A Singer's Notes by Keith Kibler

A Singer’s Notes 115: Red Velvet and Claire de Lune on the Radio

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John Douglas Thompson as Ira Aldridge and Christianna Nelson as Halina Wozniak in Red Velvet. Photo Enrico Spada.
John Douglas Thompson as Ira Aldridge and Christianna Nelson as Halina Wozniak in Red Velvet. Photo Enrico Spada.

Red Velvet

Another first-rate show from The Comedy of Errors actors at Shakespeare and Company.  With effortless mutability the bunch took up a drama of great seriousness by Lolita Chakrabarti.  John Douglas Thompson, great actor that he is, joined and performed the role of Ira Aldridge to perfection.  Wonderful about this production was the way theater itself became the story, and the story became theater.  It was like Hamlet in this way.  What it reminded me of was seeing the old Magda Olivero sing Tosca with Sarah Caldwell’s company in Boston years ago.  Her arms were constantly in motion;  somehow she could strike a pose that would seem to move and alter.  At first it looked ridiculous; there was laughter in the house.  Pretty soon it got you; there was crying in the house.  The gestures Ms. Olivero made were nearly identical to those I had seen in a Baroque opera performance the day before.  We’re talking about a span of two hundred years.  Same with Red Velvet.  How artificial is gesture anyway?  Does it come from the heart or from the brain?  How much of it is body, and how much of it is lyrical?  What does it mean to be real on stage?  Red Velvet made us think about these things.  We had simultaneously the sad, very sad story, of a great actor kept down, and the very happy story of a new age of playing.  It wasn’t all the way to Stella Adler, but it was nascent.  A wonderful performance was given by Kelley Curran as Ellen Tree (Desdemona in the Othello scenes).  She did the English thing so beautifully, not over-doing the accent, just the right amount of distance.  Her scenes with Mr. Thompson moved me greatly.  Perhaps the best scene in the play was that between Joe Tapper and Mr. Thompson, just when Mr. Tapper, as Pierre Laporte, the theatre manager, told him his second performance was his last.  This was passionate discussion not only of what race is, but of what it isn’t –what transcended it, what healed it, and in Mr. Aldridge’s case, how it wounded.   This scene was electric.  Just a wonderful show all around.


<p>Angel Desai and Darren Pettie in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, 2015. Photo Michelle McGrady.</p>
Angel Desai and Darren Pettie in Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, 2015. Photo Michelle McGrady.

Claire de Lune on the Radio

Happiness is usually a rhythmic thing.  Sadness is lyrical.  Sadness seems slower, happiness seems quicker.  There is something in between.  This is the place where so much of Terrence McNally’s dramaturgy lies.  This most musical of playwrights depends on music for  many things—salvation for his characters perhaps, making  tragedy lighter.  Still, always there, is an elusive sadness lyricism.  Frankie & Johnny in the Claire de Lune at the Berkshire Theatre Group’s Fitzpatrick Main Stage is rather on the lighter side of all this.  Music still saves.  Let’s think for a moment about the other side, what I guess I would call a music of desperate necessity, that in McNally’s Masterclass, presided over by none other than Maria Callas.  Callas has a partner, a young student, but the diva’s fundamental and constant companion is music itself.  The isolation of her character is the play.  In Frankie & Johnny music takes what we might call a supporting role.  It guides gently, it begins gently, without warning and stays in the background.  It is something the two protagonists are discovering, not something they have spent their life doing.  They are working people.  Their lightness of being is skillfully captured in the Theatre Group’s production, directed by Karen Allen.  Angel Desai as Frankie, the lost soul in the drama, is rescued by Darren Pettie as Johnny.  He is, for me nearly a religious figure.  In partnership with beautiful music by Bach and later Debussy (and how different these two musics were), he rescues a lost soul in the person of Frankie, not easily but lyrically.  Music was his partner.  He was the active, persistent pages of the score, while music on a tinny little radio subtly became audible in a kind of partnership to save his lover.  The insinuating, almost inaudible way McNally uses music, either as a verbal reference or a sound gently coming in, moves me.  These were not pretentious characters– their speech and their energy humble in the face of beauty.  One of my favorite parts of the show was a brief discussion of Shakespeare which had no real content.  It was the idea of Shakespeare that sang.  A tinge of sadness remained, a ghostly melody. This was a moving, singing performance.

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