Mystery shrouds musical adaptation
1 May 2010
By Jeanne Claire van ryzin
Enigma is layered on enigma in “The Difficulty of Crossing a Field,” the haunting opera cum musical theater work now getting an adventurous production at UT’s B. Iden Payne Theater, deftly directed by Luke Leonard.
Such enigmatic layering extends to the very origins of the piece. This 75 minute opera by David Lang and Mac Wellman is based on 1888 short story by Ambrose Bierce. In Bierce’s odd tale, a wealthy farmer in pre-Civil War Alabama drops from sight one after noon as he crosses a field. His friends, neighbors, family and slaves have all only glanced away for a second. But the plantation owner, Williamson, is gone; so is the social and political hierarchy. And because he has no male heir, a court must decide whether Williamson is truly gone so that his estate can be distributed.
Wellman, a convention defying New York based playwright, transformed Bierce’s inscrutable yet politically satirical tale into an uncommon play in 1999. Then Lang — the Pulitzer Prizewinning composer whose genre busting career includes founding the group Bang On A Can — collaborated with Wellman to create a musical version for the stage, which premiered in 2002 and featured the Kronos Quartet.
In Lang and Wellman’s variant — in which arias combine with spoken text — we are presented with several retellings of Williamson’s disappearance. A neighbor recants his confused remembrances.
Williamson’s wife (a compelling Jennifer Adams) goes mad and takes to the roof, refusing to come down until he returns. Williamson’s daughter (a captivating Haley Hussey) demands to know the “mysteries of Selma, Alabama” — a reference that resonates past the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement.
And throughout a chorus of ghostly slaves echo and add to the alternate versions of Williamson’s mysterious disappearance. “We are building a nation, we are building an erasure,” characters and chorus repeat.
In deed what churns through out the dream like episodes — or perhaps they’re really nightmarish — is the question of how America’s history of slavery is dis-remembered.
Leonard and the creative team added visually arresting layers of odd artifice on this already odd though jewel-like piece. Alison Heryer’s period inspired costumes symbolically weigh the slave characters down with bulbuous, twine-wrapped forms.
Actors travel across the stage with highly stylized movements. A magistrate stands on stilts far above every one else. Hyper bright elongated white neon lights flank the proscenium and, like a Dan Flavin installation turned on and off, flood the audience with light at the be ginning and end. We are, after all, a part of this telling of Amer i can history.
Lang’s eerie, atmospheric, minimalist infused score, conducted by Lyn Koenning, wraps the odd scenarios with mystery equal to their telling.
“Some thing has happened,” one character proclaims. “But I don’t know what.” If Lang and Wellman’s piece only offers more variants on an enigmatic tale of history making, maybe some enigmas are better just left enigmas.
Bum Phillips Inspires an Opera
MARCH 30, 2014
BY ADAM CHANDLER
When the legendary coach of the Houston Oilers, Oail Andrew Phillips — everybody knows him as “Bum” — was approached in 2012 with a pitch to make an opera about his life, he responded in trademark fashion, “I can’t sing a lick.”
But Mr. Phillips gave his blessing, and two years later the “Bum Phillips All-American Opera” premiered on March 15 at La MaMa Experimental Theater Club in Manhattan’s East Village. Texas football and opera might seem like an unlikely union, but the world of opera has never been short on brash men of destiny. The outsize, Stetson-wearing Mr. Phillips, who in the late 1970s twice came achingly close to taking Houston to its first Super Bowl, was no less a star-crossed general than Otello. But he was also a jester. His famous wit — homespun homilies affectionately known as “Bum-isms”— made such good copy that even Rigoletto would have had to doff his cap.
The director Luke Leonard, a Houston native, conceived the opera after reading the coach’s 2010 autobiography, Bum Phillips: Cowboy, Coach, Christian. Mr. Leonard said the coach was easy to find; his phone number and address were listed on the website for his Texas-based charities. In 2012, Mr. Leonard traveled with Peter Stopschinski, a fellow Houstonian who composed the opera’s music, to the Phillips ranch in Goliad, Tex., where Mr. Phillips treated them to Subway sandwiches, a pot of his wife’s baked beans and, of course, pie.
“I felt a lot of responsibility after we left,” Mr. Leonard said. “Like a weight. It felt more relevant and more real.”
