Saturday, May 23, 2020

Who's zoomin' who?: "MUTE: A Play for Zoom" is an innovative mix creepiness and comedy

Nearly every aspect of the economy has taken a hit from the COVID-19 pandemic. And while some sectors are listening to politicians rather than medical professionals and preparing to resume business as (almost) usual, performing arts organizations are obliged to take a more cautious approach. Theatres, concert halls, music clubs, and other indoor environments where large groups of people gather are high-risk areas for airborne virus transmission, leaving local theatre companies in suspended animation until this fall at the earliest.

MUTE: A Play for Zoom
As a way of staying in touch with their audiences, a number of local companies have turned to the Internet. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis made a video of its local premiere of the topical comedy "Cake," which was forced to close after only a few performances, available to ticket holders. ERA Theatre is presenting a video version of its 2015 St. Lou Fringe hit "Moscow!" as a free ticketed event through May 30. And on April 5th, local playwright Nancy Bell and director Lucy Cashion (the creator of "Moscow!") presented the world premiere of "MUTE: A Play for Zoom" as part of a Facebook live "watch party."

I missed that premiere, but happily a video of "MUTE" is available both on Facebook and at Vimeo. I watched it last night and while this half-hour one-act is not without its issues, it makes ingenious use of the popular videoconferencing platform. Watching it on my laptop with headphones, I was quickly drawn in to the darkly comic world of the play.

A smart mix of hilarity and horror, "MUTE" manages to be both comic and creepy simultaneously. "In a world much like ours," says playwright Bell, "there exists a video conference call. And in this call, there are academics, confusion, fire, and...one hamster." One rather remarkable hamster, I might add.

The play's setting is a Zoom teleconference in which a group of academics are waiting for The Dean ot join them from the Frankfurt campus so they can begin the official agenda. They're hampered by the fact that most of them have been unable to download the agenda and by the fact that The Dean appears to be related to Beckett's Godot. The academics in question are a motley crew. Marie (Michelle Hand) is desperate to get out of her house and back to her office on the locked-down campus because "the event" has infected her son (Liv Hand) in ways that are, to say the least, disturbing. Her older colleague Trent (Michael James Reed) views "the event" through a radical leftist lens while sucking on an obviously unlit cigarette. Heather (Delaney Piggins) urgently needs to see her grandmother and Fiona (Keating MX) finds her attention divided between the conference call and her unseen husband, whose dementia seems to be turning violent.

Staffer Justin (Jakob Hulten), the only one not clearly on the edge of mental or physical collapse, is bemused and then unnerved by the increasingly sinister tone of the meeting--a tone made even more so by the barely-seen presence of Lila and her hamster Man Ray (Sophia Brown).

In her description of the play, Bell cheerfully acknowledges her debt to Ionesco, Beckett, and Chekhov. And I did, in fact, see references to "Rhinocerous," "Waiting for Godot," and "The Three Sisters," respectively. But I also found its mix of the delirious and disturbing reminiscent of some of the Firesign Theater's more dystopian audio plays, especially "In the Next World, You're On Your Own" from 1975. And the way it relies on what is hinted at rather than what is shown for a sense of horror harkens back to the work of H.P. Lovecraft. But the final product is uniquely hers.

Everything tends to fall apart a bit at the end, at least for me. But even so "MUTE" is a compelling and original theatre piece that gets great performances from the entire cast. Michelle Hand's hilariously unglued and clueless Marie (effectively the leading role) is yet another bright feather in her theatrical cap, but the fact is that everyone involved does fine work.

It's hard to know what shape the local theatre scene will take over the next year or so, but "MUTE: A Play for Zoom" certainly suggests some interesting possibilities.

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

St. Louis theatre calendar a/o May 19, 2020

Now including on-line events along with live events (if any) during the pandemic. To get your event listed here, send an email to calendar [at] stageleft.org.

MUTE: A Play for Zoom
St. Louis playwright Nancy Bell's MUTE: A Play for Zoom, which was performed live via Facebook on April 5, 2020, is available as a live stream at https://vimeo.com/405178212. "In a world much like ours, there exists a video conference call. And in this call, there are academics, confusion, fire and...one hamster. An experimental theatre piece that steals rabidly from Ionesco, Beckett, real life and Chekhov. The play was for performance on Zoom by Nancy Bell and directed by Lucy Cashion."

