Orpheum Theatre; 1192 Market Street; San Francisco, CA through July 3, 2022.
Two sides with clashing interests stand apart. A young man and a young woman on the opposing sides fall in love. No, it’s not Romeo and Juliet or the Hatfields and the McCoys. The interests are economic; the time is the 1950s; and the place is a factory in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. It’s “The Pajama Game,” which won the 1955 Tony Award for Best Musical and enjoyed a three-year Broadway run. 42nd Street Moon has produced a charming rendition of this underappreciated, yet flawed, property.
Workplace romance is fraught with challenges. Some romances are hidden from view. Some may be characterized as sexual abuse. Some have repercussions at the office, especially if the couple splits.
In “The Pajama Game,” Sid comes to the “hick town” from Chicago to become the Sleep-Tite Pajama Factory Supervisor, a management position. He becomes smitten with Babe, a worker who heads the Union Grievance Committee. Workers are seeking a 7 ½ cent per hour raise that competitors have adopted. This specific issue is the barrier between the two getting together. Babe’s token resistance to falling for a man who is not a worker fades, and they become an item. But eventually they split over an incident related to labor protests. However, this is a ‘50s comedy, and it ends pretty predictably on all counts. Meanwhile, we are regaled with middle-American practices and mores of the period, from company picnics to stamp collections.
Along with the expected humorous situations, some of the notable tunes work well in framing the narrative. At the opening on the factory floor, “Racing with the Clock” deals with time-and-motion studies to speed production that became popular during the era. Although the song is chirpy and clever, it wasn’t well projected by the girl’s chorus on opening night.
The dreamy and beautiful “Hey There” is one of the two songs from the show to become a pop standard. It deals with Sid’s ruminations over early rejections by Babe. Ben Jones does a fine acting job as Sid and has a strong and wonderful voice, but in the first rendering of this great song, he didn’t project well either. Fortunately, that was never an issue afterward.
Another crowd pleaser is a duet between Sid and Babe, portrayed by Ashley Garlick, who also brings great acting chops and voice to the stage. The song is ‘There Once Was a Man,” which affirms their love for each other. Its lyrics are totally appropriate and the tune is very catchy, but the strange thing about it is that the musical idiom is Western with fast-traveling patter and great upward-leaping vocal glissandos. It sounds like it comes out of the Frankie Laine songbook, and you anticipate whip cracking and yeehaws at any time.
Act 2 opens with the memorable “Steam Heat,” a song and dance trio. Its lyrics are of the generic “I can’t live without your love” sort that is superfluous. Its context is contrived, and the dance style is wildly different from other dances in “The Pajama Game.” However, this happened to be Bob Fosse’s first show as a choreographer, and the good news is that this number is the first to demonstrate many of his later trademark characteristics – bowler hats and gloves, sloped shoulders, dangling arms, and rhythmic stomps. Led by Gladys, who is portrayed by choreographer Renee DeWeese, the dancing is a real showstopper that is stunningly performed.
“Hernando’s Hideaway” is about an invitation-only club where lovers could meet in secret. Such a refuge probably didn’t exist in small midwestern cities, but it does serve as a suitable venue for a furtive meeting between Sid and Gladys, who is the boss’s secretary and Hines’s (the time-and-motion engineer) girlfriend! The halting tango perfectly fits the ambiance of a candlelit sanctuary. And it is another enjoyable song that became a pop standard.
In addition to the good performances by the lead couple, the other major roles are well acted. Daniel Thomas, the producing company’s Executive Artistic Director, is Prez, the union head, who keeps failing to get the workers’ raise and who also has an eye for Babe. Nick Nakashima receives the most laughs as Hines, who worries about work and has a jealous streak. And Jesse Caldwell bounces to and fro, as he plays both the greedy boss, “Old Man” Hasler and empathetic Pops, Babe’s father, who is trying his best to get her married off.
Through the disarray in story elements, “The Pajama Game” is still charming, and it is fun to see. Production values, including several other dance numbers and skeletal instrumental support, are consistent with 42nd Street Moon standards. Theatergoers who welcome revivals of earlier musicals, a niche that the company serves well, will particularly enjoy this experience.
