Last night I went to the AV-Aerie, down on Fulton Ave, to see Chicago Opera Vanguard’s production of Orpheus & Euridice. I’m certainly glad I went, and it is really exciting to see non-mainstream work like this. Also, on the whole, I liked it.
Not the most ringing recommendation, I suppose. One problem was that I was expecting something much more experimental. Partially because of the company name—that “Vanguard” makes it sound like it will be avant garde—but also simply because it was in the warehouse district and was “suggested donation $20”. I realize now that I see plenty of theatre in similar locations with similar pricing and, while it is often experimental, I don’t have the same expectation. Sometimes non-mainstream theatre is simply good, solid theatre that for whatever reason is being done by passionate folks with no money.
Still, I was expecting something more experimental, and this really didn't seem to push any boundaries. I want non-mainstream theatre to shriek and roar, to astonish me and to do things that traditional theatre simply cannot do. On that score, I feel that Read My Hips dance pieces in that recent Steampunk Fashion Show were more like what I was expecting here.
Also the term “opera” was a bit misleading—I’d call this a dance piece, more than anything. The narrator was soprano Rebecca Prescott, who is a full-blown opera singer. She has a great voice, and also did a fair amount of acting, including an amusing audience-interaction bit at the beginning, where she sat down next to me and sung to me about Orpheus! She was the only voice, though, and there were also two dancers, a pianist and a clarinetist. The clarinetist and vocalist also did some simple dance, as well.
Even for a dance piece, though, I didn't feel that the soprano, clarinet and piano had the emotional range that was necessary—maybe a violin would have worked better, or maybe there simply needed to be more instruments. These did a fine job (perhaps they felt a little slight) during the opening “happy” pieces, and they also worked well together in the final triumphant section, but they were missing something during other scenes. Especially the death scene and the scene depicting Orpheus’s rageful entry into hell (which sounds much cooler than it was) they couldn't cut it.
The lyrics were so simplistic as to almost be banal, but to my surprise I found that I didn't mind. Occasionally there would be a truly off-putting, ridiculous rhyme ("...for he turned around. She made a weird sound, and disappeared". A weird sound? What?) but mostly I didn’t even notice. I blame Prescott for pulling it off, her voice salvaged it all. And, to be fair, I liked the story a lot--Gordon's libretto stripped the story of most of the myth and the gods and the showy elements; leaving a bare-bones death story (inspired by his own lover's death, which justifies the piece to me).
Apollo, Hades and Persephone are all gone and although Orpheus goes to hell and pleads, hell is "like a waiting room, where disembodied souls met", and he is pleading to a vague "jury". Most affectingly, Euridice doesn't die from a poisonous snake bite while fleeing sexual assault--she simply "grew ill. Who knows why... She was always tired". This section had a particular ring of truth to it.
The lighting was par for the course for this kind of theatre, as near as I can tell. By which I mean underfunded and barely adequate—it reinforces my belief that I need a new line of work. There were thirty lights, mostly par cans, spread out on four or five booms. The guy (Richard Ebling) had probably busted his ass hauling them around and setting them up, and there was decent coverage--stuff looked ok, most of the time to could see everything, and there were even a couple nice effects (the thunderstorm, of which more later). I think he did a great job with what he had. However, what he did was miles away from Art, and it kind of depressed me just to think about how much work it probably was.
The set design though… Well, there was no scenic designer listed in the credits, presumably because they didn’t have one. They had a couple cool effects (that thunderstorm; Eurydice dancing in front of a rear-projected fir, leaving a beautiful silhouette) but the whole thing looked pretty rough. It was basically a hideous green stretch of flooring, about five feet wide, that ran the length of the space between two chairs on an unpainted dais, and a large curtainy thing that ultimately proved to be a rear-projection set up. It looked hastily constructed.
They did have a mural, and the artist, Rob Funderburk was created on the program--he even got front page billing and a program bio. It was a cool mural, to be sure, but had nothing to do with the piece. I'd much rather have had a set.
