Go Down, Moses

This article was originally published by INDYWEEK, 10/23/2013, and appeared in print with the headline “A night different from other nights.” I gave the production 5 out of 5 stars.

A powerful post-Civil War encounter in ArtsCenter Stage’s The Whipping Man

Through Sunday at The ArtsCenter

by 

Art necessarily takes on the issues of its own time, but it is in its processing of history that art often excels in feeding civilization. 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Carrboro ArtsCenter Stage has focused its season on that event and its long aftermath, beginning with a stunning production of The Whipping Man, a 2006 play by Matthew Lopez.

ArtsCenter Stage has always been the little theater that could, and this production proves once again that a tiny stage, nonexistent back-of-house and minimal staff cannot weaken the transformative power of drama. The Whipping Man is two hours long, and for many of those 120 minutes, you will be on the edge of your seat. The script’s intricate folds open slowly; but during the second act, the intermittent popping of secrets becomes a fusillade leading to cannon-fire of explosive knowledge, which exposes both characters and audience in the fiery wreckage.

Victor Rivera as Caleb and Phillip B. Smith as Simon in Matthew Lopez' THE WHIPPING MAN. Photo: Adam Dodds.

Victor Rivera as Caleb and Phillip B. Smith as Simon in Matthew Lopez’ THE WHIPPING MAN. Photo: Adam Dodds.

The story takes place over three days in April 1865, less than a week after Lee’s surrender at Appomattox. As the play begins, we see Caleb DeLeon (Victor Rivera, moving effectively from callow and commanding to chastened awareness), dragging himself, grievously wounded, into the remains of his father’s once-grand Richmond house (all the production design work is very strong). Caleb is a Jew and a Confederate soldier, and his parents have fled the city, which is now under Federal control. But two former slaves have remained in the house for their own reasons: Having been part of the household all their lives, they too are Jews. John is a young man, about Caleb’s age; Simon is of a solid middle age, and the man without whom the household cannot run.

It is a season of mud and blood, of despair and rejoicing. And it is Passover.

Incisively directed by Mark Filiaci, with a restraint that makes late revelations all the more forceful, the three actors obliterate this time in a modern town and replace it with desperate days in ruined Richmond. This is not a play where you are forced to always keep in mind that it is a play. It is not art about art. The actors do not speak directly to the audience. They speak to us through the power of the dramatic story, and with their fearless acting.

L to R: Alphonse Nicholson, Phillip B. Smith, Victor Rivera. All excel in THE WHIPPING MAN, but the show belongs to Smith. Photo: Adam Dodds.

L to R: Alphonse Nicholson, Phillip B. Smith, Victor Rivera. All excel in THE WHIPPING MAN, but the show belongs to Smith. Photo: Adam Dodds.

Led by Phillip B. Smith as Simon, they make us know some essential things about that past and the way it has shaped our present. Without spelling them out, playwright Lopez has Simon engage us with a range of moral quandaries—what is good, what is right, what is necessary, what can be forgiven, what cannot be allowed to pass without counteraction? Simon holds the most knowledge of the three men, though he doesn’t know everything he thinks he knows. He chivvies the feckless John (Alphonse Nicholson, again leaping ahead of himself in nuanced understanding), who’s frittering his freedom liberating whisky, fancy clothes and piles of books; he saves Caleb’s life; he feeds all three of them. And he insists on holding a Seder at Caleb’s bedside, even though Caleb lost his faith in the trenches of Petersburg.

That Seder scene, with its celebrations and revelations, is one of the most powerful scenes I’ve ever witnessed on stage. Do not miss it.

L to R: Alphonse Nicholson, Victor Rivera, Phillip B. Smith in Seder scene of THE WHIPPING MAN, at the ArtsCenter through Oct. 26. Photo: Adam Dodds.

L to R: Alphonse Nicholson, Victor Rivera, Phillip B. Smith in the Seder scene of THE WHIPPING MAN, at the ArtsCenter through Oct. 26. Photo: Adam Dodds.

The ArtsCenter will also present a free screening of the documentary film “Jewish Soldiers in Blue and Gray,” followed by a discussion led by scholars Robert Marcus and Leonard Rogoff, on Sunday, Oct. 26 at 4 pm. For more information or tickets call the box office at 919-929-2787.

The Tetzlaff Quartet: Crystal-Clear in Duke’s Baldwin Auditorium

Tetzlaff Quartet, 2010 Photo: © Alexandra Vosding, courtesy Duke Perfmormances.

Tetzlaff Quartet, 2010 Photo: © Alexandra Vosding, courtesy Duke Perfmormances.

