General 11-10-2003

The Column: A Serious Shift?

Dean Seal's column this month is on two multimedia performance events that deal with "serious" subject matter in truly theatrical ways. He detects a new openness in performance to matters of moment in the current political climate.

Dean Seal

A pair of programs this fall came to my attention, and I want to discuss them in parallel. I don’t think they have a lot in common, except their imaginative treatment of philosophically resonant subject matter. Otherwise, they were very different–which makes it interesting to put them together.

Hanging Man came to the Jeune Lune via the Walker presenting series. (Memo from the Caveat Department:The Walker is a co-sponsor of this website, with the McKnight Foundation.) The story of an architect attempting suicide, only to find that Death won’t have him until they establish a relationship, I found to be entertaining yet substantial.

The show was set on an enormous model of a cathedral, all flying buttresses and pointy gothic towers. It made a grand opening impression, because the story is about the architect who is designing it. He gets halfway through and decides to hang himself. We spend the rest of the night watching Death, played by the magnificent Lisa Hammond, tease out why this Great Man, in the eyes of the world, wants out so badly.

What he discovers with us is that he cannot stand absolute freedom. He was given carte blanche to make this place, and he says ruefully, “My own choice and taste are of no interest to me.” It turns out he inherited the job from a genius that he was apprenticed to, and as long as someone was there to make all the decisions, he was happy. When given the ball and told to run with it, he froze.

Death coaxes him into a perception of what the world is–that the trees and the mountains and the people themselves are all as much cathedrals as this building he was hired to make. And when he comes to the realization that he wants to “walk on the round perfect earth again,” that is when Death releases him, tenderly, poignantly kissing him with the proverbial Kiss of Death. He is allowed to go once he understands what it is that he is leaving.

An atmosphere of play, even self-indulgence, was part of the show. There were great theater tricks, people coming and going through the floor; great costumes; a ramp to hell and a chair on a stick that popped up through the stage. Two of the actors had trained at Jaque Le Coq, the font of Jeune Lune stylistics; the motto there is, “Play. Theater will come.” And it did. There were a couple dud experiments, such as when they broke out of character to talk about “the process.” Lisa Hammond again pulled off a good one when she saw herself in a dream doing the show as a dog, and then did her part as if she was that dog.

But on the whole it was a nice collection of inventive bits brought together as an exploration of a moment, a moment when a brilliant successful person is so shaken with freedom that he decides he’d rather die than make another decision.
The show was panned by the Star Tribune for being non-linear. Why a reviewer comes to a show with a decision made about what he or she wants to see before it is seen is beyond me.


The second show was the Vocal Essence one-nighter of Honnegger’s King David. This is a story we know because it is probably the first example of biography in the history of the written word. The king of Israel is a songwriter/musician who kills the bogeyman that the big boys were scared of; he ends up on the throne when King Saul loses his grip on the kingship and the favor of God; and as king, David abuses his authority by taking the wife of one of his loyal soldiers, and killing off the competition to do it. He pays a price when his son rebels, and his torn loyalty between those who would save him by killing his son and to the son who is trying to kill him is summed up by one of his generals: ”You love those that hate you, and hate those that love you.” What a great tragic summation!

The staging had a choir of 130 voices which rang out magnificently. Phillip Brunelle stages this with Honegger’s original orchestration of about 15 instruments, and it was interesting music. But I didn’t think it was perfect. I thought the score was goofy in two places. First, when King Saul dies, it is a sad moment, and the music sounds like it was lifted from Laurel and Hardy. Boo-Doop-Pee-Doop, Boo Doop-Pee Doop. What’s that about? Saul is a bad guy, but he was first chosen by God to be king and he failed in the mission. There should have been something more somber or painful.

The second gaffe was the ending, where a nice vocal crescendo was undercut by the small orchestra dropping out. Or was it the other way around? I was so disoriented by this my notes are not clear to me; they say: ”Why drop half the crescendo!?!?!?!?!” Brunelle was staying true to the original score, because that was of the essence of the event. But I disagree with that idea if one ends up leaving in two major mistakes.

The rest of the staging was really a great way to do this kind of thing. Three Guthrie actors lead the narration: Richard Ooms, Isabell Monk, and Nathaniel Fuller, all in top narration/acting form. John Cranney wrote what he called “something completely new- a dramatic narration that goes with the musical story.” He’s right, and he did it well. The words in a musical piece can get lost, and the narration and some Powerpoint projected images kept the audience in sync with the flow of the story. It’s the first time I’ve seen projections work so successfully, instead of being tacked on as a set of bells and whistles.

Penelope Freeh in a sporadic dancing role was her usual astonishing self, clear as a bell and with a wide-ranging vocabulary. She was utilized well by Sally Rousse of the James Sewell Ballet, who was going to perform it herself until she got preggers. Again, this kind of liturgical dance can be a specious addition to a piece, but her movements were used to illuminate and interpret what was happening in the plot. The multimedia risk was taken, and it paid off.


What we have here are two modern stagings of old themes. Improbable Theater told a story of life and death with a style as fresh as today’s pink roses. King David is a story from one of the oldest books we have, a core document of western civilization; and it was told in an innovative staging that clarified the story. I could be just seeing what I am looking for, but it seems to me that deeper themes are being treated with more respect these days, since 9-11 and the latest couple of undeclared wars. Meaningful content seems to be making a comeback.