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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Maria de Buenos Aires and Women of Troy


Jeune Lune's Maria is part homage, part lament

Maria de Buenos Aires
Nora Epp, surrounded by cast members
If you anticipate Argentinean composer Astor Piazzola's tango opera, Maria de Buenos Aires, at Theatre de la Jeune Lune being as hot as a jalapeño pepper, think again. Piazzola's jazz-infused music sometimes picks up the 4/4 beat of tango, but it inclines towards thoughtfulness and melancholia. Director Dominique Serrand takes his cue from Piazolla's score and from the fragmented, imagistic poetry of Horacio Ferrer's libretto; he brushes Maria with implied eroticism, but it's a cool, hard-edged sensuality, layered with resentment and tragedy.

Maria has no story. Rather, it is an impressionist homage to Buenos Aires, city of music, song, dance, sex, exploitation, violence and loneliness. It's a challenge to make a storyless impression compelling. To a certain extent, Jeune Lune succeeds. There's plenty to celebrate in the troupe's brilliant legerdemain that has characters disappearing and reappearing, its presentation of improbably elongated limbs, spectacular birthings, ominous shadows and a host of flickering butterflies; not to mention Epp's creative surtitles that fragment as they slide over broken surfaces, reflecting the fragments of poetry that they interpret. But the dreamy pace unfolds too uniformly and stills just too much.

Personifying the spirit of Buenos Aires are the two beautiful, look-alike Baldwin sisters, soprano Jennifer Baldwin Peden and mezzo Christina Baldwin. Baldwin Peden embodies the city as an orphan who must survive on the streets as best she can. That means the brothel. Her mezzo sister shadows her, like an ethereal spirit, and their glorious voices fuse in sadness. Their Maria is beautiful and angry. She spits, resists and complies. Confident 12-year-old Nora Epp plays Maria as a girl, and Serrand's staging of the child Maria, washing herself in a drain downspout, suggests the aftermath of rape. The child is then immersed in Buenos Aires's bottom-feeder life.

Paralleling the two Marias are actor Steven Epp and baritone Bradley Greenwald, two halves of the spirit poet. Their entry is pure Jeune Lune wizardry. They move in unison and appear to be one, in flowing coats, but gradually, rogue hands and legs appear. Epp speaks Ferrer's poetry, Greenwald sings it, and in their gestures, they express tenderness, weariness and grief.

An ensemble of dancers opens the show in clever choreography. Dressed noir-style, with long coats and trilbies, they lean against a wall, putting on their shoes. Some step out in seeming randomness, tapping to test their shoes. Like the keys of a player piano, they begin to sound a rhythm, until they are united in the rhythm of tango. This ensemble dances the tango, but it is in high, ballroom style, a chilly exercise in precision.

Bob Barnes' seven-piece Mandragora Tango Orchestra plays Piazzola's score at the rear of the immense Jeune Lune stage, and the accordion, or maybe it's an authentic bandoneon, gives the music a street-café feel. Serrand uses real-time videography to promote scene and mood on a set that at times feels distractingly busy.

This Maria tickles with good foreplay but never quite comes to orgasm.

Maria de Buenos Aires February 19 - March 26, 2005. Thursdays - Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sundays 1:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Tickets $25 - $30. Theatre de la Jeune Lune, Corner of First Street and First Avenue, Minneapolis. Call 612-333-6200.

Photo © Michal Daniel


A brave Women of Troy disappoints at Frank Theater

Rather like its chief protagonist Hecuba, Frank Theatre's operatic adaptation of Euripides' The Women of Troy promises well, but turns out to have that thorn of Greek tragedy, a fatal flaw.

Women looks at the dire aftermath of war and its effect on the unfortunate women who survive.

On John Frances Beuche's evocative set, built around the industrial gantry and catwalks of the old machine shop of the Pillsbury A mill, artistic director Wendy Knox opens Women in darkness. Gossiping women's voices tell of the Greeks' 10-year siege of Troy, all because Helen left her husband Menelaus to abscond with Paris, a prince of Troy. Slowly, the lights come up, and each woman comes forward, takes a red apple from the previous speaker, like a microphone, and has her say. The story intensifies, until the final speaker bites into the apple, evoking Eve and the Fall. It's a great premonition and a great start.

The gantry whirs into action and drags a handsome gilded wooden horse into Troy's temple of Athene, a peace offering to the goddess, the women believe. The horse opens, soldiers leap out and rape and spear the women who are clustered around Hecuba, Queen of Troy, wife to slain Trojan king Priam.

Not only are most of Hecuba's daughters and sons dead, but ignominy and more unbearable losses lie ahead for the queen. The Greeks have picked and chosen among the women and cast lotteries for the less appealing. They herd the women aboard ship to be concubines and slaves in Greece. And, of course, the gods meddle.

The singing is strong, and Marya Hart's blues and spiritual-infused music that she plays just off-stage speaks of grief. Janis Hardy plays and sings Hecuba, her carriage noble, her voice rich and warm. One by one, her daughters, prophesizing but crazed Cassandra (Christiana Clark) and Polyxena (Maesie Spear), are ripped from her, one to Agamemnon's bed, the other, a sacrifice to the capricious gods of the winds. Her daughter-in-law Andromache (Corissa White) has her small son taken from her to be hurled from the walls of Troy.

Gary Briggle, with his commanding voice, plays Menelaus and Odysseus, and, when he keens the death song of Polydorus in total darkness from the catwalks, it's a haunting moment.

The 15-person ensemble has depth, and Hart's aching spiritual "Fate" is powerful. But while its many songs are sung, Knox cannot escape the static nature of the work, and it fails to engage emotionally at a cathartic level. Which brings me to this production's fatal flaw.

In Knox's adaptation, the language is quotidian and clichéd: "We've gotten off to a bad start," "... the husband you dumped," "You want to keep me in the dark," "What's the problem?" The overwhelming burden of tragedy requires higher language to bear its weight and engage the spirit. Agamemnon (Gary Keast) strides into a scene in which Hecuba has just gouged out duplicitous Polymestor's (Dana Munson) eyes; the man moans and bleeds, his sons lay slain in Hecuba's tent, and Agamemnon says words to the effect, "There seems to be resentment here." The gross understatement and its ordinariness invited quiet chuckles on opening night, and the real tragedy of Hecuba, having succumbed to the same lust for revenge that caused the abhorrent war, gets lost.

Katherine B. Kohl's eccentric costuming works for the ragged women, but for Odysseus, in a be-medaled coat with epaulettes and a WWII, German tin helmet, it smacks of vaudeville, a dangerous tone to introduce, even if the intent is to mock the man's egotistical need for status.

Mike Kittel bathes the set in mood-shifting light, the sound effects are effective, and Knox uses the challenging space of the A Mill to good advantage, but at two-and-a-half hours, Women feels long.

Women of Troy February 24 - March 20, 2005. Thursdays - Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sundays 2:00 p.m. Sunday March 13, 3:00 p.m. Tickets $18-20. Frank Theatre, Pillsbury A Mill, 300, Se. 2nd Street, Minneapolis. Call 612-724-3760.


- Elizabeth Weir



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