A recent performance, which doubled as a benefit for Mr. Phillips’s charity, drew a scattering of the coach’s friends, family members and former Oiler players to New York. Lawrence Harris, whom Mr. Phillips drafted as a lineman and later became an opera singer, sang the opening national anthem.
The quirky and earnest production by the Monk Parrots, a New York arts company, focuses on crucial points in Mr. Phillips’s life, from his Depression-era upbringing in Orange, Tex., and his time in combat as a Marine in World War II to his divorce, second marriage and late-in-life turn to Christianity. In the end, Phillips is delivered more character than caricature—fearful, enthusiastic, and at times haunted. In addition to the show’s director and composer, several other Texans populate the cast and production team, including Kirk Lynn, a native of San Antonio who wrote the opera’s libretto.
But it is Mr. Phillips’s year as Houston Oilers head coach during the 1979 season that takes the central focus. Mr. Phillips, played by Gary Ramsey, presided over the “Luv Ya Blue” years, named after the team’s blue jerseys, from 1978 to 1980, an era of delirious pride — even by Texas standards — that swept Houston as the city was reveling in an economic boom.
Watching a staged depiction of the “Luv Ya Blue” era is like biting into a deep-fried madeline. The opera, largely set in 1979, celebrates the Oiler mania of the era with a choreographed parade of Columbia blue jerseys and foam fingers, Texas flags and Derrick Doll cheerleaders, and an operatic rendition of the Houston Oilers fight song. Earl Campbell, the Hall of Fame running back, who is played by Anlami Shaw, appears young and full of menace, and he even sings. The Houston Astrodome is restored to its bygone status as the Eighth Wonder of the World.
Dan Pastorini, the Oilers quarterback for most of Phillips’ time with the team, flew in for the show. He still encounters fans of those Oilers teams of the late 1970s who remain nostalgic for the euphoria that Phillips cast over Houston.
“They always come and they shake my hand and they thank me for the ‘Luv Ya Blue’ years and all of us who played it,” Mr. Pastorini said. “And you see this faraway look in their eyes. It was like Shangri-La. It was like Camelot.”
Mr. Phillips’s reign at the helm of this Texas-size ecstasy aligns the stars for disappointment. The upstart Oilers fall one game shy of the Super Bowl two years in a row, in 1978 and 1979. Both times Mr. Phillips’s designs were foiled by their division rival, the Pittsburgh Steelers, a team that was rounding out a six-year span in which it won four Super Bowls.
In its tragicomic climax, the opera zeros in on a pivotal play in the second showdown between the Steelers and Oilers when an apparent touchdown pass from Mr. Pastorini to receiver Mike Renfro is ruled incomplete by a referee unable to see the catch from the conclusive angle visible to the millions watching on television. The characters reverse and repeat their steps like in an instant replay clip, but the ruling cannot be reversed. The call remains the subject of what-if fantasy scenarios 35 years later.
After the loss, an estimated 60,000 greeted the team at the Astrodome. Mr. Phillips, wiping away tears, delivered a speech that would have made Patton blush.
“Last year, we knocked on the door,” Mr. Phillips told the crowd. “This year, we banged on it. Next year, we’re going to kick the sum’bitch in.”
This, the ne plus ultra of Bum-isms, naturally appears near the end of the opera. In reality, the door was never kicked in. Mr. Pastorini was traded, and in 1980 the Oilers lost in the playoffs to the Oakland Raiders, who eventually won the Super Bowl. The team’s owner, Bud Adams, then fired Mr. Phillips. Houston never forgave Mr. Adams, who moved the team to Tennessee in 1997.
Mr. Phillips was revered in Texas until his death in October and remained close to a number of his former players.
“I was moved to tears in the end,” Mr. Pastorini said. “I lived with the man and I knew the man and they depicted him to a T.”
“It’s a great tribute for us and our family,” said Mr. Phillips’s son, Wade, who has also had a career as an NFL coach. “There’s not many people that get an opera, Don Giovanni and the Barber of Seville.”
HERE I GO
THEATRE REVIEWS LIMITED
MAY 25, 2012
By David Roberts
On 12 January 2012, Steve Baldwin wrote in his Blog BrooklynParrots.com “Almost a year ago, I wrote of the remarkable appearance of Wild Parrots in Harlem. Just today, I received word from a correspondent in Harlem that these parrots (the same kind that have lived here in Brooklyn for many years) made a noisy appearance in Harlem yesterday. The parrots appear to be dining on leaf buds, which is their favorite thing to eat when the weather gets cold.
