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Thursday , August 6 2020

Reunion takes unexpected turn in ‘Antlia’ – Battle to return to Metropolitan Opera

Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins performs in concert at The Beacon Theatre on April 4 in New York City.(AFP)
Billy Corgan of The Smashing Pumpkins performs in concert at The Beacon Theatre on April 4 in New York City.(AFP)

NEW YORK, April 5, (Agencies): Ghosts from our past are often in our minds, but thinking they walk among us is another story. Ann Washburn provides a realistic, disarming ghost tale, invigorated with ruminations about time and space, in her new play, “Antlia Pneumatica.” A quietly unsettling production directed by Ken Rus Schmoll premiered off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons Monday.

A group of old friends reunites after 25 years at a ranch house in Texas to bury one of their friends. Reminiscences, dreams and regrets are shared via casual conversations, stories and the occasional song.

Unlike Washburn’s wildly surreal, futuristic “Burns,” “Antlia Pneumatica” is a tender examination of everyday concerns, including lapsed friendships, regrets, parenting and death, with dark humor and some supernatural undertones. Scenes of shared memories between the friends are effectively given ritualistic, elegiac treatments.

The action centers on the comforting death ritual of food preparation, with the cast always gathered in the kitchen of Nina’s family ranch. Annie Parisse is grounded and thoughtful as happily married mom Nina, while April Mathis is winsomely sensitive as her sister, Liz. Maria Strier gives a drily humorous persona to currently single Ula, and Nat DeWolf is sweetly goofy as Len.

Charming

Rob Campbell is charming yet oddly disengaged as Nina’s bad-boy old flame, Adrian, whose unexpected attendance shocks everyone. Hovering enigmatically on the fringe of group conversations, he becomes most intense in scenes alone with Nina, including one performed entirely in the dark except for a dazzling starry sky (courtesy of Tyler Micoleau’s lighting and Rachel Hauck’s set design).

In keeping with the astrological theme conveyed by the title, a reference to lesser-known constellations, Liz shares a disturbing dream she once had where “stars fell like rain” until they left empty patches in the sky.

The childish chatter of Nina’s two children is only heard offstage, yet one of the more magical moments occurs when some minor singsong about a dead ant swells into a major hymn and lush orchestral accompaniment. It’s a spoof of parents’ high regard for their kids’ minor achievements, yet also a tender nod to the sweet innocence of childhood.

By the time an energetically comical Crystal Finn arrives as Bama, bringing improbable information critical to the denouement, Schmoll has satisfactorily overlaid the realism and ordinariness with an atmosphere of mystery.

For the living, whether time is an illusion or a heavy burden, a casual line from Nina sums up the reunion-inspired soul-searching: “Hopefully they figure the life they’re leading is a perfectly fine one.”

 Sadie Thompson, that naughty lady of Pago-Pago, has had the struggle over her soul dramatized innumerable times on stage and screen since Somerset Maugham created her in his 1921 short story “Rain.” It’s most surprising to see her treading the boards again in 2016, especially in such a serious musical drama as this “Rain,” a world premiere at the Old Globe Theater. Whereas “Giant,” the previous collaboration of librettist Sybille Pearson and composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa, wrestled a sprawling potboiler into an incisive indictment of US race relations, “Rain” teases a sophisticated treatment of modern politics out of an old warhorse.

Far from the traditional one-note martinet, crusading Rev Alfred Davidson (compelling Jared Zirilli) is young and clearly already unhinged and beset by personal demons which stalwart wife Anna (a magnetic Elizabeth A. Davis), easily the stronger of the pair, attempts to check through the power of prayer.

Fascinating parallels to the Davidsons’ dynamic come from minor Maugham characters Pearson has built up. Louisa Macphail (Betsy Morgan) is game but helpless as doctor husband Alec (a haunted Tally Sessions) descends into alcoholism brought on by World War I horrors. Meanwhile, proprietor Jo Horn (a vigorous Jeremy Davis) and pregnant wife Noi Noi (Marie-France Arcilla, luminous) present a “golden mean” of a healthy relationship marked by mutual respect.

As the uneasy mood is deepened by distant tribal drums and torrents of rainwater (patrons sensitive to humidity, beware), song is shrewdly integrated with spoken dialogue to contrast each desperate couple’s efforts to achieve and maintain balance. Jo and Noi Noi’s flirtatious “The English Lesson” could be the most winning musical east-west melding since Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Happy Talk.” Yet when Morgan, a cast standout, has Louisa work the number’s magic on Alec (“Make me want to love you”), the Macphails’ rift is humiliatingly widened.

Reinforce

“Rain” is drenched with a sense of librettist and lyricist working hand in glove, such that no character sings unless and until the spoken word won’t suffice. LaChiusa’s gift for character-defining soliloquies is much in evidence here, while world-music interpolations — Pacific chants, Scottish folk ballads and those incessant drums — reinforce the notion of fissures in the human fabric constantly threatening to engulf and destroy. (Mark Wendland’s spinning, three-level set for the Horn Hotel gradually splits apart to set the stage for Alfred’s ultimate fate.)

Extravagant melodrama teeters between the intense and the risible, and though Barry Edelstein and his actors generally go for broke, there’s a certain tenuousness of tone which may right itself over time. Edelstein and orchestrator Bruce Coughlin also need to tighten up the musical buttons cuing us to applaud.

Also:

NEW YORK: Kathleen Battle is returning to the Metropolitan Opera, 22 years after the company fired her and publicly accused her of “unprofessional actions.”

Battle, who will be 68 in August, is scheduled to sing a recital on Nov. 13 titled, “Underground Railroad-A Spiritual Journey,” the company said Monday. The soprano will be accompanied by pianist Joel Martin and by a choir under the direction of James Davis Jr, director of music ministries and fine arts at New York’s Abyssinian Baptist Church.

Battle made her Met debut in 1977 and was a favorite of music director James Levine. She walked off the stage during rehearsals in 1993 after battling with conductor Christian Thielemann over tempo and canceled five scheduled performances as Sophie in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier.”

Joseph Volpe, then the Met’s general manager, publicly announced in February 1994 that the company had terminated her contract for Donizetti’s “La Fille du Regiment (The Daughter of the Regiment),” saying her actions “were profoundly detrimental to the artistic collaboration among all the cast members.”

“I don’t believe there’s any ill will towards her at all, but I wasn’t here 20 years ago,” Peter Gelb, who took over from Volpe in 2006, said in a telephone interview. “I think everyone at the Met likes to hear great artists.”

Gelb said he spoke with Battle about 10 years ago and was unsuccessful in an attempt to have her return to the Met for a revival of Mozart’s “Die Zauberfloete (The Magic Flute).” He said they started discussing the spiritual concert several years ago, and Battle tested her voice on the Met stage in December.

Tim Fox, Battle’s agent, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment. In the past, she has deflected questions about her Met departure.

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