Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Federico Garcia Lorca Inspires a Twisted, Funny, Cruelly Ironic Puppet Show

Don Cristobal and his sidekick Rosita are the Spanish equivalent of Punch and Judy. In their new show Don Cristobal: Billy-Club Man, Luminescent Orchestrii multi-instrumentalist Rima Fand and puppetry designer-director Erin Orr intersperse Federico Garcia Lorca poems set to haunting, flamenco-tinged original music within a sly, innuendo-fueled program that’s part dirty puppet show, part shadowplay and part farce. Lorca several times hinted that Don Cristobal may be deeper than a mere one-dimensional buffoon, a character study that this piece develops by leaps and bounds with plenty of laughs but also an undercurrent of existential angst that eventually takes centerstage.

The fourth wall comes down quickly and for all intents and purposes stays down the rest of the way. Many of the jokes and sight gags are theatre-insider humor, but they’re not so abstruse as to go over the heads of the audience. The plotline is pretty straightforward: having been tantalized by the prospect of life beyond the stage, Don Cristobal suddenly finds his predictable role mauling the other puppets much less interesting than usual. To complicate matters, he’s become hopelesssly infatuated with Rosita. Both characters are portayed with small stage puppets, Don Cristobal also via a creepy, toddler-size Japanese bunraku-style puppet manipulated expertly and voiced by Brendan McMahon. Claudia Acosta plays Rosita with an unwavering sweetness and blind taskfulness, literally unable to think outside the box. John Clancy is a smash hit as Don Cristobal’s smarmy stage director, with a malicious relish completely lacking either boundaries or scruples. David Fand is his meek, downtrodden antagonist, the Poet, who gets a few plaintive, gentle folk songs; Alice Tolan-Mee sings a handful of numbers for Rosita in Lorca’s original Spanish with a lively Broadwayesque flair.

As Don Cristobal’s existential crisis deepens, his dedication to his job as a puppet begins to waver; he slips out of character and his health declines to the point where his prospects of surviving a repair appointment with the Puppet Maker (a deadpan Quince Marcum, who also doubles on horn and percussion) don’t look good. Racy shadowplay interludes alternate with vaudevillian tomfoolery, a bizarre witches’ dance of sorts and endless messing with the audience. At yesterday’s matinee, there was a possible technical malfunction early on. If this was scripted, it fooled everyone; if it was a genuine snafu, the players improvved their way through it seamlessly.

And the music was the high point of the show. Multi-instrumentalist Fand (who primarily played keyboards and mandolin) was joined by guitarists Kyle Senna and Avi Fox-Rosen for a twisted overture, a plaintive, dramatic bolero, skeletal folk-rock interludes, a couple of absolutely chilling, macabre, carnivalesque Lynchian piano themes and an artsy mandolin-fueled goth-rock song that wouldn’t have been out of place in the Black Fortresss of Opium catalog. Fand’s music matched the mood of Lorca’s lyrics, whether voicing longing (Midnight Hours), lust (Rosita’s Song) or suspenseful narration (El Rio Guadalquivir). A score this memorable deserves a DVD, or at least an original soundtrack release. The show continues at the Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand St. on the lower east side on February 22-23 and March 1-2 at 8 PM; February 23 and March 2 at 3 PM; and February 17, 24 and March 3 at 5 PM. Tickets are $20; the discount code for $15 tix this weekend is Rosita.

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February 17, 2013 Posted by | drama, Live Events, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Timeless Relevance and Challenging Sounds from Ensemble Pi

It’s always a good sign when a challenging ensemble sells out the room; it’s even better when the program is important on more than just a musical level. Such was the case last night at the Cell Theatre in Chelsea where Ensemble Pi put on their annual peace concert. It was fun, and entertaining…and politically charged. The theme, What Must Be Said turned out to be a Gunter Grass quote, read in its entirety in the original German, the gist being that Israel ought to be subject to the same nuclear inspections as Iran. To which should be added, every nation possessing weapons, or power plants, of mass destruction let’s not forget what happened on 3/11.

That was the politics. The music addressed the global struggle for freedom, sometimes acerbically, sometimes gnomically, sometimes in between those extremes. Pianist Idith Meshulam and violinist Airi Yoshioka opened the evening with Susan Botti’s Lament: The Fallen City, a reflection on areas fallen victim to natural or manmade disasters.The violin played droning microtones against the center as the piano melody began still and built from there: in the early going, it reminded of Kayhan Kalhor’s horror-stricken Silent City. From there the duo took it to an agitation that eventally turned into a sort of ragtime disguised with twelve-tone harmonies, jaunty Americana on a knife’s edge.