Moscow! at the 2015 STL Fringe
ERA Theatre presents an online live video stream version of Moscow!, it's drinking game version of Chekov's The Three Sisters, Thursdays and Fridays from 8-9 pm and Saturdays from 1-2 pm, May 21-30. "Olga, Irina, and Masha are sisters living in an insignificant town in Russia. They spend a lot of time talking about how all they really want to do is go back to Moscow, where everything is better. The town's people come and go through the sisters' house, which they own with their brother, Andrey. Everyone is so emotionally erratic - is it because they're Russian? Perhaps it's because they're drunk. Three Sisters examines the frivolity of privileged life; Moscow! intensifies it with live music, dancing, and vodka. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ERA will live-stream its performances of Moscow! and all artists will perform from the safety of their respective isolated locations." Admission is free but you must sign up in advance. For more information: www.eratheatre.org.

On Sunday, May 31, at 7 pm Opera Theatre of Saint Louis (OTSL), in collaboration with 14 other arts organizations and the Regional Arts Commission (RAC), presents Arts United STL, a free virtual benefit in support of RAC's Artist Relief Fund, which provides critical aid to St. Louis working artists whose livelihoods have been critically interrupted by the pandemic. The even includes performances from local arts organizations, including The Big Muddy Dance Company, The Black Rep, Circus Flora, COCA, Jazz St. Louis, The Muny, Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, St. Louis Ballet, St. Louis Children's Choirs, St. Louis Shakespeare Festival, St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, The Sheldon, STAGES St. Louis, the Tennessee Williams Festival St. Louis, and more. For more information: www.opera-stl.org/explore-and-learn/for-everyone/arts-united-stl

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, in collaboration with Baltimore Center Stage, Long Wharf Theatre, The Public Theater and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, present Play at Home, a series of micro-commissioned short plays from some of the American theatre's most exciting and prominent playwrights. These new plays – which all run 10 minutes or less – are available for the public to download, read and perform at home for free at playathome.org.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis invites budding young writers throughout the nation to develop and submit plays to for inclusion in its all-new WiseWrite Digital Play Festival. Open to all students grades 4 through 12, this online celebration of storytelling will culminate in June when professional actors perform selected student submissions over Zoom. To help students develop the skills to write their first plays, The Rep will release a six-part online learning curriculum - one part each week through the end of May. For more information: repstl.org/wisewrite.

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis presents plays, readings, and other features as part of its #SHAKESPEARETV lineup through June 21st. Current offerings include their made-for-video production of Shakespeare's Cymbeline and readings of selections from Camu's The Plague. For more information: https://stlshakes.org.

St. Louis Actors' Studio offers short films written and (mostly) directed by Neil LaBute from Contemptible Entertainment through their Twitter account through June 15. The lineup changes every Monday morning. For the current list, visit twitter.com/@stlas1.


Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.
For information on events beyond this week, check out the searchable database at the Regional Arts Commission's Events Calendar.
Would you like to be on the radio? KDHX, 88.1 FM needs theatre reviewers. If you're 18 years or older, knowledgeable in this area, have practical theatre experience (acting, directing, writing, technical design, etc.), have good oral and written communications skills and would like to become one of our volunteer reviewers, send an email describing your experience and interests to chuck at kdhx.org. Please include a sample review of something you've seen recently.

Sunday, May 10, 2020

St. Louis theatre calendar a/o May 13, 2020

Now including on-line events along with live events (if any) during the pandemic. To get your event listed here, send an email to calendar [at] stageleft.org.

