Monday, November 9, 2009

Seattle Rep delivers a knock-out with 'Opus'

Seattle Repertory Theatre turns to music as a central theme with playwright Michael Hollinger’s hilarious, moving, and insightful work Opus at the Leo K. Theatre. The play offers a detailed look into the frenetic existence of the imaginary world-class Lazara Quartet as they begin preparations for the gig of a lifetime at the White House. They have only one week to prepare the monumental Beethoven string quartet Opus 131 with brand-new violist Grace (Chelsey Rives), a fresh-faced, idealistic young woman who presents a stark contrast to the world-weary companions who have made music together for decades.

Hollinger’s insight as a violist who has played many string quartets was obvious; judicious name-dropping, high-brow insider’s jokes and the occasional below-the-belt one liner were present throughout, and even when the play got more serious as it moved toward the climax there were countless, genuinely hilarious moments. His portrayal of the volcanic frustrations and sometimes uncomfortable intimacy thrust upon men of mercurial temperament who have worked together so closely for so long, on something as personal as this music, never comes off as anything other than sincere. The love, cynicism and rancor between the men, and sometimes between them and their music, paints an honest, multi-layered portrait of these complex relationships.

The delivery by the five actors was by and large extremely convincing, and their timing was impeccable in the oft razor-sharp repartee called for by Hollinger’s dialogue. Of particular note was Allen Fitzpatrick’s brilliant performance as Elliot, the harried, antagonistic first violinist who is tormented by the fact that his lover Dorian (Todd Jefferson Moore), who is a much better musician than he, had been relegated to the viola despite Dorian’s superior skills, his ability to “hear things that we don’t,” as the second violinist portrayed by Shawn Belyea puts it.

The structure of the work is non-linear and consists of many flashbacks that flesh out the circumstances behind Dorian’s mysterious disappearance, shortly after erratic behavior forces his ouster from the quartet at the beginning of the play. One feels genuine sympathy for the plight of this bi-polar genius whose unpredictable personality dooms any attempt to seal the rifts in his disintegrating relationship with the maddeningly self-absorbed Elliot. Rapid-fire changes of the minimalist set served to highlight the quick firing-off of the flashback sequences, and the soundtrack was poignant and familiar; lots of Bach, and Beethoven. Hollinger succeeds marvelously in portraying the passion, love and conflict the characters feel toward their music and each other; indeed one of Hollinger’s stated purposes was to use the intimacy of the players as an allegorical tool to portray the inter-play between the instruments in a string quartet.

One might have liked a bit more (indeed, any at all) finger-movement by the actors as an added verisimilitude, but thanks to Hollinger’s clever writing, the time-span in which the audience watches the group ’play’ music without moving their fingers across the neck is relatively short. The structure is such that the play takes about 90 minutes and is uninterrupted by intermission, so that by the time the shocker at the finale takes place, the audience is breathless and wondering if it’s actually over. The standing ovation was well-deserved.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Filmusik turns to the kaiju genre with 'Gamera vs. Guiron'

Filmusik, an enterprise that combines film with live entertainment in a hearkening-back to the days of yore, presented the first performance of the Japanese cult classic 'Gamera vs. Guiron' last night at the Hollywood Theatre. Members of Classical Revolution Portland delivered live music by composer Galen Huckens, the Willamette Radio Workshop provided voice actors and live sound effects were by David Ian, Pat Janowski and friends.

An enthusiastic showing of geeks, film buffs, and scenesters of all schools and ages showed up for the premier. Huckens' composition began the film with a pleasant, pastoral spacescape, accompanied by a rich voice-over monologue extolling the wonders of the limitless universe. 'Over-the-top' was the watch-phrase of the evening, as the foley (sound effects) crew and voice actors paid imaginative homage to the campy production values of the movie. The intense concentration and accurate timing of the foley artists was something to behold all evening long; many times all four of them were producing more than one effect simultaneously, with an impressive variety of objects: balloons, rattles, voice synthesizers, even a hand-cranked wind machine came into play.

The kaiju genre of films (kaiju are monsters, more or less; think of Godzilla as the king of the kaiju) are renowned for their hokey production limits and histrionic emotional scope, and because of that they have retained a large cult following to this day. Gamera, a giant, fanged, flying space-turtle who can retract all his limbs and turn them into smoky, flame-belching jet engines, was well-known as a 'friend to children,' as the film repeatedly stated.

The main protagonists, two young boys who board an abandoned spacecraft and mistakenly launch themselves to the evil alter-ego of Earth, planet Terra, are emotionally attached to Gamera. The whale-song-like wailing of the foley artists in providing Gamera's voice succeeded in portraying him as a sympathetic, heroic creature, and the audience delighted in this, clapping, hooting, cheering him on in battle, and commiserating with his suffering. All of the performers involved, while definitely revelling in the kitsch, also seemed to understand the taken in its entirety, the film was not meant to be a laughable rollick, though it is hard to imagine it as anything else viewing it through our eyes today.

CRPDX played sensitively and intuitively all evening long. Huckens' score throughout provided an almost consistent counterpoint to the laughs and cornball acting, imparting a sombre, darkly beautiful element that balanced the overall mise-en-scene and kept intact the emotional import of brave, besieged children battling immensely evil forces way beyond their control. The knife-headed bad-boy kaiju Guiron who shoots throwing stars from his head, the giant silvery, fox-headed bat Gyaos who breathes laser beams, the cannibalistic Japanese-Terran babes who are the sole human survivors on their destroyed planet, the skepticism of their own parents--all these elements are aligned against the children, who want nothing more than to free the world from war and traffic accidents. Their only protector--Gamera, who has his own bouncing-ball theme song that appears throughout the movie, which the audience is encouraged to sing (and eventually does, inspite of themselves.)

Filmusik has succeeded brilliantly once again; Huckens seems to be getting better and better at what he does. The entire live production manages to capture all the camp, humor, and drama inherent in this battle of foam-rubber titans. At the beginning of the film the children lament "Gee, grownups have no dreams." Fortunately they are wrong in that observation, as this darkly comedic reverie at the Hollywood theater so vividly points out. There are three performances left: November 6th, 11th, and 13th.