Last week, Boston was treated to a multidisciplinary adaptation of an operatic episode—an excerpt from James Swindle and Mark Warhol's full opera JEANNE. The work is part of an ongoing collaboration between Fort Point Theatre Channel, Ensemble Warhol, and Contrapose Dance to illuminate through voice, music, and dance the excerpted scenes of the original opera. The result is an evening that challenges the viewer to stay on their toes, as the lyrics dive into greater topics that require one's mind to be sharp to follow. Yet by doing this, we find we are rewarded with moments of clever wit, alongside global realizations we may never have considered prior to this performance.
For JEANNE, the story of a woman, we are given three sections: "Mark's Monologue," "Jeanne Meets Mark," and "Postlude." The beginning opens to a solo drummer against a sun-spotted floor. A geometric pattern of light cloaks the stage, and as the atmosphere brightens, we discover that Boston University Dance Theatre's traditional stage has been masterfully reimagined with varying levels of platforms and pipes, reminiscent of a factory after-hours. So, too, are Contrapose's three dancers a part of the set, acting at times as a traditional Greek chorus, and at others like a mobile personification of the machinery itself.
|Anna Ward (soprano) and Magdalena Gyftopoulos |
(dancer) in JEANNE, the story of a woman.
Presented by Fort Point Theater Channel,
Contrapose Dance, and Ensemble Warhol.Photo: Daniel J. van Ackere.
As the two central characters engage in a sung dialogue, we are met with an amusingly absurd scene: The grandeur and elegance of an opera met with the lyrics of what first appears to be a purely mundane conversation. Yet as the two continue their inquiries and insights, we soon learn that this young male engineering student and older female factory worker are diving deeper than their words first indicated on the surface.
The two discuss current issues from execution to education to abortion, all while finding new ways to link their examples back to the factory's machines. The two quarrel over which is more evil: The guillotine itself, or the human who created it—a theme which comes back into play periodically throughout the scene. In one climactical moment, Mark is told the story of Jeanne's reason for leaving school: An unplanned pregnancy. In the midst of the pair's ongoing conversation, one cannot help but compare Jeanne's story to that of the factory around her. In that moment of pregnancy, it was she who was the machine, built with the purpose to create.
Overall, this work is extremely well executed. The three dancers who shift through ever-repetitious movements expertly echo the cogs and wheels of a well-oiled machine, while alternately acting as a physical representation of Jeanne's inner emotions. Towards the end of the work, the dancers strip into nude camisoles as each sentence Jeanne sings reveals herself more and more to Mark. Perhaps the most moving moment of the entire work is when Jeanne acknowledges the three dancers for the first and only time. The three stand huddled in the nude, looking fragile and exposed, with Jeanne staring into their eyes with that same look of exposed fragility. In that moment, all became quiet for what felt longer than it likely was, yet offered so much with a single look.
However the work did offer many questions as the audience spilled out post show, and gave this critic hesitation as to whether or not the medium of "opera" was the correct choice for this elaborate work. The music—while excellent at creating a sense of unease through its grim, dissonant chords—quickly became repetitive to the point of distraction. If the goal was to make the audience feel the level of discomfort witnessed between the characters onstage, then it was certainly well done—though I would urge the composer to consider allowing the audience brief moments of reprieve, as an hour of the tedious strings made many breathe a sigh of relief when the show came to a close.
Likewise, the choice to make Mark and Jeanne's lines sung in the operatic style felt very much arbitrary. It became a hassle to read the subtitles above while simultaneously viewing the action below, and many times I heard the words "What did she say?" uttered by audience members around me. The dialogue is so cleverly written—so integral to the entire premise of the show—that I found myself wishing that the musical component could be removed, and instead presented as a play. It would allow me, as a viewer, to better engulf myself in the textual elements of the work, without the tedious distraction of the seemingly disparate music.
Still, there are moments when the soundscore does elevate the work to a whole new level, as witnessed with the drummer who emerges for the first and third acts. Similar in structure, yet striking in their simple difference, the two acts bring Mark alone to the stage, speaking about his encounter with Jeanne many years before. When the show begins, we hear Mark clearly as his words are punctuated with the staccato of the drum. Yet when he returns at the end, the drum now overtakes him. We see Mark speaking emphatically, but hear no sound from his lips, as if to say that he is "left speechless" by the encounter, and that the drum (his emotions) have overpowered him.
All in all, this production is a worthwhile visit to the theatre, and a show that will keep you thinking beyond the curtain. It leaves us wanting to know more about the characters to whom we've been freshly introduced, and looking forward to the next installment produced by these three talented companies.