It’s easy to decide to go a concert when you already know and love the music that will be played, but how much more rewarding it is to become smitten with music you doubted you’d even like. I went to hear the brilliant Tetzlaff Quartet (Christian Tetzlaff, violin; Elisabeth Kufferath, violin; Hanna Weinmeister, viola, and Tanja Tetzlaff, cello) play Beethoven; I came away with a newfound interest in the very different music of Alban Berg.

The Tetzlaff Quartet performance in Baldwin Auditorium October 19 was the second in this season’s Chamber Arts series of Duke Performances, but the first concert I’d been able to attend in the newly renovated hall. The pieces played by this virtuosic quartet of German and Austrian musicians (who come together several times a year to perform in some of the world’s finest concert halls) highlighted the acoustic qualities of the new Baldwin. The Berg work, in particular, would not have been the ravishing thing it was in Reynolds Theater.

Portrait of Alban Berg by Arnold Schoenberg, 1910; in the collection of the Vienna Museum. Credit: Art Media/Heritage-Images

Portrait of Alban Berg by Arnold Schoenberg, 1910; in the collection of the Vienna Museum.
Credit: Art Media/Heritage-Images

Alban Berg was a student of Arnold Schoenberg’s in Vienna early in the 20th century, along with Anton Webern. Together they formed a new Viennese school of music, a foray into the new analogous to the new visual art of the Vienna Secession. It turns out that Schoenberg had a foot in both camps, a piece of knowledge that came my way recently when I visited “Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna 1900,” at the National Gallery, London. The show included several portraits by Schoenberg, the earlier of which were quite dreadful. Not having any commissions, he wrangled sitters from his family and friends. Fortunately, by the time he painted this portrait of his 25-year-old student, he had acquired a modicum of technique.

Berg began to write his Lyric Suite, performed so touchingly by the Tetzlaff, in 1925. It seems that he fell in love with a woman not his wife in that year, and the Lyric Suite is a passionate coded declaration of love for this woman. It combines Schoenbergian theory with Mahlerian, even Wagnerian, romanticism with extraordinary eloquence, grasping the soul while titillating the intellect.

The work has six sections; the sounds in one feed the sounds in the next, until it circles back around. Many of these sounds are very delicate, as light as insect wings brushing a screen before vanishing like a breath, but as a whole the work is robust, sinuous, replete with human emotion. The quartet made a great wholeness out of the crystalline notes, communicating tenderness, passion and a brilliant self-awareness that eschewed sentimentality.

The concert opened with Haydn’s String Quartet in C Major, op. 20, no. 2, a very pretty thing with all the instruments “talking” to each other and motifs racing and chasing each other in the final movement. This quartet is considered the first real string quartet–in its time it was modern–and it made a clever prelude for the Berg Lyric Suite. Following intermission, the players went back a little in time to the timeless Beethoven (whose death mask I’d just seen in the London show, along with drawings made of his hands as he lay dying in 1827–the face was much diminished, but the hands were large and powerful).

The Tetzlaff played one of the late quartets, No. 15 in A Minor, op. 132, from 1825, giving the audience a chance to think back to last year’s concert in Reynolds by the Belcea Quartet, who played op. 130, including the Grosse Fugue, and op. 131, and to contrast the acoustics of the halls and the styles and tones of the two quite different musical quartets, as well as the music itself.

No. 15 in A Minor, op. 132 has five movements, and its opening includes a theme that appears in both the Grosse Fugue and op. 131, but as played by the Tetzlaff, it conveys very different emotions. The Tetzlaff mysteriously combines the robust and earthy with a limpid ethereality that evokes the eternal return. Their playing is so clean and clear that it runs over you like spring water as the feelings run through you: an untormented acceptance of fate, of death; the piquant clarity of vision accompanying reprieve and new strength; the tremendous emotion at the awareness of blood coursing in and out of your heart; the joy of the great dance of life, everlasting.

Gaspard & Dancers Give Powerful Concert at Duke; repeats October 19

DSC_0080Gaspard Louis, the Haitian-born dancer and choreographer who settled in Durham in 2009, presented his first Gaspard & Dancers annual concert that year. It was successful in a mild sort of way–enjoyable, but the work was a little too derivative of the Piloblean style in which he had been immersed from 1996-2001, and the dancing was uneven. Louis has continued to work the dream along with his day job as creative movement outreach director for the American Dance Festival: This year’s fourth annual concert shows Louis’ growth as a choreographer and demonstrates that he has been able to draw a skilled company of dancers around him, dancers capable of engaging and collaborating at his level of imagination and ability. Gaspard & Dancers will appear again tonight, Oct. 19, in the Reynolds Theater at Duke University.

Tonight’s concert-goers will not have the fun of seeing the company spell out a birthday message to Louis’ wife, Jodee Nimerichter (director of the ADF), in which, naturally, Gaspard himself formed the “I” in “I love you,” but nonetheless they should receive gifts of pleasure, beauty and passionate empathy.