Moscow! at the 2015 STL Fringe
ERA Theatre presents an online live video stream version of Moscow!, it's drinking game version of Chekov's The Three Sisters, Thursdays and Fridays from 8-9 pm and Saturdays from 1-2 pm, May 21-30. "Olga, Irina, and Masha are sisters living in an insignificant town in Russia. They spend a lot of time talking about how all they really want to do is go back to Moscow, where everything is better. The town's people come and go through the sisters' house, which they own with their brother, Andrey. Everyone is so emotionally erratic - is it because they're Russian? Perhaps it's because they're drunk. Three Sisters examines the frivolity of privileged life; Moscow! intensifies it with live music, dancing, and vodka. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ERA will live-stream its performances of Moscow! and all artists will perform from the safety of their respective isolated locations." Admission is free but you must sign up in advance. For more information: www.eratheatre.org.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis invites budding young writers throughout the nation to develop and submit plays to for inclusion in its all-new WiseWrite Digital Play Festival. Open to all students grades 4 through 12, this online celebration of storytelling will culminate in June when professional actors perform selected student submissions over Zoom. To help students develop the skills to write their first plays, The Rep will release a six-part online learning curriculum - one part each week through the end of May. For more information: repstl.org/wisewrite.

The St. Louis Writers Group streams live readings of four short plays on Monday, May 18th, at 7 pm. The plays are 822.33 by Dennis Fisher, Prepared by David Hawley, Sons of the Fathers by Rita Winters, and Pandemic Trilogy by Peg Flach, and will be available for viewing off line shortly afterwards. The event takes place via live Facebook streaming at www.facebook.com/groups/500365827076176/

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis presents plays, readings, and other features as part of its #SHAKESPEARETV lineup through June 21st at their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/pg/shakesfestSTL/videos Current offerings include their made-for-video production of Shakespeare's Cymbeline and readings of selections from Camu's The Plague. For more information: https://stlshakes.org.

Looking for auditions and other artistic opportunities? Check out the St. Louis Auditions site.
For information on events beyond this week, check out the searchable database at the Regional Arts Commission's Events Calendar.

Thursday, May 07, 2020

Symphony Notes: Rites of spring

In the early days of this Symphony Notes series, I had the somewhat ambitious goal of providing program notes for virtual recreations of planned (but cancelled) St. Louis Symphony Orchestra (SLSO) performances. The idea was to give you links to performances of the scheduled works using Spotify playlists provided by the SLSO and/or YouTube links uncovered by Detective Google.

This week, I have discovered the limitations of that approach.

Pierre Jalbert
The program originally scheduled for this weekend (May 8 and 9) would have consisted of the SLSO premieres of Pierre Jalbert's brief tone poem "Music of Air and Fire" and Guillaume Connesson's Cello Concerto, followed by a complete performance of Stravinsky's savage ballet "Le Sacre du Printemps" ("The Rite of Spring"). Finding links for the Stravinsky is easy enough; the SLSO's Spotify playlist has a performance by Vasily Petrenko and the Liverpool Philharmonic described by The Gramophone as " fierce, taut reading" with "a thumping good bass drum." What proved to be less easy was coming up with recordings of the other two pieces.

The Jalbert piece, which dates from 2007, runs around six minutes, so the four-minute excerpt from a 2016 performance by the Vermont Youth Orchestra under Jeff Domoto is as close to complete as you can get.

On his web site, Jalbert describes the work as consisting of two "contrasting ideas: one of quiet lyricism (air), and one of faster, more aggressive music (fire).":
The "air" music comes first and features the percussionists bowing their instruments in order to create a wafting, ethereal sound. This gradually turns into the "fire" music and features the percussionists playing various sets of drums in a more pulse-oriented, rhythmic manner.
The VYO recording consists of only the "fire" section, and there's no doubt that it fully delivers the driving, powerful rhythms Jalbert describes. As the curtain raiser for an evening that was to conclude with "Sacre," it feels completely appropriate.

Guillaume Connesson
Photo by Fanny Houillon
Connesson's Cello Concerto is an even bigger challenge. I couldn't find a complete recording at Amazon ("not even for ready money," to quote Lane in "The Importance of Being Earnest") or Spotify. YouTube yields only a performance of the fifth (final) movement (marked "Orgiaque," or "Orgiastic") by soloist Jérôme Pernoo (to whom the work is dedicated) and the Orchestre National du Capitole de Toulouse conducted by Tugan Sokhiev. It's from a broadcast of the 2016 Victoires de la Musique Classique awards, an annual French equivalent of the Classical BRIT Awards. It would be like a Grammy Award program devoted only to the classics, if we had one.

In his description of the work on his publisher's web site, Connesson describes this movement as "une danse finale, joyeuse et violemment rythmique" ("a final dance, joyous and violently rhythmic"), and you can certainly hear that in Pernoo's highly charged and stunningly virtuosic performance. If this doesn't make you want to move, then, to quote the title of a 1947 Louis Jordan single, "Jack, You're Dead." It's a pity we won't get to see noted French cellist Gautier Capuçon play the complete work with the SLSO and Maestro Denève, but this at least gives you a taste of it.

Stravinsky in 1903
By Unknown Photograf -
archives de FinitoR
Public Domain, Link
As for "Le Sacre du Printemps," there's not much I can add to the volumes that have already been written about this revolutionary and compelling work. The third in a series of series of successful collaborations between Stravinsky and impresario Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes (the previous two being "The Firebird" from 1910 and "Petruska" from 1911), "Sacre" was, like its predecessors, inspired by Russian folk elements.

Unlike them, its first performance--at the newly opened Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on May 29, 1913, with Pierre Monteux conducting--became a notorious succès de scandale. "It is arguably," writes Paul-John Ramos at classic.net, "the most famous debacle in western artistic history":
Audience members found the quiet, yet active, introduction ridiculous. When the curtain rose and [choreographer Vaslav] Nijinsky's dances began, the auditorium went into a rage, their sophistication insulted. Ravel and Debussy were both present and captivated by the music, but it was soon drowned out in the fracas. Debris was thrown, as well as punches. The work was performed in full, but only with the help of Nijinsky calling steps from atop an offstage chair.
Standing next to him was the composer, who had abandoned his seat in the theatre in disgust at the uproar. "Naturally, the poor dancers could hear nothing," he recalled later, "by reason of the row in the auditorium and the sound of their own dance steps. I had to hold Nijinsky by his clothes--he was furious and ready to dash on the stage at any moment and create a scandal."

Later performances were less riotous. In fact, when Monteux conducted a concert performance in the Casino de Paris the following year, Stravinsky was carried from the hall in triumph on the shoulders of audience members. Today the music sounds less radical but still packs a tremendous dramatic punch, as was the case when David Robertson opened the 2011-2012 SLSO season with it.

There are so many great performances of "Sacre" (both with and without dancers) for free on line that you could grow old and die listening to and/or watching every one. The Petrenko/Liverpool performance the SLSO has selected is a winner, but listening to it with the Spotify app, with its mandatory "shuffle" playback mode (happily absent on the desktop version), can be a trial.

Other options for the concert version include Jaap van Zweden conducting a wonderfully precise performance of the composer's 1947 revision at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam and a high-intensity reading by the Radio France Philharmonic under Mikko Franck. Both boast great sound and videography that gives you close-up views of soloists impossible to achieve in real life. For a deeper dive into the music, there's a version of Leonard Bernstein's 1958 New York Philharmonic recording synchronized with pages from the score.

Supports and membes of the Ballets Russes
By General Nicolas Besobrasov (died 1912)
printed in book, 'Nijinsky' by Richard Buckle,1971,
Weidenfeld and Nickolson, London.,
Public Domain, Link
As for videos of the ballet itself, you can see not one but two recreations of Nijinsky's original choreography performed by the Orchestra and dancers of the Ballet Mariinski Theater under Valery Gergiev at the Mariinski Theater in 2008 and at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in 2013. The sound and videography are great in both cases. It's as close as you'll ever get to seeing what so excited and outraged audiences over a century ago.

For a radically different take on the ballet, check out Pina Bausch's typically idiosyncratic choreography by the Wuppertaler Tanztheater from 1978. The quality of the recorded sound is mediocre and Bausch's approach will come across as either revelatory or ridiculous depending on your taste, but its originality is remarkable in any case. You can also view versions by noted French choreographer Maurice Béjart and a massive 250-dancer production employing multiple companies with choreography by Royston Maldoom accompanied by the Berlin Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle.

OK, so I had more to say about "Le Sacre du Printemps" than I thought. In any case, you have a plethora of resources here for your homebrew re-creation of this weekend's original concert. Listen, watch, and enjoy. It would have been the SLSO's regular season finale, but the orchestra is scheduled to resume their regular concert season in September. Season tickets are on sale now.

This article originally appeared at 88.1 KDHX, where Chuck Lavazzi is the senior performing arts critic.