January 24, 2013

(+++) NEW WAYS TO DO DRAMA


Peanut. By Ayun Halliday. Illustrated by Paul Hoppe. Schwartz & Wade. $15.99.

Kyong Mee Choi: The Eternal Tao. JulieAnn Zavala, mezzo-soprano; Brad Jungwirth, baritone; Samantha Stein, Allison Hull, Jeff Jablonski and Chadley Ballantyne, chorus; Ensemble Del Niente conducted by Michael Lewanski. Ravello DVD. $24.99.

Joseph Summer: Shakespeare’s Memory. Navona. $16.99.

      The methods of presenting dramatic events to an audience are thousands of years old, dating back to Greek theater and beyond. But they are not immutable. Modern-day storytellers, aware of changing consciousness and changing tastes in today’s audiences, are constantly seeking new ways to put their ideas across effectively. The new methods may take some getting used to for those accustomed to traditional ones, and in truth many of the new approaches are experimental and will likely not survive long. But concepts that build on existing dramatic methods do have a good chance of adapting to modern ways of thinking and being taken to heart by today’s audiences. Take the graphic novel, for example. An amalgam of traditional storytelling with comic-book illustration – although the illustrations are generally done with greater care and attention to detail than in most comics – graphic novels are proving a durable form and an effective way of communicating in book format with young people living video-saturated lives. They are an entertainment medium, but some creators want them to be more – for example, Ayun Halliday and Paul Hoppe. Their graphic novel Peanut (the title is actually a very realistically drawn peanut) tackles the serious subject of peanut allergies and related health crises in the context of a typical high-school story about the new kid wanting to fit in even if that means creating a fictional persona. The story as a whole is a sort of “girl who cried wolf” tale in which Sadie, the protagonist, wants so badly to be noticed and accepted at her new high school that she invents a peanut allergy and uses it as a conversational gambit with just about everyone – students, teachers and administrators. Sadie goes to great lengths with her story, even ordering an “allergy bracelet” online and wearing it at school (while of course concealing it at home).  The story arc is predictable: she will be exposed as a fraud and ostracized. And that is what happens, when she eats something that a teacher believes (wrongly) to contain peanuts, and the teacher panics – along with everyone else – and paramedics rush to the scene, and soon Sadie is exposed as a pathetic fraud.  But Halliday and Hoppe handle the situation skillfully enough so that readers sympathize with Sadie’s plight even while disagreeing with the actions she has taken. It is hard to fit in at a new school, it is difficult as a teenager to change peer groups, and it is tempting to find something to make yourself stand out even if that requires a “little white lie” that you are sure will never be exposed.  Sadie more than gets her comeuppance – although her boyfriend and her mother do give her considerable empathy and understanding after getting over how upset she has made them. The story itself is rather too obvious for its own good, but Halliday and Hoppe deserve credit for effectively tackling a serious subject – or rather two serious subjects, health emergencies and fitting-in angst – in a new medium.

      Just as graphic novels build on traditional novels and comic books, some modern sort-of-operas – Ligeti’s Le Grand Macabre comes immediately to mind – build on musical stage works of the past while forging new forms of dramatic communication. The Eternal Tao is in the Ligeti tradition, to the extent that a work revised as recently as 1996, as Ligeti’s was, can be said to have a tradition. Kyong Mee Choi uses the trappings of opera to communicate here, but this work is correctly dubbed a “multimedia opera” because of the way it employs its musical and stage forces.  Everyone is a part of the whole, yet this is not simply an ensemble piece, because the elements themselves are used in different, nontraditional ways. The vocalists are as important as a trio of dancers (Allison Anich, Mei-Kuang Chen and Natalie Williams) but not more so; there are no grandstanding operatic arias or big ensembles here; and the work’s constant flux is reflected as much in the lighting and choreography as in the music. Kyong Mee Choi is not only the composer but also the work’s visual artist, choreographer, director and producer, a multiplicity of roles that could easily make this come across as a “vanity” production. But that is not its effect, and the reason is its thematic material. A novelistic treatment of individual lives with a single person assuming all those creative and production roles might not work and would likely seem arrogant, but The Eternal Tao is a presentation based on Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, an endlessly fascinating 2500-year-old work whose 81 short poems observe the human condition without imposing any particular patterns or sets of strictures (or structure) on people. The Tao Te Ching can be interpreted in a nearly infinite number of ways, and has been, and the choice of it as the basis for this “multimedia opera” is a particularly happy melding of subject matter with presentation.  This is experiential opera, placing the Tao Te Ching in a modern context (and with distinctly modern-sounding music) but being careful not to impose a set of required emotional or analytical responses on the audience – doing so would be out of keeping with the spirit of Lao Tzu. The use of video and electronics as well as traditional elements of opera staging makes perfect sense in this context, and while The Eternal Tao is a lot to absorb and is scarcely the sort of operatic work to which lovers of traditional opera will immediately gravitate, it is a piece in which form and function work particularly well together, jointly forging a work that partakes of numerous traditions without being wholly dependent on any one of them.  It has a combinatorial newness even though none of its individual elements, taken on its own, is particularly revolutionary.  And it is quite effective in presenting the rather rarefied, difficult-to-pin-down-precisely atmosphere of Lao Tzu’s masterpiece.

      One genius whose works have invited new forms of presentation almost since they were created is William Shakespeare, and the Shakespeare Concerts series, which began in Massachusetts and the U.S. Virgin islands in 2003, is but one recent attempt to find new or additional ways in which the Bard of Avon can connect with the audiences of today. The atmosphere of Shakespeare’s plays is actually established in part through music – there are songs throughout them, and instrumental music is frequently called for – so the concept of this concert series is right in line with Shakespeare’s own intentions.  The composer most associated with the series is Joseph Summer, and Navona’s new CD devoted to the Shakespeare Concerts series intelligently focuses on Summer’s works – including the title piece, a string quartet that, although brief, is the longest work presented here. Eleven of the 12 tracks on this CD are by Summer; the 12th, The Earle of Oxfords Marche, is right out of Shakespeare’s time, being a harpsichord work by William Byrd (1540-1623). Summer’s melding of old and new is quite apparent and skillfully handled, and includes songs relating to the plays (“Full Fathom Five,” “He Shall with Speed to England”), settings of a number of sonnets, and pieces that do not use Shakespeare’s texts but that fit the overall ambience of Shakespearean presentation very well indeed (“On the Death of a Fair Infant,” with words by John Milton, and “Leda and the Swan,” with words by William Butler Yeats).  Summer composes music that is accessible and not highly individuated – he subsumes personal style into the material he is creating, which in the case of Shakespeare-linked works makes a good deal of sense.  The Shakespeare settings here all come from the sonnets, The Tempest or Hamlet, and it would be nice to hear music that casts a somewhat wider net among Shakespeare’s plays – and is drawn from less-known or more problematic ones, such as Measure for Measure or King John. But perhaps that will come in future CDs – just as the Shakespeare Concerts series has evolved and developed since its beginning, so may Navona’s issuance of discs based on it. The notion of using music to explicate and enhance Shakespeare’s words is certainly nothing new – Shakespeare himself, after all, did just that. But Summer’s treatment of this material is new, and it is easy to see how it can bring Shakespeare to a 21st-century audience in some very interesting ways.

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