So, I didn't like the set or the lighting or the score, and thought that the whole thing boarded on the slight. What did I like about it? Well, I thought that both the dancing and the choreography (which the dancers did themselves) were really fantastic. For a production that skimped on lighting and set, they hired the real deal for their musicians and dancers--even I could tell that these were well-trained, well-skilled folk. I know excessively little about dance, but this seemed to be quite inventive. There was more traditional-looking ballet during the first, happy act as the two lovers acrobatically and gracefully played with each other. This sense of play was very well realized, and came across in a very physical way that was not especially sexual, but was certainly not devoid of sexuality.
In the second act the dancing became much jerky, stuttering, and disjoint. Both dancers have great solos--Eurydice dances haltingly out "in increments" (such a pity that the lighting wasn't up to the job here) and then later, after failing to rescue her, Orpheus goes mad and dances with and over a line of chairs. I realize that I should describe this better, but I'm not sure what to say. I liked it. Their movements seemed “wrong” and unnatural in an appropriately disturbing way.
The final scene was successful, but I would say that this was in spite of the tech and not because of it. The action took place down a long runway through the center of the space, with the audience sitting on either side. During Orphesus' slow walk back from hell he had been carrying two rope-ends, with curtains draped across them. After he lost her again, the ropes were drawn taut, raising the curtains and blocking the view of the stage (and the other half of the room, for that matter) on both sides.
At this point the narrator sang of Orphesus' death, as some sort of a thunderstorm raged--this was accomplished merely by flashing all of the lights at random, but because the curtain was a shiny white material it was actually a very effective look.
Unfortunately, it went on for a very long time, such that it quickly became obvious that they were hastily setting up a reveal behind the curtain (a pet peeve of mine—surprise reveals should either be surprisingly, or they shouldn’t be attempted). Finally, Prescott sang "O sound unearthly, Orpheus, has birthed thee." and the curtains fell to show Eurydice, dressed in a gorgeous bronze gown (the only costume I really liked, for all that "Steven Rosengard, from Project Runway" had been trumpeted as the designer) and standing on a four foot platform.
This was a very striking moment, but I think Prescott and Vaughn deserve the lion’s share of the credit. From a technical standpoint it was actually a bit clumsy, and from a narrative standpoint I wasn't sure where things stood--Orphesus seemed shocked and awed to have regained his lover, but she stood motionless, eventually reaching out a hand towards him but not quite touching him. I don't know what that means, but I preferred it when they were frolicking the fields and decorating their house together.
And yes, that's one thing I really liked about this piece--although their love was, of course, hopelessly stylized and reduced to a mythopoetic love of the ages, this production also included a touch of the banal. I could (and hope to) write a lot more someday about my thought’s on Hollywod’s version of “true love”, which it usually signifies by show the lovers engaged in ravenous sexing. Don’t get me wrong—I’d love a bit of the old R.S., but I feel that love involves something a bit more.
Orpheus and Eurydice did spend one scene frolicking the flowers (which is the PG version of ravenous sexing) but then they have an entire song dedicated to them decorating their house! The dance shows them setting the table, and inviting the soprano and the clarinetist over for tea, each with their own cup and saucer. For me, this domesticity really worked; it made the two lovers much more believable and therefore much more poignant.
Over above and throughout whatever legitimate criticisms I had with the tech and the score and the book, I should also mention that I’m biased against most love stories from the start. For one thing, I think that this typical “their love was doomed from the start” plot that occupies much “serious” art is absolutely as false (and possibly even more dangerous) as the “anyone can find their SoulMate in under two hours!” plot that so many romComs exploit.
More about that on some later date, but I should also confess that I’m also, quite simply, melancholic and jealous. I try not to say anything about it most of the time, because it's such a common sentiment; but I really miss being in love. To add to this feeling of melancholy, the theatre was in the same neighborhood were I lived with Katya for a year and a half, and as I killed an hour before the show by wandering around Wicker Park I realized how much I still associate that neighborhood with her. Then, for extra icing on the nostalgia cake, the woman who danced Eurydice (Logan Vaughn) looked remarkably similar to my other ex, Lauren. I haven't had a very diverse love life, but it all seems to have been represented tonight. Fortunately for me, no one has died on me, and I’ve never stormed Hell. I like to think that, if I needed it, I’d do it and not look back.