“The obvious question is this: where are these parrots nesting? Nobody seems to have the answer, making this story a definite Manhattan Mystery. What we do know is that these wild Quaker Parrots (AKA Monk Parakeets) have attempted for many years to establish a foothold on Manhattan Island, and have been repeatedly rebuffed by the authorities. Perhaps this time round the Wild Parrot occupation will survive any such attempts to evict these intrepid creatures.”
The intrepid Monk Parrots who produced HERE I GO at 59E59 Theaters have successfully occupied Manhattan and there is no chance that anyone will be able to rebuff or evict this creative production team or easily ignore what they “make.” Monk Parrots and their work are, thankfully, here to stay.
HERE I GO is a brilliantly conceived and executed performance work that truly crosses artistic boundaries. David Todd’s text/libretto stands on its own as an engaging piece of short fiction which is oddly reminiscent of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper.” In HERE I GO, the protagonist Lynette (at age 60) reflects on her life before, during, and after “The Man.” After Dolly Parton’s biggest fan Lynette “loses” him (did he die or just “march away?), she “notices the absence of him:
“That is all I can notice now is the lack. The place where you always sat where you aren’t. The times you always spoke and now you don’t. The ashes that I used to dump out that aren’t in the tray. Those things don’t even exist if you think about it. They’re just missing things, not for real, but I notice them anyway.”
Whether Lynette’s “Man” died or simply marched away, she is grieving and her profound bereavement plays out before the audience in kaleidoscopic vignettes which are at once visually demanding and (often) psychologically disturbing. Todd’s text and the actors’ counterpoint with that text challenge the audience to grapple with the incredible resilience of the human spirit. Lynette, in her newfound loneliness, rehearses all that has drawn her into and then repelled her from the “soothing” thoughts of suicide. How does the human spirit survive profound neglect, unintentional and intentional physical, emotional, and spiritual abuse? How, specifically, has Lynette (at 60, 26, 16, and 8) been able to achieve not “running out of steam” or “running herself into the ground” and persevere through “all the cruelties” she was accused of?
The ensemble cast splashes the images created by Lynette’s self-therapeutic sessions of memory with an expertise that almost defies belief. Under Luke Leonard’s direction, Michael Howell, Natalie Leonard, Jessica Pohlman, Mariah Ilardi-Lowy and Gates Loren Leonard live out Todd’s script as it is skillfully and often hauntingly given voice by Julie Nelson.
Lynette’s journey connects with members of the audience all on their own journeys into self-discovery and self-reliance (no matter how fragile). Those journeys are not always pleasant and often accompany us into the same dark places Lynette’s significant other “never needed to go into.” But, as Lynette knows, those dark places are “still parts of [us]” and probably “the best parts.”
Ultimately, the type of journey Lynette experiences in her reflective grief is redemptive and salvific. It feeds. It nourishes. Before the performance begins, the audience is “fed” Vanilla Wafers, one for each member served in a small plastic cup. At the performance’s close Lynette herself serves the self-same wafers to the front row of the audience. This time, however, these “wafers” are those of the Eucharist, the redemptive body of Lynette’s death and resurrection. As she passes priest-like, one can almost hear her say, “Take, eat, in remembrance of my journey given for you.” Shocking? Hopefully. Brilliant? Without the slightest doubt.
Go see this significant gem of a performance. Risk being fed. Perhaps you will never again fear the music (whatever that is for you) that prevents you from joining in and dancing the dance of existence. At least one Manhattan Mystery has been solved.
CAST: Michael Howard (The Man); Natalie Leonard (Lynette, age 60); Jessica Pohlman (Lynette, age 26); Mariah Ilardi- Lowy (Lynette, age 16); Gates Loren Leonard (Lynette, age 8); and Julie Nelson (The Voice of Lynette).
PRODUCTION TEAM: Made by Monk Parrots. Luke Leonard (Director and Production Designer); David Todd (Playwright); Shaun Patrick Tubbs (Associate Director); Eric Nightengale (Lighting Designer and Technical Director); Jennifer Skura (Costume Designer); and John Harmon (Light Operator).