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Prototype Festival, New York — from awkward to superb

Prototype Festival, New York — from awkward to superb

January 08
09:33 2019

The annual Prototype Festival of new works of musical theatre, this year scattered among 11 venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn, has become a New York institution. The offerings vary widely in quality. The 2019 crop range from the superb to the awkward, but all evince a sterling professionalism and attracted eager audiences.

Often Prototype’s highlights have been first seen out of town. That was true for Ellen Reid’s Prism at Café La MaMa, which premiered in November in Los Angeles, where most of her big successes have come. With Prism she takes her place among the host of promising young American opera composers (she’s 35). Her opera explores the disorienting impact of post-traumatic stress disorder in relation to sexual assault. Reid and her librettist, Roxie Perkins, write in the programme notes that they have been victims themselves. The allusive, poetic text, caught between dream and nightmare, starts out with a traumatised girl and her smothering mother. Eventually the girl is transported to a flashing disco and finally breaks free altogether.

What makes Prism so compelling is not just its text and the fine singing of Anna Schubert and Rebecca Jo Loeb. There is a brilliant production from James Darrah, with striking decor and lighting, and fine playing and choral singing from the forces of Trinity Wall Street and its commanding conductor, Julian Wachner. Above all there is Reid’s score. The vocal lines for the two women are compelling, often beautiful, but the thrill lies in the orchestra and the kaleidoscopic musical idioms Reid so deftly deploys.

Philip Venables’ adaptation of Sarah Kane’s ‘4.48 Psychosis’ © Maria Baranova

Philip Venables’s 4.48 Psychosis, an adaptation of Sarah Kane’s harrowing final play, started in London in 2016 and was reprised there last year; in New York it is showing at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, with further stops planned for Germany and France. Kane’s play was first seen in 2000, a year after her suicide. The opera depicts the acute depression, not to say madness, of the protagonist, and the fragmentary text is set for six women singers plus a recorded spoken voice, a swirling coven of friends, nurses and hallucinations. Venables’s writing for voices and instruments remains unflinchingly intense, and Gweneth-Ann Rand is deeply disturbing as the central figure.

Prototype’s opening weekend also included Train with No Midnight at the HERE Arts Center’s downstairs space, a droll blend of comic narration and art-pop songs from Joseph Keckler. (I had to leave this one a few minutes early because of the festival’s tight schedule.)

Otherwise, at HERE’s Mainstage, we had This Tree by rock singer/cellist Leah Coloff, the tree in question being her family tree, which she is not continuing because of her inability to conceive. It is musically strong but thematically self-involved.

Pancho Villa from a Safe Distance at the Bric House in Brooklyn tries to portray the Texas-Mexico border country through the lens of the Mexican revolutionary. But the text seems disjointed and the music by Graham Reynolds lacks individuality and flavour.

Festival runs to January 13,

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