Although “The Pajama Game” may not come across as an expressly political play, it was written when over 300 entertainers were still blacklisted as a result of House Un-American Activities Committee investigations. The central clash is certainly a classic between capital and labor. “Old Man” Hasler, the factory head, is played unsympathetically for his dishonesty and for his rigid rejection of a workers’ raise when the factory is doing extremely well. Further, he repeatedly refers to anyone who supports the raise or acts to slow production as a communist. This is a clear jab by the musical’s creative team at right-wingers who make flagrant, unfounded accusations and reject the notion that those outside their fraternity deserve rights and comforts. Sadly, this scapegoating philosophy and the practice of pejorative and unjustified labeling has had a troubling resurgence in today’s world.
“The Pajama Game” with music and lyrics by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, book by George Abbott and Richard Bissell, and produced by 42nd Street Moon, plays at the Gateway Theatre, 215 Jackson Street, San Francisco, CA through June 19, 2022.
In an implicit nod to the growing marijuana and hallucinogenic drug culture of the decade, David Crosby famously said that if you can remember the ‘60s, you weren’t there. Fortunately, for most of us who lived through it, that is a canard. Half a century later, memories from that era are distinct and intense. It was a time of social and political upheaval, in which music played a profound role. And for the first time in history, most music of the day was targeted at, purchased by, and performed by youth.
Our religion was Top 40 radio, 24/7. Before contemporary music was pushed more into silos, we called our music rock-and-roll, but not in a narrow sense. It included associated youth culture idioms like rhythm-and-blues, doo wop, girl groups, crossover country, and pop, as well as older genres such as show tunes, instrumentals, and blues. And in this new and changing environment emerged new styles of female singers. In days past, women had fronted Big Bands and sung solo pop music, but singers and songs were largely prim and proper. This new wave was largely driven by strong women and by music with earthy themes that were alien to previous decades.
“Beehive: the ‘60s Musical” honors that decade and the women who made their music a big part of the shifting scene. Center REPertory presents this musical revue with high energy and a joyful spirit.From the terrific acapella medley that opens the show, it is clear that the cast of six young women are all talented vocalists. What surprises is that those same voices that create ethereal harmony in some of the ensemble numbers can also wail and belt it out in solos that call for a diva’s intensity. They also display the choreographed movement and dance of the time, all the while looking the part, especially clad in the go-go dancer costumes with the white latex boots. Oh, and they’re well-backed by an all-female rock band.
The early part of the show is about the early and mid-‘60s. Rock era girl groups dominated and were largely Black and largely teenagers who were high school friends. The genre had gathered steam in the late ‘50s. In 1960, a breakthrough came with the first girl group number one Billboard hit, the Shirelles’ “Will You Love Me Tomorrow.” As with all of the material, the cast does a great job of providing a version that is both reminiscent and in their own style. They also swing and sway and shake and shuffle through “Be My Baby,” “Sweet Talkin’ Guy,” “Walking in the Rain,” and more. With well over two dozen songs, every audience member will have their own favorites.
To give a little context to the musical era, some commentary is provided about social and political movements in the decade – civil rights, women’s rights, and Viet Nam. In a departure from the music formula, recognizing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, the girls sing a poignant version of “Abraham, Martin, and John.”
The latter part of the show covers the latter part of the decade and even cheats into the ‘70s. It focuses on the electrifying female performers of the era – Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, and Grace Slick. But the most rousing performance is a rendition of “Proud Mary,” replete with fringe dress and the trademark stomp and shimmy of Tina Turner.
“Beehive: the ‘60s Musical” is thorough entertainment, with no higher order aspirations. Director and Choreographer Dawn Monique Williams has effectively guided this production to its objective, and the performers (Monique Hafen Adams, Ashley Cowl, Arielle Crosby, Elizbeth Curtis, Constance Jewell Lopez, and Erica Richardson) hold up their part of the bargain.
Not within the control of CenterREP, the script could benefit from a little more elaboration on the social scene of the ‘60s and more identification and discussion of the artists associated with the songs. Also, the song selection would benefit by replacing add-on numbers like “Academy Award” and “The Beehive Dance” that temporarily deflate the energy of the nostalgia.
