Sunday, February 10, 2008

Marat/Sade at Knightsbridge Theatre

The first Sexual Revolution

It was the best of times, it was...

Review by Joseph Mailander

Walking in: how can you not like a production where the members of the audience, rather than the players, are caged? The first set direction lends an extra S&M layer to Marat/Sade at the Knightsbridge Theatre (weekends including Friday through Feb. 17), and that should be enough to get you going; even before the patients assemble onstage for their first snarling ensemble, the audience has been rhymed and primed for a refreshingly educated cocktail of history, philosophy, and plain ol' dirty fun.

Marat/Sade is a play within a play, and a Brecht-Weil-ian musical within all that; set in 1808 but really in 1793, it's the euro 1776, complete with unabashed euro-nakedness. The company does not so much come to life as climax for over two straight hours; and this may be one of those rare productions, in fact, where all the bit players all match and even outshine the principles.

David Stifel as the chronically psoriatic (and worse---history diagnoses his skin condition in retrospect as scrofula, really nasty stuff) Marat is a soldier; he's humourless enough as Marat, and very nearly as soullessly sanctimonious too. The historical man who as a humanitarian doctor was made a revolutionary martyr both by propaganda and paintings is more than troublesome figure, and Stifel is fully in tune with the vast historical shortcomings, ranting when simple declarations would be enough, reflecting perplexity at the fact that there is any Jacobin opposition at all.

Dealt the winning hand, Bart McCarthy as the Marquis de Sade fairly waltzes with confidence and amiable certitude, even when being whipped; you'd expect no less from the man for whom even sadism is mere eponymy. McCarthy's nonchalance through the Reign of Terror's asylum sideshow is engagingly insufferable; he could be Seinfeld's J. Peterman, walking through the ashes of 9/11 with a winning grin.

But it's all the players who really shine and contort and expose and sing and slam and spank their way through the magnificently orgiastic choreography of Christina Howard. The women in loosely cut asylum robes and the men in---damn, I forgot to look at the men---form a phalanx of flesh worthy of any carnival, political or quasi-religious or otherwise. Standing in stark contrast to them is Marat's assassin, Courtney Loggins, as Charlotte Corday, the perplexed political virgin who must decide whether to submit to one of the two tensions of the time, revolution or copulation; one suspects that the world just might be better off with the choice she makes, even if her character is not.

Everyone's notable---everyone---but put a follow spot on the two heralds, Kevin Meoak and Maria Olsen, who service the play as a yin-yang jestering chorus in fleur-de-lys jackets and who slap out their couplets with a kind of supercharged dangerous malice that might even put some west coast rappers to shame. But that's the way director Jamil Chokachi has handled everyone: like ticking time bombs that can detonate at any time.

Marat/Sade has a touch one of LA's most beloved historical romps, Tamara, in it too, at least this production does: you engage some of the characters as you walk in. The music and singing are similarly resourceful and even sumptuous. As is the production itself: there are no less than 25 people on stage through most of the performance.

is at Knightsbridge Theatre through next weekend, today, Friday Feb 15, Saturday Feb 16, and Sunday Feb 17. Click here for tickets or call 323.667.0955.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Mahler's Sixth at WDCH

Eschenbach, Phil on the March

Maestro on a mission - Christoph Eschenbach

Review by Joseph Mailander

The Sixth Symphony of Mahler is a meandering march to nihilism; it's the most percussive of Mahler's nine-plus-one, the most straightforward, and the most suddenly hopeless. The Philadelphia Orchestra's Christoph Eschenbach--who with his bald head and trademark collarless jacket suggests Patrick Stewart on an interplanetary mission---is typically a favored visiting conductor for this orchestra. And he brought home a beautiful rendition of the Sixth Friday night, excepting the very bookends of it.

The performance got off to a sluggish start; the exposition repeat, sometimes omitted, was a blessing here, because it was better than the opening. One of those chronic Disney Hall door-slammings interrupted the first movement towards its end, and Eschenbach really threw himself at the orchestra immediately subsequently, as though urging them to compensate. The first performance at the WDCH is always the trickiest for all under any circumstances, but especially for the conductor, who must steel herself against the fact of sudden explosion-level sounds from the audience; sounds that are muffled elsewhere but amplified here.

For those who keep score at home, this was a very, very slow Sixth. By the end of the first movement, everything was in beyond-blissful order, even if it was, at 25:07, a minute longer than most known recorded versions. By the time of the third, the andante moderato was well beyond moderato, crawling along for nearly twenty full minutes. A half hour later (!) when the Symphony was done, with oboes letting the conductor down after an otherwise stunning hour of music, it was well beyond its usual 75 minute moorings, crawling up to a very full 87.

The marketing people had touted the use of a giant mallet and specially constructed sound box in the finale. A hammer is not as sculpturally unusual as the Hall itself, of course, and the fort-like box on stage barely registered; it did its job without adding either undue excitement or undue grief.

To my ear percussion and the upper woodwinds do best of all in the WDCH's peculiar sound, which seems to vary not just from section to section but from seat to seat, and this is a Symphony where both are invited to shine. They did, the Friday performance, Eschenbach appeared to be asking more from everyone, but especially the violins, and perpetually through the performance. At the end of the concert, he gave a hug to concertmaster Martin Chalifour that seemed to say "Thank God we made it" more than "congratulations." There were few other singlings out, and one suspected that Maestro Eschenbach did not like everything that happened, though the audience did, and I did too, mostly.

Eschenbach repeats performances with the LA Phil at the WDCH Saturday 2/9 at 8 p.m. and Sunday 2/10 at 2 p.m. For ticket information, click this page or call 323.850.2000.