Tuesday, April 22, 2008

VIOLET HOUR and REGINA Reviews - April 21, 2008

Photo: Left; Bob Frazer as John Pace Seavering in The Violet Hour [Credit: Jo-Ann Richards, Works Photography] Right; Tracy Luck as Addie and Kathleen Brett as Birdie in POV's Regina [Credit: Bruce Stotesbury, Times-Colonist]

This was a busy week at two of Victoria’s largest performing arts companies, the Belfry and the Pacific Opera. What can you tell us about these two shows, both written and composed by Americans, isn’t that right?

Yes, The Violet Hour is by US playwright Richard Greenberg, most known for his Tony award-winning Take Me Out that dealt with gay players coming out in a professional baseball team setting. Greenberg is fascinated with the theme of time, the meeting points between past and present, present and future. Most of his writing addresses this topic, directly or indirectly. This 2003 play includes the presence of a kind of futuristic time machine that allows characters in 1919 a glimpse of the rest of the 20th century, much to their dismay. Regina is composed by American Marc Blitzstein and is based upon Lillian Hellman’s famous 1939 play The Little Foxes, with the title role of Southern cotton plantation owner Regina Hubbard Giddens premiered by Tallulah Bankhead on Broadway, later seen on film with the lead played by Bette Davis.

Let’s begin with Violet Hour…this seems to be a very mixed genre play…comic, dramatic and science fiction all at the same time. How does it work on stage?

This play is a bit of a mishmash, not quite sure of what it really is or is all about, but still with lots of charm and lots of challenges. Greenberg has been compared to Tony Kushner and I see the love of talk as their main shared quality. Greenberg’s characters are a young trust-funder, John Pace Seavering, who is setting up a publishing business in New York City following his stint in the Great War, his fey and funny assistant Gidger and his friends and lovers; Dennis McCleary, his best friend from Princeton and his older lover, famous Black singer Jessie Brewster both of whom have written books they want him to publish. All love to talk and to talk in the style of post WWI flappers-to-be; urgent, passionate and idealistic. There are frank discussions of art, literature, race, ambition, truth and lots of thinking about the future. These young people seem to have their lives spreading out in wonder before them. As Seavering says at one point, the worst is over, how can life not be anything but better after the war? In response, the future sends Seavering a mysterious I (and never-explained) printing machine that spits out books published throughout the rest of the 20th century, many featuring the fates of Seavering, Denny, Denny’s meat heiress girlfriend Rosamund and Jessie. There’s a lot going on in this play, a bit too much for me at times, when I felt like I was being spoken to rather than presented to. Greenberg is a playwright of intelligence and wit, and many ideas, some of which can make his characters feel like mouthpieces rather than flesh and blood (and complex) real people. This makes the show an uphill climb for actors, and although this is a fine production directed by the Belfry’s outgoing Artistic Director Roy Surette, the actors need to be top-notch to make the play work. My feeling was that the men in the show did better with the material overall, with Vancouver actors Bob Frazer, Alessandro Juliani and Allan Zinyk finding nuance and depth in their portrayals, especially the fine physicalization of the text given by Juliani. Vanessa Richards did a nice job with the tough role of singer Jessie (I liked her ability to be very still and to use gesture sparingly) as did Emma Slip as Rosamund, although I feel her work needs to hint more at the darkness in her soul as she becomes a suicidal depressive in her later years (as we learn from one of the machine’s books). The play looks terrific and demands some thinking from its audience; although Greenberg could benefit from a few sessions with a dramaturg who might knock this overwritten play down to a more acceptable size (and allow the actors to show more than they tell), it clearly gives us a look at a contemporary American playwright interested in presenting ideas on stage…how refreshing is that?

Now let’s move on to the opera at the Royal Theatre, premiered in New York in 1949. What were your impressions of this play to opera adaptation?

This is a very handsome production, designed by Pam Johnson and directed by Glynis Leyshon. The set gives us the interior and rear garden of an Alabama mansion owned by Horace Giddens, his wife Regina Hubbard Giddens and their young daughter Alexandra. Two massive winding staircases, overhung with mossy tree branches, frame the stage and the sense of Southern opulence comes though with lovely costumes designed by local Erin Macklem, especially the lush burgundies in silk, brocade and velvet worn throughout by Regina, played by Kimberly Barber. The theme of greed and oppressive capitalism, as seen in the Hubbard clan of Regina and her two brothers Oscar and Ben, is followed as we see Regina plot to gain even greater wealth by manipulating everyone around her to get what she wants. Regina is a terrific character to play, an anti-heroine whose ruthlessness brings to mind the ambition of Lady Macbeth mixed with the charm of Scarlett O’Hara. The plotting of this privileged white family is counter-pointed in the appearance of African-American plantation worker Jazz who brings the new music of New Orleans onto the fields and into the house. Blitzstein and Hellman were both dedicated socialists, both called to testify in the McCarthy hearings in the 1950s and both blacklisted because of it. The negative portrayal of unbridled and unprincipled capitalism is clear in both the play and the opera; the Hubbard brothers think nothing of theft and fraud to achieve their ends and Regina thinks nothing of threatening her own brothers with imprisonment and speeding her sick husband’s demise…all in the name of wealth. The moral centre of the story is Regina’s daughter Zan who realizes she must get away from the corrupting atmosphere she has grown up in. We are left seeing in her essential goodness the hope of a better future.

Who were the standout performers in the production?

I felt the women outdid the men in the production, with Barber’s portrayal of Regina a standout. There is acting as well as singing in this opera and Barber plays the role with great relish, strong physicality and steeliness of will. She also sings her role very well, as does Robyn Dreidger-Klassen as Zan, Tracy Luck as housekeeper Addie and Kathleen Brett as Birdie; the latter is Regina’s frail, abused and alcoholic sister-in-law who was a clear audience favourite on Saturday night. Birdie’s aria of despair in Act 3 is a highlight of the opera, which features many different styles of American music from ballads like Birdie’s to folk song, Broadway show tune and blues and Dixieland jazz. Playing the role of Jazz in the opera is local legend Louise Rose and it is a pleasure seeing and hearing her onstage at the Royal in this role. Of the men, Dean Elzinga did a nice job with Horace, Regina’s unloved husband as did Lawrence Wiliford as Leo, her spineless and amoral nephew. Leyshon keeps the action moving along, especially in the climactic party scene where a large chorus enters singing their collective loathing of the powerful Hubbards. Musical director Timothy Vernon does a terrific job with a large orchestra including unusual operatic instruments such as banjos and trombones. Like the play at the Belfry, this is a somewhat challenging opera for those used to more classical fare, but Regina has some lovely music—I really enjoyed the slower pieces What will it be? and Consider the rain –and tells a fascinating, dramatic and still-relevant moral tale.

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