Saturday, March 17, 2012

Review: (Toronto) The 7 Deadly Sins (and Holier Fare)

Sacred to Profane
Against The Grain tempts the devil
by Axel Van Chee

One thing I love about small companies is that they need to be innovative and constantly explore all the possibilities in terms of modes of production, venues, and repertory choices with their limited funds. Although they may not always succeed, the results are often surprising and enlightening. Against the Grain Theatre has done just that with their latest production of The 7 Deadly Sins (and Holier Fare) featuring four modern pieces, two of which are even by living American composers. It certainly is a daring affair, and like a charcuterie, each of the four is a different representation of the modern musical sound, and although you may not like one, chances are, you are going to like one of the others.

This production certainly blunted my sensation of panic...

The first piece, a double piano entitled Piano Phase by Steve Reich is, well, quintessentially Steve Reich. To be honest, I have not been a fan of his music despite the fact that I have actually done a few of his pieces myself, and still remember the groans of pain each time I encountered his work. This production certainly blunted my sensation of panic with a smartly choreographed dance-duo performed to by Matjash Mrozewski and Kate Franklin. The use of the wall and the casting of the shadows create a hypnotic effect that at times feels as if I am looking down on the ground from the sky.

The second piece Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac by Benjamin Britten while aptly performed and is a beautiful piece of music in its own right, is somewhat uneven. Erin Lawson (Issac) has a beautiful velvety mezzo-voice which she uses to tremendous effect, but her intonation is somewhat approximate during the faster passages. Christopher Mayell has a graceful stage presence, but his delicate timber is often overshadowed by the heftier voice of Ms. Lawson. A space with a slightly livelier acoustics may have helped to blend the two voices better.

Hallelujah Junction by John Adams, the third in the program is what I found to be one of his most joyous compositions. The echoing effect created by the tightly phrased, repeating verses by the two pianos is carefully and energetically executed by Topher Morzewski and Daniel Pesca.

And then there is the Seven Deadly Sins by Kurt Weill, and what deadly fun it is. Written in the early 1930’s amidst all the political upheaval, this is a story about two sisters (or one woman with two personifications) doing a tour of 7 cities in the United States to make money in order to build a house back in Louisiana. Originally produced by Balanchine as a ballet with chanteuse, this gem of theatre is unfortunately not often produced as it is both awkward in its length (too short, you need to build a program around it), and the number of people involved (an orchestra, five singers, a ballerina, and a dance troop all for just some thirty minutes is not considered economical). AtG however, did the minimum with just the two pianos, without the dance troop, and the result is a charged and intimate production with a strong cast.

Lindsay Sutherland Boal (Ana I) cuts a commanding presence and is obviously very comfortable in the cabaret repertoire as she purrs and sneers across the stage. Her voice is well suited to Weill’s singspiel writing and she delivers all the punches in the best dramatic fashion. Her German however, is on the sloppy side, and for a singspiel, a better articulation of the language is necessary. Playing her counterpart, Tina Fushell delivers a wonderfully emotional portrayal of Ana II. Her movements are graceful and intelligent, and her deadpan deliveries of the dialogue are incredibly funny. The quartet of men (Giles Tomkins, Graham Thomson, Derek Kwan, and Andrew Love) is fantastic. They have great voices with good dictions, clad in the most ridiculous costumes, and interact beautifully with the two Anas. 

Gallery 345 unfortunately is not the best venue for an opera production unless there is a raised or a raked stage, so you might want to get there early to get the good seats in the front. And it is also interesting to be sitting among exhibitions of nudes by Andrew Sookrah to watch an opera about sins. Judging by this production, I cannot wait for the upcoming The Turn of the Screw by the AtG in May. It is a psychotic piece (which Britten really isn’t?) and I am sure AtG will come up with something trippy. 

The 7 Deadly Sins (and Holier Fare) continues to March 17
Read Joel Ivany's First-Person piece on the process

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