Despite these minor bumps in the road, those who are drawn to this material should find it a pleasant experience.
“Beehive: the ‘60s Musical” is created by Larry Gallagher, produced by Center REPertory, and plays at Lesher Center for the Arts, 1601 Civic Drive, Walnut Creek, CA through June 26, 2022.
“Cats.” It’s really a different breed of – cat. On its opening at London’s West End in 1981, its radical, never-before characteristics created an immediate buzz. Its cast is fully anthropomorphized. It is sung-through in the fashion of grand opera. Its lyrics are based on poems for children by a Nobel laureate in literature. Except for a few moments, its diverse choreography and movement is non-stop. And a plotline is largely lacking, with each song acting as its own separate drama. Finally, marketing of the musical relies on the visual of the cat’s-eye logo rather than promoting the performers or posting pull-quotes from reviews.
Who could predict that such a musical would set performance records for both the West End (21 years) and Broadway (a mere 18 years)? But innovation doesn’t put butts in seats. So, what propelled “Cats” to immortal fame?
Spectacle! As the world’s first megamusical, “Cats, and this touring production” fills the eyes and ears with delight. The scenic design is phantasmic with brilliant shifts in lighting; use of billowy stage smoke; a large seemingly levitating disk; and a very detailed set. The stage is often filled with two dozen performers adorned in resplendent cat costumes of various ilks. There is a fluffy, fat, black cat, and a shapely white cat with shaggy legs, and a sleek gray cat, but there are mostly a variety of distinctive striped cats. They move around the stage almost continuously, crawling and writhing, and best of all, dancing, and doing it quite well. There are many elements of modern dance, but also fine ballet, particularly by Mistoffelees, with stunning leaps and spins, and even an energetic rat-a-tat tap number led by Jennyanydots.
“Cats” composer Andrew Lloyd Weber pens an eclectic mix of background styles to complement the poetic lyrics. Except for perhaps the Jellicle theme, few of the tunes stand the test of memory, though the music is effective and often uplifting, fitting the situations of the songs well. But with “Cats,” Lloyd Weber began a strategy of creating a single tune that could be lifted out of the context of the storyline and pushed for Top 40 music commercial success, thus promoting the show.
That song is the luminous “Memory.” Although the situation of the haunting and melancholy song is about Grizabella’s separation from the tribe of (fictitious) Jellicle cats and a plea for acceptance, the neutral lyrics make it a universal. Trevor Nunn’s alluring adaptation of T. S. Eliot’s poem is even superior to the original, creating a very special meter and rhythm that enhances the words and makes the music sing. The achingly beautiful song closes Act 1 and is reprised in different ways in Act 2. Happily, the final rendering by Grizabella with a little harmony assist from Sillabub, is a showstopper, because the previous ones on opening night were not memorable.
The musical is full of interesting and distinctive characters whose cat lives map onto human ones. Each is portrayed with great skill, as if the performer benefits from a collective unconscious of the role having been played thousands and thousands of times all over the world. Every theatergoer will have their own favorite cat. There is the wise Old Deuteronomy, the gigantic and respected leader of the Jellicle cats. Maybe it’s Gus, the Theatre Cat, whose doleful appearance hides a past as a star revealed in his nostalgic reflections. Or maybe the colorful orange-striped Mungojerrie and Rumpleteaser, the roguish pair of thieves who ransack houses.
“Cats” is an audience pleaser, especially attracting younger people to the theater. Akin to “Rocky Horror Show” a cult of “Cats” lovers exists that see the show multiple times, and their enthusiasm does add to its ambiance and appreciation. The show has its detractors, largely because of the lack of continuity and cohesive narrative. Its signature song seems to spring out of nowhere. And though the performances are totally professional on the whole, there are occasional weak links. But its assets make “Cats” a unique theatrical experience worth the price of admission. The current touring production carries on a tradition that will have legs for a long time to come.
“Cats,” with music by Andrew Lloyd Weber and lyrics based on “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T. S. Eliot, is produced by Troika Entertainment, presented by Broadway SF, and plays at the Golden Gate Theatre, 1 Taylor Street, San Francisco, CA through June 5, 2022.
