Against The Grain (“AtG”) Theatre’s production The 7 Deadly Sins (and Holier Fare) resists easy categorization. As I ponder this question (what is this show?), and try to stifle the impulse to classify, I can’t help noticing that the question in the microcosm (“what is this show—what did I see tonight”) is a nice mirror of the macrocosm (“what is this company?—how does it relate to the rest of the city?”).
It’s a question one wouldn’t have encountered a generation or more ago. In the days when groups stayed within their disciplinary boundaries (dance companies doing dance, opera companies doing opera), you more or less knew what you’d get. Theatre was less likely to surprise or shock you because by and large you were never stopped from knowing where you were. And so long as companies had their funding and their audiences there was no reason to break that contract.
Those occasional adventures are becoming the norm:
- The Toronto Symphony projects pictures while playing Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition
- A concert of Liszt last month from the Neapolitan Connection included a tableau vivante based on a painting from the 19th Century.
- Tafelmusik have been creating concerts with elaborate concepts, such as their Galileo Project
- Canadian Stage adds dance (Kid Pivot last month) & music-theatre (Queen of Puddings Music Theatre) to their programming
In other words everyone’s breaking that conservative contract: the one where you think you know what to expect. In some cities that can be trouble, as for example in the boos Robert Lepage heard in New York for his Ring Cycle production; edgy productions from the Canadian Opera Company, however, have been winners at the box office. In this city at least, there’s an appetite for daring productions.
And I think that’s the context for 7DS by AtG. They’re not a conservative company taking a little walk on the wild side, before they go back to their usual programming. The part where they disorient you (making you figure it out) is part of the process and also part of their charm.
Perhaps the most daring thing about AtG is that they’re allowing their mandate & their style to take shape organically, led by their interests & skills. I don’t know much about their artistic director, Joel Ivany, except that his input & direction seems to be almost ideal.
Having seen AtG’s La Bohème –putting a modern version of a popular opera into a pub in English—I thought they’d try something similar. Boy was I wrong.
7DS showcases two of the great talents in Bohème, namely soprano Lindsay Sutherland Boal and pianist Christopher Mokrzewski, teaming up with Daniel Pesca. There are four items in a mixed evening of music-theatre:
- Piano Phase by Steve Reich
- Canticle II: Abraham and Isaac, Op. 51 by Benjamin Britten
- Hallelujah Junction by John Adams (followed by an intermission)
- The Seven Deadly Sins by Kurt Weill, libretto by Bertold Brecht
The Weill piece to close the evening is roughly half the program, and the only one of the four that seems to be staged with costumes and some props. Lindsay Sutherland Boal used many different approaches, sometimes dripping with irony, sometimes very soft, and showing a full palette of vocal colours. Boal as Anna-I had most of the lines, sung in German with subtitles, while Tina Fushell as Anna-II was a complete contrast with her calm dead-pan. The family, comprised of Graham Thomson, Derek Kwan, Andrew Love and especially Giles Tomkins, sang with great clarity and precision, a strange group who were very funny.
Kurt Weill is a composer who’s had an enormous influence on what we hear in music theatre (it’s impossible to imagine Kander & Ebb without Weill & Brecht). Coming from a time of harsh economic circumstances that we almost cannot conceive (wheelbarrows full of money to buy a loaf of bread?), there’s a grittiness to this music that is sometimes over-emphasized, to the exclusion of the romance and sweetness lurking in every phrase. Boal with Mokrezewski & Pesca had a subtlety perfectly attuned to the room, enough voice but often teasing us with delicate sounds. I think they’d adapt beautifully to a recording or (better) a DVD.
Piano Phase plays with our perceptions. The Reich composition features phrases played with great care, but slightly out of phase with one another. During this hypnotic piece, we watched Matjash Mrozewski and Kate Franklin dance close up against the back wall. The patterns with their bodies & the shadows on the wall often paralleled the phase effects in the music.
The Britten piece is a very powerful work invoking the Mystery plays of the Middle Ages. Erin Lawson & Christopher Mayell as Isaac and Abraham, respectively, enact a drama of great power.
Closing the first half of the concert was Hallelujah Junction by John Adams, a work requiring every bit as much precision as the Reich piece that began the evening. Whereas the other items had dancers or singers, this was the sole item presented in concert without any embellishments: the most dramatic part of the evening. Pesca & Mokrzewski are a duo who’ve served notice that they’re as good as any in the world.
The two Steinways were wonderfully in tune, and a good match for the intimacy of the Gallery 345 space, never overwhelming the singers (due to the restraint of Mokrezewski & Pesca), while filling the space with a very warm sound. I believe the arrangement of Seven Deadly Sins may be original, a version for two pianos that gave richness at the bottom, lovely tinkling colouration at the top, but without falling into the trap of being too loud, as might happen with a solo piano (and which i knew only too well when i tried playing through it). They always found the music.
And so, AtG’s 7DS is a curious mix, part concert, part cabaret, part dance, a mixture not easily reconciled with simplistic definitions. Unfortunately there’s one more performance on Saturday March 17th. There aren’t many tickets left. I hope they will revive this program so I can have another listen.