Arts & Events

Reviews: Around and About...

By Ken Bullock
Tuesday June 29, 2010 - 11:32:00 AM

Aurora Theatre, Contra Costa Theater, Berkeley Symphony 

Aurora Theatre's production of 'Speech and Debate,' by Stephen Karam, provides the platform for some energized—and amusing—performances by three young actors: Jason Frank, Maro Guevara and—especially—Jayne Deely. As a gaggle of self-conscious high school misfits, trying to crack into an adult world—or its media simulation—they become an uncomfortable posse, with the intention to blow the cover on any number of adults who aren't walking the walk—or each other—while showing off their talents, culminating in a series of funny production numbers for a presentation-cum-revue for their Speech and Debate club at school. 

Robin Stanton directs. And Holly Hornlien, memorable in TheatreFIRST's LOVEPLAY a few years back, has a good turn as the only adult—rather, two: a bemused teacher at the start, and a canny, self-promoting journalist at the end of the play. 

The song-and-dance parodies are the snapper. And where the limitations of a comedy that promises satire becomes apparent.Pioneer stand-up political comedian Mort sahl—apparently now a Bay Area resident—made a fine distinction during the last national election between parody and satire. And too many of the plays we see nowadays at the repertory theaters (increasingly an ironic designation) are from the mill of parodies, which supply the sketch and sitcom TV markets. A never-ending Moebius Strip,, I guess. 

Through July 18. 



Contra Costa Civic Theater serves up some relaxed summer entertainment for the whole family with its production of BARNUM—P. T., of "There's a sucker born every minute"—at their theater on Pomona at Moeser Lane, El Cerrito, through July. A genial show which features an enthusiastic ensemble as circus folk, the story's that of the romance between dreamer—and bunko artist—Barnum (Derrick Silva) and his more practical wife. The highlight's in the second half, with a wonderful production number, "Black and White," in which Alexis Wong—featured in Ten Red Hen's CLOWN BIBLE awhile back—doffs her red nose, and struts the stage in a sultry gown as a torch singer, belting out the number, a cautionary song to show people-turned-civilian, while Mrs. Barnum leads a church choir in mock-dignified counterpoint, as Barnum himself tumbles through a gauntlet of factory work, on his way to a political career, before a return to his first love of huckstering. David Bogdonoff directed, with some great clowning by the ensemble, guided by Dan Griffiths and the San Francisco Circus Center. 



Joana Carneiro, music director of the Berkeley Symphony, was awarded the Helen M.Thompson award by the League of American Orchestras on June 18th, at the 65th annual convention of the League, in Atlanta. 

When conductor laureate Kent Nagano presented the recent program of the Berkeley Akademie, May 20 at the First Congregational Church—he prefaced the show with a long, reflective string of remarks about the contemporary state of Classical Music, introducing guest artist Jorg Widmann as the young heir of the Neo-Classical and Romantic tradition, as teacher, instrumentalist and composer. 

Widmann made his own, very upbeat, remarks—and demonstrated his viruosity as a clarinetist in the two pieces bracketing his composition, Beethoven's Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Strings, Opus 16, and Mozart's last greatcomposition, the Clarinet Concerto in A, K. 622. His own piece, Versuch uber die Fuge—"an attempt at a fugue"—proved an intense string quartet, with soprano Christine Brandes valiantly singing the text from the Vulgate of Ecclesiastes: Vanity, vanity, all is vanity. Widmann's score, 

taut, exquisite—and humorous in its use of unusual sound-producing techniques (the string players swishing their bows and hissing, for one)—proved a remarekable setting in every sense for its subject, Vanitas. 

A standing ovation ensued. But there was some controversy at intermission and after the concert. Not everyone had an ear for Widmann's dissonance—or agreed with Nagano that his composition, at least, was in the tradition of the other composers on the program. 

But Widmann—who mentioned the unusual dissonances in both Beethoven and Mozart, commenting: "They're the true experimentalists!"—didn't so much break with tradition as push the envelope a little bit further. 

The theory of modern art begins just before and at the time of Mozart, when Denis Diderot and (separately) G. H. Lessing postulate the tableau—or "the pregnant moment," as Lessing put it—for all representational and spectacular arts. Mozart and Da Ponte discovered an equivalent to this in the musical theater shortly after in their operas—and in The Magic Flute. 

Roland Barthes wrote, in the 70s, how the limit of the tableau, based on an idealization of the proportions of the human body, finds its limit only in mortality. And Widmann—impishly in his Con brio, earlier this year at Berkeley Symphony, more elegiacly in Versuch—accentuates the old masters' frameworks to an extreme, producing exquisite pleasure for some—and for others, pain ... 

But there's a definition of modern poetry as the sound of inherent contradiction in language liberated, like fingernails on a window pane when first heard. And there was more than a little bit of poetry to Widmann's setting of the spare sternness and cutting irony of Ecclesiastes.