Saturday, September 5, 2009

Philadelphia Live Arts: Day 1

You have to worry when the first two of nine shows you're going to see in a festival are both spectacular: disappointment surely awaits you somewhere down line. I'm happy to say, though, that both The Gonzales Cantata and Welcome to Yuba City are extraordinary—and extraordinarily different—productions. I can't imagine a better way to begin our weekend.

Melissa Dunphy's The Gonzales Cantata is an amazing and amusing mash-up of classical music and C-SPAN delivered with an absolutely perfect deadpan: if someone didn't understand the joke coming in, there's a good chance they'd be mystified by these musicians' impeccable performances. The joke, of course, is that all of the libretto here has been taken from former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' testimony before Congress about the firings of U.S. Attorneys in 2007. In the reality of the hearings, all of the participants were male except Diane Feinstein (D, CA); Dunphy has reversed the genders and given all the plumb male roles to sopranos—the standouts being Jessica Lennick as Patrick Leahy (D, VT) and a brilliant performance, vocally and as an actor, by Mary Thorne as the beleaguered and befuddled Gonzales. Musically, Dunphy has taken the work quite seriously which is what really makes it hilarious: it's beautiful, soaring music in which Gonzales sings, "I don't recall" 72 times in one two-minute aria (as he actually did in a single session before the Senate committee). It's only natural to compare this piece to Handel—without question the master of the oratorio—but Dunphy's music is not parody: it references the baroque but seems to me to be as strongly connected to contemporary classical music. The work is scored for string octet, harpsichord and a chorus, all of whom perform spectacularly, and it sounds amazing in The Rotunda (although I was grateful for the projected libretto so that I could follow along with the bouncing ball, as it were). There are only two more performances and there are still seats available: if you're a music lover with a wicked sense of humor (or if you just have a wicked sense of humor) and you're in Philadelphia this weekend, you must go see this piece.

Pig Iron Theater's Welcome to Yuba City, by contrast, makes no pretext of being high art: the dozens of bizarre characters who inhabit a roadside cafe in this quintessential western town appear in a series of vignettes that are closer to the classic Merrie Melodies cartoons than even to What's Opera, Doc? That's not to say that it isn't absolutely artful: the grace, skill and precision of this wildly physical production is truly remarkable. But what this group of very talented artists have created is a Whitman's Sampler of performances: perfect, bite-sized little confections to briefly savor before moving on to another. The cavernous space in which they've installed this piece is as perfect a matching of production to environment as I can imagine: you can't really capture the mythos of the contemporary west without distance, openness, space; the Festival Hub space is incredibly vast and director Quinn Bauriedel and choreographer Christina Zani have both used it to its full advantage. In fact, it's the enormity of the space that makes the athletic performances of the cast even more astonishing: the workout they're all getting just from running around backstage, rushing from one side of the building to another, making one of their many costume changes on top of what we're actually seeing them do onstage is staggering. And they're all hilariously funny. There's a little more time to see this one—it runs through the end of the festival—but I promise you it's going to sell out; buy your tickets now because you've really got to see it to believe it.

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