Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Busters of Myth

January 03, 2010

Michael Cerveris and Laura Benanti
Photo: Joan Marcus 2009

Saturday was a day of refuting myths. The first incident came in the latest excellent play from Sarah Ruhl, In The Next Room, or the vibratory play. Set in the 1880s, Ruhl’s comic romance concerns exactly what it pertains to. That's not to say this is light fare. There are plenty of serious issues brimming everywhere just beneath the surface. The exercise here is to exploit the changes in cultural attitudes about science, female sexuality, and family dynamics in the last century for laughs as well as some drama. What’s best about the humor in Ruhl's play is that the majority of the laughs don’t come from jokes or formal bits. Instead Ruhl presents a not unreasonable version of the treatment of hysteria in both men and women by a physician in post bellum America and lets the surprising discrepancies between what the audience would expect for the time and the reality of what history has documented drive things. This is a very specific era before Freud but after the Civil War and the rise of professional medicine in the United States. The play focuses primarily on a doctor’s wife and her relationships with two other women, a hysteric patient of her husband’s and a wet nurse she and her husband have hired to care for their newborn daughter.

Mama's talkin' loud. Mama's doin' fine

I don’t want to give away too much more about events in the play, but it is at turns funny and touching and always professionally done. Director Les Waters keeps a certain realistic clarity by not overdoing the few visual gags there are and keeping the focus on straight-forward interpersonal interactions. I should also mention the fantastic performances from Laura Benanti, Michael Cerveris, and Maria Dizzia. Benanti’s Mrs. Givings feels unassumingly authentic in most every way. She has loads of chemistry with everyone else on stage and avoids an overly sentimental take on a character that invites such an approach. Benanti makes it easy to forget that she’s a star with a number of significant credits to her name including a Tony for her role in the most recent revival of Gypsy. Though sadly, I apparently missed her appearance in yet another revival of that musical between the Tony win and now according the married couples behind me on Saturday who couldn’t stop raving about her turn as Gypsy Rose Lee opposite Patti LaBelle.

Anna Netrebko and Alan Held
Photo: Ken Howard/Met Opera 2009

Which brings me to my other myth correcting episode for today. I had a chance to revisit the Metropolitan Opera’s final performance this season of Les Contes d’Hoffmann. This time James Levine conducted and even though Joseph Calleja was out sick again, I felt a little more positive about the experience than I had previously. David Pomeroy was the cover again and despite the announcement he had a cold he sang well with plenty of fire and excitement. I got to sit in the front row just off center among a group of four over-70 couples who were long time friends, donors, and subscribers to the Met. We struck up a conversation over a variety of topics, but, of course, things came around to opera and the Met in particular. All of them seemed to enjoy the performance of Hoffmann and expressed their good feelings about the new Bartlett Sher production. The gentleman next to me was a bit concerned that the several barely clad women on stage in Act III might catch cold with little more than pasties and black panties on in the big theater. But surprisingly all our neighbors commented that they thought this season at the Met had been great so far. They even liked the reportedly controversial Luc Bondy Tosca that bloggers like to write so much about. And while this group may not have been a representative sample, it just goes to show that young people are not the only ones who are attracted to the idea of new and fresh stagings and productions. "It's different, but so what. You can't do the same thing forever," noted the octogenerian to my right who was celebrating his 59th wedding anniversary. Just because you’re elderly and/or have been going to the Met Opera forever does not necessarily mean that you hate everything that’s changing at the house. Which I think is very good news for everyone.

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Though the "over-70" classical music crowd tends to get a bad rap as boring and conservative in their tastes, I've often found the opposite to be the case. At the Thursday matinees at the San Francisco Symphony, for instance, the average patron seems to be a 75-year-old woman and when I chat them up, they often have incredibly sophisticated ears because they have heard so much over the decades, and they LIKE new stuff. They really don't need to hear another Beethoven Sixth. Glad you got to hang out with the cool old people at the Met.
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