Friday, February 15, 2013

Moulin Rouge - Tres Chic, Tres Dramatique, Tres Romantique

Scene from Moulin Rouge, the ballet. Dancers: Olivia Kelly, JoAnne Schmidt and Casey Taylor. Photo credit Rich Sofranko
I can think of few better ways of spending Valentine’s Day than sitting through a performance of Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s "Moulin Rouge." A definite devotee of the film by the same name starring Nicole Kidman and Ewan McGregor, I put PBT’s production high on my list of must-do things just to be able to compare apples and oranges.
With little advance knowledge of the work created by choreographer, Jorden Morris, for the Winnepeg Ballet, I went in with an open mind and came away with a serene sense of satisfaction. The ballet exceeded my initial hopes for an entertaining evening, even if the plot line had done nothing with the film that so captivated me - other than focusing on two star-crossed lovers and the pivotal character, artist Toulouse-Lautrec.
The ballet opens nicely, with a heart-rendering version of Edith Piaf’s famous "La Vie en Rose," played colorfully by a strolling accordionist and violinist that set the mood for turn-of-20th-century Paris.
In the PBT production, the principle dancers change from performance to performance. On the evening of my visit, Christine Schwaner danced the role of Nathalie, a launderette, with Luca Sbrizzi portrayed her lover, Matthew, a struggling artist.
In the opening scene, the two meet and are immediately attracted to one another. The plot thickens with the entrance of Zidler, the owner of the Moulin Rouge, who has the power to lift would-be dancers up from obscurity by becoming members of his chorus line. Himself smitten immediately with Nathalie, Zidler whisks her off to his nightclub with promises of giving her a role, but not before she leaves Matthew a signal of her affection.
Lautrec arrives, takes an interest in the young artist and the two dance a dueling scene that is one of the evening’s highlights. Armed with paint brushes, the two artists dance a perfectly synchronized duet in which they mirror one another’s movements.
As the more famous artist, Joseph Parr gives a commanding performance as one of the key characters, buffering the inevitable conflict that ensues between Matthew and Zidler, played by the tall and powerfully built Robert Moore. Dispite Zidler’s physical and financial power, it’s Matthew who dances off with Nathalie at the end of Act One in a beautifully lyric duet set to the music of Debussy’s "Clair de Lune" on a bridge with a sparkling Eiffel Tower in the background.
Set designer, Andrew Beck, injects the mood of Paris onto the stage and reinforces the Moulin Rouge theme with the vanes of an ever-turning windmill dominating the center of the stage. For his choreography, Morris incorporates parts of 27 scores written by 14 composers into the work that includes a stylish tango and a riotous can-can, danced with high leg kicking intensity and a naughty show of knickers and thighs.
Sbrizzi’s choreographed reaction to Zidler’s eventual seduction of Nathalie is one of the evening’s highlights. He moves with such expression, you can palpably feel his pain and anguish. Despite his relatively small stature compared to Moore’s, the combat scene between the two dancers is remarkably balanced and well conceived.
As Nathalie, Schwaner’s performance is exquisitely executed as she desperately tried to keep her two admirers from injuring one another. Her heart lies with Matthew, but she’s bound by practical concerns to Zidler.
Elysa Hotchkiss as Nathalie’s fiery dance rival is intensely riveting, a vivacious visual counterpoint to the choreography’s thrilling lyrical high lifts that come largely in Act Two in which the male dancers sweep their female counterparts high into the air and hold them there with nary a wobble or a miss.
The end of the ballet is positively delicious for the wonderful duet performed so touchingly by Sbrizzi and Schwaner, who seems to save her best for last in a brilliant finale that breathtakingly moves the heart.
"Moulin Rouge" is a beautiful love story ballet, full of wonderous choreography, gorgeous music and superb dancing that combine to create the unique way of painting beauty through movement that only dance can provide.
Through February 17. Phone 412-456-6666.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Ibsen Manages to Beguile with Riveting Emotional Angst in "John Gabriel Borkman"


Scene from John Gabriel Borkman - left to right Fanny (Daina Michelle Griffith), Erhart (Luka Glinsky) and Gunhild (Bridget Connors)
It’s not every day that a Henrik Ibsen play opens in town, especially one of his less familiar works. That’s why a seat at the Quantum Theater’s production of "John Gabriel Borkman" became almost an obsessive necessity for a veteran theater buff like myself.
One of the great names of theater, Ibsen is purportedly the second most frequently performed playwright worldwide after Shakespeare. His works share the same austere and bleak Scandinavia Weltanschauung of other men of letters such as August Strindberg and the film director Ingmar Bergman. Long Northern winters obviously have their effect on the artistic temperament and this certainly is true of Ibsen’s "Borkman."
The setting is a large manor house in a Norwegian town in the grip of winter. The first floor of the house is the domain of Gunhild Borkman, a regal woman who dresses in billowy satin gowns and has a wonderful way with words, often bitter and sarcastic, but always colored by unrelenting anxiety, the cause of which is her husband’s felonious misdeeds perpetrated in his capacity as a bank manager.
Up stairs her husband paces the floor, back and forth ,with metronomic regularity, rehashing his past and planning a resurrection to days of his former glory, wealth, respectability and power. Clomp, clomp he goes, to and fro, for eight years, while his wife tortures herself below by fixating on the family’s fall from grace.
Ibsen craftily lets the story unfold piece by piece like some Brobdinangian machine full of gears, levers and wheels telling the story of two twin sisters enamored with the same man, only later, years later, to fight for control over his son. There’s revelations of a prior love quartet followed by a quadrangular interest in young Erhart, Borkman’s son, eager to leave his dismal home for the more pleasant company of a neighboring woman, vampishly skilled in matters of the heart and seven years his elder.
Director Martin Giles has assembled a stellar cast and manages to give each one a finely delineated personality. Bridget Connors gets my vote for best of show with her commanding presence, her nuanced anguish and her stately, though tormented, ways. As her twin sister, Ella, Robin Walsh is softly manipulative, a bit more subtle, but no less quick of mind and verbally resourceful.
Daina Michelle Griffith adds a bright and animated personality to the mix as the astutely formidable seductress who all so easily captives the gullible Erhart (Luka Glinsky),.
As the title character, Malcolm Tulip seems to not let 16 years of disgrace, including five spent in a penitentiary, diminish his self-esteem, his bravado and alpha male disposition. Tulip adds a touch of madness to the character to go along with a great deal of self-denial, a madness that increases in intensity when he finally leaves his self-imposed prison of his own house for an escape to freedom in the blustery outdoors.
For me, the thrill of the play is experiencing the way Ibsen slowly outlines the drama like some great visual artist sketching an image that becomes distinct only near the end. He uses the back story to explain present circumstances, and witty, often humorous, dialogue, to explain the history and motivations of the various relationships and how they’ve developed over time.
On a par with the acting, the technical crew is equally exemplary, starting with Ryan McMasters’ mood reinforcing sound designs, Christine Casaus’ eye-catching costumes and Toni Ferrieri’s sprawling set that ingeniously transforms into a wintery landscape near the play’s climax with the simple unfolding of yards and yards of beige cloth.
Despite the cold setting, there’s more than enough sparkle emanating from the cast to kindle a glowing encounter with one of theater’s most highly regarded dramatists.
"John Gabriel Borkman" a production of the Quantum Theater, is at the Hart Building, East Liberty through February 24. Phone 888-71-TICKETS.