It’s the most curious symmetry.
Soup Can Theatre have paired Samuel Barber’s brief opera A Hand Of Bridge with Jean Paul Sartre’s play No Exit. The opera is ten minutes, while the play is roughly one hundred minutes.
But whereas the play employs four people, the opera not only has four singers, but an orchestra of fourteen, plus conductor Pratik Gandhi.
Although both stories address existential angst in different ways –Barber (and his librettist Gian Carlo Menotti) in the banalities of couples playing cards, Sartre in a more detailed examination of a hypothetical hell—there is a lovely balance. With the jazzy Barber and the card-playing foursome we have a strong presence, to counter-balance the chief characteristic of Sartre’s afterlife, namely absence. In the ten minutes of the opera we’re given a face-full of life, a vivid splash still echoing in our ears when the Sartre begins. The boisterous young orchestra pack up and leave; and in so doing we experience a genuine sense of the void. And at the same time, having heard real acoustic music, genuine voices singing, the ear is whetted for almost anything. The silence of the space aches with their departure.
In other words, bravo, for the brilliant pairing. Barber’s lark of an opera will never seem so deep as in this kind of pairing, and it serves as a wonderful appetizer for what’s to come.
Director Sarah Thorpe frequently takes No Exit in a comical direction, riding the hyper-kinetic energies of Daniel Pagett’s Garcin. He keeps the pace going, delivering his lines at a wonderful clip, and thereby alleviating some of the darkness that sometimes overwhelms this play. Sometimes at least, his glass is half full, and that means finding the wit and making it your own with a sense of authority.
Tennille Read’s Inez was Garcin’s nemesis, a dark and deliberate reading, with a physical solidity counter-balancing Pagett’s quicksilver body-language. Carolyn Hall’s Estelle is perhaps the strongest catalyst, sexually provoking both Inez & Garcin. Hall is wonderfully vulnerable, a portrayal that was like a match igniting each of the others onstage. And Ryan Anning’s Valet floats through, a strong suggestion of something other-worldly.
The short Barber opera makes a powerful impression.
Alvaro Vazquez Robles had lyrical moments as Bill, dreaming of another woman named Cymbaline. Keith O’Brien as David is the archetypal unhappy businessman, whose life is all about money. Taylor Strande as Geraldine has the nicest music, singing sadly about her mother. Shilpa Sharma has perhaps the biggest challenge as Sally –chirping repeatedly about the hat she wants to buy—while singing a few feet away from the audience. Our eyes met on one occasion, as I wondered how she could help bursting out laughing.
Both pieces are played in the middle of the performance space. The spare set is on a square pedestal just above the audience, who surround the players. As my eyes went from one to another of the singers or actors, I’d regularly encounter the faces of the auditors on the other side.
Perhaps the cast are fully exposed, surrounded as they are by the viewers, although –as the Thorpe jokes in her program note—we’re trapped in a room together.
If this is hell, I like it.
Soup Can Theatre’s double bill of A Hand of Bridge and No Exit continues at Ernest Balmer Studio, in the Distillery District. Further information