Interlocking balance: Gaspard Louis with Kate Currin. Photo courtesy Gaspard Louis.

Interlocking balance: Gaspard Louis with Kate Currin. Photo: Robin Gallant, courtesy Gaspard Louis.

The evening opens with a premiere by Louis with the two other dancers, Kate Currin and Sebastian Alexis. Clever, physical and stylish, Rubix is an ever-shifting puzzle of parts fitted and refitted into numerous possible combinations, set to an interesting score by Paul Leary. It is the least dancey of the evening’s works, and involves much shape-making and weight-sharing in service of dramatic forms, which are intensified by Jakki Kalogridis’ excellent black and white costumes and John Kolba’s sharp lighting. Louis is adept at the deployment of lifts, inversions and corkscrewing movements that evolve into spins. In a particularly thrilling moment here, he spins, arms extended horizontally from his shoulders, moving ever faster as Kate Currin clasps his neck, her body flying outward with the centrifugal force.

The heart of the program is Louis’ Souke, which means “shake” in his native Haitian Creole language. Torn by the suffering and death in Haiti following the terrible 2010 earthquake there, he struggled to find a response in his art, even while organizing benefits and teaching crash courses in the language to those on their way to help on the ground. Not until 2012 when he was completing the work for his MFA degree in dance from the ADF/Hollins program, was he able to choreograph a coherent dance in which motion and stillness combine to convey the horror, hope and heavy sorrow. I had the good fortune to watch Louis rehearsing his ADF student dancers as he developed the work in July, 2012, but lesser upheavals in my own life prevented my seeing the finished work until last night.

The opening of Souke. Photo: Robin Gallant, courtesy Gaspard Louis.

The opening of Souke. Photo: Robin Gallant, courtesy Gaspard Louis.

From this opening moment, when one upright survivor turns to see the pile of bodies and begins to pull them up–all alive–the dance shakes and lashes you through the shocks and aftershocks, culminating in the sorrowful relinquishment of other bodies to the mound of the dead. To richly textured, emotional music with driving rhythms by Randall Love and Paul Leary, the dancers shake, waver, catch, spin, race, collapse and rise with crisp speed and an undaunted quality. The poignant emotion comes to a stabbing conclusion as the living hands let gently fall those of their dead.

ADF student dancers rehearsing Souke's final sequence, July 2012.

ADF student dancers rehearsing Souke’s final sequence, July 2012.

This is a mature choreography. It draws on Louis’ experience as a dancer, but it burst the bonds of habit with its heartfelt force; it is a beautiful example of art expressing feelings for which words are inadequate. I expect it will remain in his own repertory, and most likely be taken up by other companies. Perhaps needless to say, Louis received his Master of Fine Arts degree after presenting this work.

There follows a sexy dance so bursting with life-force that the cadmium 0range Lyrca costumes (by Melody Eggen) appear to have shredded from the energy. Andy Hasenpflug provided the magnetic music to which Louis and Kristin Taylor get elastic. Magical Cusp is from 2010, but its magic has not faded a bit–and it was  perfect to bring us back from Souke.

After intermission comes a special guest appearance by Gregory B. Hinton, performing (at age 63) the demanding 1947 Tally Beatty solo, Mourner’s Bench, which balances Souke with its deep emotion. Mourner’s Bench is tough to perform and tough, like any mourning, to watch. It’s music is the spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead,” but watching Hinton, one had to wonder if there is enough balm, even in Gilead, for all the suffering.

Fortunately, the evening closes with a lovely new work that is itself a balm. Louis, in collaboration with the nine dancers, has made something quite balletic in Annatations. The word combines the Italian “andare,” to go, with the Latinate “natation,” swimming, and makes a play on “annotations.” The music, written and played by Joshua Starner on solo cello with electronic assistance, is quite beautiful, evoking dream-states and the languid pleasure of underwater movement. Jakki Kalogridis’ delicate costumes reinforce the dreaminess, as do Steven Silverleaf’s four pale sculptures suspended above the stage–perhaps they are swimming angels. The sense of connectivity is very strong in the choreography and in the dancing. There’s an emanation of love, of relieved safety…perhaps an idea that the dead are not truly lost to us. Some of the dancing is very beautiful, including that by Alain Molina, who physically is the work’s pole star. Molina was a founding member of Carolina Ballet, but has not been seen there in quite some time. His grace and heart were instantly recognizable, and well-matched with the same qualities in Gaspard & Dancers.

Tickets through Duke Box Office, 919-684-4444.

Louis uses explosive jumps like exclamation points. Photo: Robin Gallant, courtesy Gaspard Louis.

Louis uses explosive jumps like exclamation points. Photo: Robin Gallant, courtesy Gaspard Louis.

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