Three songs by Kristin Norderval followed, from a forthcoming opera based on the life of architect and human rights crusader Patricia Isasa. In her native Argentina, “disappear” can be a transitive verb; Isasa was one of the few who returned after having been “disappeared” during the pre-1983 dictatorship’s reign of terror. Soprano Emily Donato gave dignity – and a viscerally thrilling crescendo – to Isasa’s teenage dreams of building a new city, conducted with tango-tinged verve by Eduardo Leandro, the piano and violin joined by Isabel Castellvi on cello, Cristian Amigo on guitar, Daniel Binelli on bandoneon and Kevin Norton on an army of percussion instruments. Daniel Pincus sang a sarcastic, faux-martial number from the point of view of the judge who sent Isasa away – and who later got sent away for doing that. The composer then sang an irony-drenched, shapeshifting, microtonally-infused number whose most powerful lyrics unfortunately got lost in upper-register pyrotechnics. Since the opera is a work in progress, it makes sense to say that – audiences need to hear a song’s most resonant line, don’t they?

Meshulam then backed a wry and vividly relevant puppet show, performed by the troupe Great Small Works, based on the life of composer Hanns Eisler, who was deported from the US during the McCarthy era. Titled Eisler on the Go after the song that Woody Guthrie had written about him, it underscored the continued relevance of Eisler’s artfully corrosive songs written with Kurt Weill, three of which were sung by Norderval. Just the icepick precision of Meshulam’s menacingly altered boogie-woogie lefthand in the mordant Supply and Demand made the concert worthwhile (for those who missed last night’s show, they’re doing it again tonight).

The evening closed with a couple of piano miniatures, one with a creepy, Satie-esque minimalism, and then the first movement from Eisler’s Sonata No. 3, which heavily referenced the energetic otherworldliness of Eisler’s teacher Arthur Schoenberg. In the worlds of serious music, especially indie classical, self-absorption can get out of hand. So it was refreshing, often to the extreme, to see a show like this one.

November 10, 2012 Posted by | avant garde music, classical music, concert, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Debussy Was Right – And Apparently So Was Obama

Debussy was right about gamelan music. In a marathon three-and-a-half show Friday night at the Asia Society, famed Javanese dhalang (shadow puppeteer) Purbo Asmoro led New York’s Gamelan Kusuma Laras along with musicians from his own gamelan troupe Mayangkara in a lush, hypnotic, often thrilling and frequently hilarious modern update on the medieval wayang kulit (shadow puppet theatre) epic Dewi Ruci. Subtitled “Bima’s Spiritual Enlightenment,” it’s an Indonesian spin on an old Indian myth. The plotline concerns a spiritually-inclined prince’s Herculean adventures in the search for enlightenment: who knew that a quest for personal growth could be so arduous? Bima tackles ogres in the woods and dives to the ocean floor to do battle with a giant sea serpent, all in the name of wisdom. Which makes sense, given his lineage. Utimately, the story could be termed a battle between blue and red states: Bima’s family, the peaceful Pandhawas, are vying with their rivals, the materialistic Kurawa clan, for control of an empire. As part of a “comic interlude” that was only supposed to take five minutes but which went on much longer (to the delight of the remarkably diverse crowd of expats and Americans), a Barack Obama puppet made an appearance, which only made sense: as Asmoro told it, Obama was exposed to wayang as a child in Indonesia and enjoyed it. And who wouldn’t.

Simultaneously playing the role of lyric baritone, comedian, and conductor, Asmoro was a force of nature, acrobatically spinning his wayang (puppet figures manipulated with what look like giant chopsticks) to cast shadows on the screen, aggressively thumping his giant wooden puppet box, clattering his foot cymbals to signal dynamic shifts and all the while entertaining the crowd. This was all the more impressive considering that he and most of his ensemble played the entire show seated, their backs to the audience, which is the style in Indonesia these days (apparently the desire for a backstage pass is universal). Throughout the performance, audience members traipsed onstage to get a look at the figures on the shadow screen facing the band, which was also being projected via live video on the side of the stage. To the immense benefit of the non-Javanese speakers in the crowd, gamelan member Kitsie Emerson furiously typed a witty and insightful simultaneous English translation that was projected high above the musicians.

The music itself covered the range of the entire sonic spectrum. Director I.M. Harjito led the group as they built calmly dreamy ambience with a hypnotic, gently polyrhythmic, pointilliistically glimmering web of instrumental “welcoming music” with their bells, gongs and fiddle that went on for practically a half-hour before Asmoro took the stage. Alternately dramatic, intense, droll and ribald, he shifted voices as much as he shifted characters while the band rose and fell along with the plotline. When the stage momentarily lost power, puppets blamed each other; Freudian metaphors abounded, and Asmoro got the crowd roaring with his explanation of how New York winter cold affected his manhood. Musically, the highlight of the show was a harder-charging interlude meant to illustrate soldiers in what seemed to be competitive training exercises, the tinkling of the bells balanced by the low, richly reverberating boom of the gongs. In between acts, a choir sang choruses along with soloists from the ensemble (notably soprano Ibu Yatmi, with her meticulously nuanced, piercingly microtonal melismas). After about an hour and a half, wine and snacks were served upstairs: people made their way up and back into the theatre, happy for a break but eager to see what else the group had in store. It was after eleven when the show finally concluded, Bima victorious at last in his search for wisdom, the future of the Pandhawa uncertain, the crowd still invigorated, on their feet, wanting more.

March 19, 2012 Posted by | concert, drama, folk music, Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews, theatre, world music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment