NEW YORKThe entertainment buzz factor to the New York City borough of Brooklyn has increased exponentially with the 2012 opening of the sleek and stylish Barclays Center. It's home to the re-christened NBA team the Brooklyn Nets, and the indoor arena has already hosted high-profile concerts by the likes of Jay-Z, Coldplay and Barbra Streisand.
But the Barclays Center is just the new kid on the block compared to the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM), which has been enriching the cultural life of the city for more than 150 years. This august institution is world famous for continuously presenting or hosting adventurous companies and artists who expand boundaries in theater, dance, film, music and opera.
Recently I was able to catch two amazing and culturally resonant productions at BAM. New York City Opera is offering the first fully staged New York performances of the 1995 chamber opera Powder Her Face by gay British composer Thomas Ades, while the Tectonic Theater Project is presenting the first complete New York staging of The Laramie Project Cycle, a two-play work developed over a decade focusing on the cultural and community impact of the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard. Though neither were world premieres, the fact that both productions were taking place in America's cultural capital for live theater and opera is likely to have a ripple effect in prodding other U.S. arts organizations to take up the fascinating and powerful works.
Powder Her Face: flashy and fleshy
Ades and librettist Philip Hensher's opera Powder Her Face was controversial from its start at the Almeida Opera in the U.K., so the fact that New York City Opera announced that it was casting 88 naked men to appear onstage in its new production at BAM only added to its notoriety (the actual number of naked men was later reduced to 25).
Powder Her Face focuses the real-life figure of the Duchess of Argyll, Margaret Whigham, who was dubbed by the British tabloids as "The Dirty Duchess." Whigham was harshly judged for her sexual voraciousness, which became public knowledge during her messy divorce trial in the 1950s (The Duchess' husband accused her of adultery with 88 men, and a Polaroid photo of the Duchess performing fellatio on an unidentified man was entered into evidence).
Part of the reason most American opera companies have avoided Powder Her Face probably has to do with the fact that it features an onstage "fellatio aria" for its heroine as she seduces a room service waiter (it's actually more of a hummed aria than a sung one). But in our day and age where rich socialites like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian become fashionable celebrities thanks in large part to Internet sex videos, Powder Her Face couldn't be timelier and culturally aware.
Powder Her Face director Jay Scheib unflinchingly taps into the reality TV zeitgeist for his sharp-elbowed and very mischievous production. Scheib's stylized production made Powder Her Face feel much bigger than its official status as a chamber-sized work with a singing cast of four and an orchestra of 15.
Though set officially in the 1950s, Scheib's Powder Her Face holds up an ugly stylized mirror to our modern-day trashy diet of endlessly documenting rich celebrities and their staff behaving badly. Scheib achieves this brilliantly in collaboration with projection designer Joshua Higgason and camera operator Chelsey Blackmon, who follow the cast around onstage while their substance abuse and sexual exploits are enlarged and simulcast in real time on a variety of walls and screens.
Scheib's Powder Her Face is not only current, but it's stylishly emboldened thanks to the glamorous period costumes of Alba Clemente and the sleek hotel and mansion rooms done up in periwinkle blues with hot pink accents by set designer Marsha Ginsberg.
Scheib is also blessed with a compelling and convincing cast that goes all out vocally, dramatically and physically (often in multiple states of undress).
Mezzo-soprano Allison Cook brought a haughty grandeur to The Duchess, unapologetically embodying her rich character's sense of entitlement and anger at the sexual hypocrisy hurled at her by men and the lower classes. Thanks to Scheib's decision to surround The Duchess with the physical embodiment of past sexual conquests (those 25 lounging naked guys), Cook's delivery of that notorious fellatio aria didn't feel as uncomfortable as it could have.
The other three singers were also spot-on in their characterizations. Soprano Nili Riemer was very bouncy and touching as the various misbehaving Maids to The Duchess, particularly in her aria of resentment of being surrounded by such wealth and shallow moneyed people. Tenor William Ferguson was also great in his multiple servant roles, particularly as the lounge singer who performs a "standard-like" 1930s pop song inspired by The Duchess. And bringing a great sense of gravity to the opera was the gorgeous bass of Matt Boehler, who passed judgment on The Duchess in the guises of her cheating husband, the condemning judge and the grim-reaper-like Hotel Manager who evicts her at the end.
Guiding the singers through Ades' brilliantly eclectic and difficult score that is a mélange of jazz, tango and spiky underscoring was conductor Jonathan Stockhammer. In addition to his versatile quartet of singers, Scheib brings more comic and symbolic interplay into the opera by adding the solid physical work of silent actors Kaneza Schaal as The Nurse and Jon Morris as The Waiter.
Though financially troubled in recent years, New York City Opera and its artistic staff should feel nothing but pride for the artistic triumph that is its new and vital production of Powder Her Face. Now if only this production could be captured on DVD or taken up by other opera companies. Then the powerful work would live on and on.
New York City Opera's Powder Her Face continues at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Howard Gilman Opera House, 30 Lafayette Ave., New York. Remaining performances are at 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Saturday, Feb. 21 and 23. Tickets are $25-$250. Call 718-636-4100 or visit www.bam.org for more information.
The full Laramie Project
By now the pairing of the 2000 play The Laramie Project and the 2009 follow-up The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later might be seen by some as old hat. The first play has become one of the most-produced plays of this century, and in Chicago the second play was part of a world-wide reading series at the Goodman Theatre in 2009 and it later was taken up by the intimate Redtwist Theatre (which also offered readings of the first play).
Most importantly, all the tireless work of activist mother Judy Shepard and the Matthew Shepard Foundation came to fruition with the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act. Congress passed it in 2009 and it was signed into law by President Barack Obama.
However, the memory of Matthew Shepard and how it galvanized the LGBT community and its allies to confront anti-gay bias and hate crimes should never be forgotten. Moises Kaufman and members of The Tectonic Theater Project meticulously documented and crafted these influential plays now known as The Laramie Project Cycle. They are a testament to the power of theater to foster vital dialogue and to change hearts and minds for the better.
The Tectonic Theater Project has been touring The Laramie Project Cycle plays in repertory since 2010. But the arrival of The Laramie Project Cycle at BAM's Harvey Theater should prompt other ambitious theater companies to take up both plays in the future, particularly this year as the 15th anniversary of Matthew Shepard's murder will be marked in October. Also, watching both plays back-to-back gives them an epic quality befitting the subject matter and showing how people in a town variously cope or try to ignore being notorious for a violent murder.
The great thing about seeing this particular The Laramie Project Cycle in New York now is that it features so many of the original Tectonic Theater Project company members who actually conducted the original interviews and who created the shows in performance. After all these years, the performances have only deepened and matured.
I'm not sure if the BAM performances of The Laramie Project Cycle represent the end of the current Tectonic tour, but it's clear that the plays and the memory of Matthew Shepard will live on as long as theater companies continue to produce these tremendously powerful and thoughtful works.
The Laramie Project Cycle by The Tectonic Theater Project continues at the Brooklyn Academy of Music's Harvey Lichtenstein Theater, 651 Fulton St., New York. Remaining performances for Part 1: The Laramie Project are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 21, and 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 23 and 24. Remaining performances for Part 2: The Laramie Project Ten Years Later are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 20, and Friday through Sunday, Feb. 23-24. Tickets are $20-$80 for individual plays and $40-$200 for the same-day two show marathon performances. Call 718-636-4100 or visit www.bam.org for more information.