A relationship staple in the catalog of dramatic themes is that of professor and student. Traditionally, the professor is a man who takes sexual or emotional advantage of a female student, but that formula has diversified in recent decades. A theatrical watershed was David Mamet’s 1992 two-hander “Oleanna,” which reflected the sea change in universities’ policies in adjudicating teacher/student harassment claims. Previously, the professor had been assumed, or at least treated, as truthful and innocent, and the student was hung out to dry. Under new rules at many institutions, a professor was assumed guilty until proven innocent in a harassment accusation from a student unless contact was in public places.
These policy shifts were part of major realignment of the power structure between professor and student. Abetted by new technologies, professors became more accessible and were to be responsive at virtually any time. Because of a new emphasis on students’ evaluations of teacher performance, students would hold a stronger hand than ever before. In this environment, Adam Rapp has also written a two-hander, “The Sound Inside,” a taut relationship drama that takes on characteristics of a mystery or thriller.
Bella Baird is a tenured professor. Portrayed with supreme skill and compassion by Denmo Ibrahim, she introduces herself to the audience as a teacher of undergraduate creative writing at Yale University. Ultimately, we learn that she is 53 years old and never married; loves her job; had a modicum of success writing published fiction; and is enamored of speaking and writing in lengthy, wandering sentences that she cautions her students to avoid.
Christopher Dunn, deftly played by Tyler Miclean, is a Yale freshman. His outerwear is a thin filling-station jacket that will be his only protection in the dead of winter, but when questioned about it, he demurs, noting “I’m from Vermont.” Bright and highly literate, his mind and tongue are quick. He reveals his brashness when responding in class to a tract in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment.” Unlike his modest classmates, he announces “Someday, I’m going to write a great moment like that.”
Christopher appears at Bella’s office without notice. In addition to ignoring the university’s appointment scheduling software, the near Luddite doesn’t use email or social media, and while he has a computer, he composes on a manual typewriter. Though his self-indulgent behavior disrespects the professor’s authority, he is inspired by her teaching and writing, and she appreciates his nimble thinking and lofty goals. He is also writing a novel, and she is transfixed by both the youthful ambition and the clever narrative he has devised.
So begins a relationship outside normal boundaries, meeting at her office, at restaurants, and at her home. Rapp writes exchanges that are frank, and Miclean often snarls Christopher’s crass and fractious comments. Conversely, Ibrahim displays delicacy as she weighs the consequences of censoring him and perhaps snuffing his spontaneity and their connection. Several threads beyond their writing define the bonding. They share appreciation of James Salter’s “Light Years” as well as “Crime and Punishment” and its evil but complex and somewhat redemptive main character, Raskolnikov.
But they are also loners, and Christopher confronts Bella by asking why she doesn’t have any friends. She admits that she stopped liking people, and Ibrahim is completely convincing in her depiction of Bella as resigned, but adjusted and happy in her skin. Miclean is disquieting when exposing Christopher’s angst. Also antisocial, but somewhat unstable, he goes ballistic when Bella insists that following rules is important even in the relative freedom of academe. Despite their shared interests and long time together, when Bella asks Christopher for a favor that could only be expected from a true intimate, he responds, “But you don’t even know me.” And the truth is that she doesn’t know the most basic of things about him, such as his middle name.
As is appropriate in a play focused on literature, Rapp endows his characters with erudite language and astute metaphors. This is good news for theatergoers who appreciate language as a blessing and a gauge of civilization, but maybe bad news for the marketability of the play. Many prospective theater goers could find the perceived pompousness and dark elements, including existential threats, as intellectually satisfying but not entertaining as such. This is unfortunate, because the play is compelling and unpredictable from beginning to end, covering a wide range of human issues. And if the reader thinks they know the story from this review, think again. This is but an introduction to a dense and provocative 90 minutes of taut and memorable drama.
Marin Theatre’s production of “The Sound Inside,” masterfully directed by Jasson Minadakis and with two outstanding performances, meets the highest theatrical standards.
“The Sound Inside” is written by Adam Rapp, produced by Marin Theatre Company, and plays on its stage at 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley, CA through June 16, 2022.