Sing, Play, Dance: A Few Previews as Merry May Skips In

She'll grab you by the heartstrings. Iris Dement, appearing at the ArtsCenter May 2.

She’ll grab you by the heartstrings and sing you back home. Iris Dement, appearing at the ArtsCenter May 2.

One of my all-time favorite songbirds will be singing tonight from the small stage at the Carrboro ArtsCenter: the wonderful Iris DeMent.  What a songwriter! What a storyteller! What a compelling voice! When DeMent’s first album, Infamous Angel, appeared in 1992, I could hardly play anything else for months. She makes me feel home. Not necessarily comfortable or happy (“Easy’s Gettin’ Harder Ev’ry Day”), but home. Other great records of wise poetry and fine playing joined it–but until last fall, it had been sixteen years since a new Iris album came out. It’s called Sing the Delta. Hallelujah, y’all. When she came to the Cat’s Cradle years ago, I saw practically everyone I knew there, pressing close to the stage. It will be nearly as intimate in the ArtsCenter, with the advantage of actual seats. Show’s at 8. See you there.

Roger McGuinn, guitar man.

Roger McGuinn, guitar man.

Thursday is just the beginning. The ArtsCenter, now led by the highly music-knowledgeable Art Menius, has announced a really incredible roster of concerts–many kinds of American music–for the forthcoming year. Friday, May 3 brings another legend–Roger McGuinn. This is the man whose sparkling 12-string and musical verve lit up the 1960s and beyond. He was one of the founders of the Byrds.  Need I say more? Maybe just three words: “Mr. Tambourine Man.” McGuinn has not slowed down, but he has turned back towards his folk roots. If you were, perhaps, born too late to know him from the first wave, check out his recordings of numerous songs here  (listen for free). Should be a great concert.

But wait, there’s more–it’s a one-two-three punch. Not the Byrds, but The Stray Birds, a charming singer-songwriter trio from southern Pennsylvania, will play the ArtsCenter on Saturday, May 4. The musicians of this young band were steeped in music from infancy–Appalachian mountain music, classical, and (for them) classic Americana. Lead singer (guitar, fiddle, banjo) Maya De Vitry grew up singing along with Iris DeMent in the family car, and you can hear it in her words, and the spaciousness she gives them. De Vitry’s voice is smoother, more golden, than DeMent’s, but no less honest. Band mate Oliver Craven (guitar, fiddle) wrote half the songs on their fine, self-produced CD, and he and Charles Muench (bass, banjo) create beautiful harmonies with De Vitry. NPR named their album one of the best of 2012, and I totally agree. Smart songs, lovely sounds, great energy. Really great energy: “I like surprising people with music,” De Vitry told me in a phone interview. Explains why the now 22-year-old was successful busking her way around North America and Europe. Prepare to be happily surprised on Saturday night.

American troubadours, The Stray Birds, will play May 4 in the Paris of the Piedmont.

American troubadours, The Stray Birds, will play May 4 in the Paris of the Piedmont.

However, if you just can’t take your nouvelle old-time music sitting down, choose option B.

The Five Points Rounders.

The Five Points Rounders.

Local favorites, The Five Points Rounders will be playing one of their Rowdy Square Dances, this time at  Nightlight Bar & Club near the Chapel Hill/Carrboro line. Warning: this is not your mama’s square dancing. Too much fun, and you can buy beer.

I’ll be missing Roger McGuinn on Friday, because I will not miss the opening of the final show in Manbites Dog Theater‘s great 25th season. Ed Hunt and Jeff Storer changed the theatrical landscape in Durham and the Triangle when they created their theater, and here’s a play to demonstrate how far we’ve all come. At the beginning, MDT did a lot of “issue” plays about gay identity, AIDS, discrimination and so on–all good–but now they can make plays about people, not symbols.

The super-cast of THE HOMOSEXUALS, lounging at the Durham bar, Whiskey. Photo: Paul Davis.

The super-cast (including Gregor McElvogue cuddling with the ever-impressive Derrick Ivey) of THE HOMOSEXUALS, lounging at the Durham bar, Whiskey. Photo: Paul Davis.

As Jeff Storer says: “In the early days we did queer theater because our friends were dying and it was a way to tell the stories and raise awareness about our responsibilities as a society. A play like THE HOMOSEXUALS is political by virtue of its title. But it is not an issue play. It’s about FAMILY. About finding a family and a home when the one you were born into disapproves. The play is sexy and playful and It’s about change and loving friends. It’s about the “here and now.””

Storer, a master at coaxing maximun humanity from actor ensembles, directs this recent play by Philip Dawkins. He’s got a dream cast of several of this area’s finest actors. The show will run through May 18. Tickets on the website. Don’t let this one slip by.

Also in Durham, and just a block away, something entirely different. Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern presents The Wooster Group’s Diary of Anne Frank at The Shadowbox. This experimental production of an experimental work that never happened, in a new experimental performance space, is directed by Jay O’Berski. It could be a steaming mess; it could be brilliant. Probably both. Guaranteed that LGP will take you for a wild ride. Opened May 1, runs through May 18. Tickets: tickets@littlegreenpig.com  or 919.452.9204.

Serious Klöwn

Photo: Reporter Poland, on www.m.onet.pl, May 25, 2012.

Playwright Slawomir Mrozek. Photo: Reporter Poland, on http://www.m.onet.pl, May 25, 2012.

Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern surprises once again. After opening their season  by standing Shakespeare’s examination of power politics in Richard II on its head, LGP’s Power Season continues with two short little-known Eastern European absurdist works by Polish-born (1930) playwright Slawomir Mrozek. Derklöwnschpankeneffeckt:  two plays for klöwn continues at Manbites Dog Theater (Other Voices series) through April 6.

Mrozek defected from Communist Poland in 1963 and became a French citizen in 1978, but his earlier life-experience during the era of Stalin enabled him to deftly skewer totalitarian politics and practices while looking at the reasons people fail to defy them. Self-preservation is at the top of that list, and  these works are dated by the complete inability of the characters in both plays to ally themselves against the forces of fate or government arrayed against them. In 1961 when Out at Sea and Striptease were written, Solidarność, the Polish Solidarity movement that eventually dismantled the Soviet bureaucracy in Poland, wasn’t even a gleam in an intellectual’s eye.

Photo: Alex Maness

O’Berski, Martin and Detwiler in Out at Sea. Photo: Alex Maness

Out at Sea presents a classic moral conundrum. Three men, supposedly lost at sea, are starving to death. Someone must be eaten. But who? Will it be the struggling Thin (Jay O’Berski)? Will it be bossman Fat (Carl Martin)? Or maybe his sycophant,  Medium (Jeffrey Detwiler)? Or will something occur to save them? The three men, very crafty actors all, rock and stumble in their tossing boat to a set of interwoven rhythms laid down by director Michael O’Foghludha. A sometime drummer, O’Foghludha spends his days deeply concerned with fairness and justice and the power of the state, as an elected Superior Court judge. His acute insight into the material, his propensity for rhythmic structuring, and the superb physical skills of the actors combine to make theater that is as much dance as play. O’Berski and Detwiler have an energy flow between them that makes me think of lit dynamite being tossed back and forth; with Martin in the mix, the sense of danger only increases. These three move so seamlessly together to convey all the nuances of power negotiations that the words, as funny as they are, become secondary. Nicola Bullock choreographed.

Photo: Alex Maness

O’Berski and Detwiler teasing before the strip. Photo: Alex Maness

But to see just Detwiler and O’Berski together in Striptease is fabulous. These two go way back together, and have together made some of the most memorable stage images in the Triangle since 1993. In Chelsea Kurtzman’s excellent costumes and Chad Evans’ clever set, they make another here. Striptease is a more focused play, and they tear into it with all the force their mutual trust and anarchic tendencies make possible. Their comic timing is, by this time, natural to them, and director O’Foghludha takes full advantage it as he explores Mrozek’s exploration of the meaning of freedom–a quest never out of date.

The sheer amount of brain power at work in this production is awesome–the director and actors are very well served by the sharp work by all the designers. Sound  designer Quaran Karriem and lighting designer R.S. Buck made the atmosphere. Alex Maness contributed photography and video; he, Kurtzman, Stephanie Waaser and the ubiquitous Jenn Evans created the large special effects in the second play. 

If you care at all about the relationship between individual and government, or perhaps you feel the hand of government reaches too far and takes too much, you’ll want to see these plays. If you just want to laugh, it is OK to go for that alone.

Mariinsky in Chapel Hill, part 2

Two evenings with St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Orchestra left me punchy drunk on music. It’s easy to forget, when one lives mainly on small group and solo performances, how exhilarating the ride can be with a huge orchestra, a fascinating conductor and excellent soloists. Each of the Carolina Performing Arts programs was well constructed; together they were brilliant. Both included new works from 2012. Both included pieces by Dmitri

Jeffrey Scott Detwiler plays Shostakovich in Europe Central, 2008. Photo copyright Jason Fagg, used by permission of the Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern.

Shostakovich, which occupied a middle ground between old and new—work that sounds “modern” but that isn’t really radical. Monday night’s big piece, played in memory of the late William C. “Bill” Friday, long-time president of the consolidated University of North Carolina, was Richard Strauss’ 1898 Ein Heldenleben (A Hero’s Life). On Tuesday, it was, of course, Igor Stravinsky’s 1913 The Rite of Spring—source and subject of this year’s The Rite of Spring at 100 series and the associated academic conference, Reassessing The Rite.

Monday’s opener, Matthias Pintscher’s Chute d’Etoiles (described here) fascinated me aurally and as an indicator of artistic conditions. I would very much like to hear it again—but this music is like so much contemporary visual art being made today. It’s made for the museum, for the exhibition hall, for the concert auditorium. And, it’s made for a very small number of people out of a small audience—it’s not the kind of thing you want to take home and listen to repeatedly. You certainly wouldn’t be whistling a few bars. It’s difficult, like the Anselm Kiefer construction for which it is named. It’s not the people’s music, and in that sense, was the piece most analogous to the Stravinsky in the two nights’ programs. Its difference in method and purpose from the Strauss is enormous, and the clash between them was quite exciting—even with Shostakovich there in the middle, buffering the encounter. When the Strauss isn’t syruping off into sentiment, it does make a fitting honor to Dr. Friday, who really was a hero: a builder and rescuer. Yes, I cried a little at the music’s sweetness and valor, but more from wondering if the age of heroes is past, like the grand sweeping strains of the Belle Epoque.

Tuesday’s new work, Cleopatra and the Snake, by Rodion Shchedrin, struck me as far more predictable and…old-fashioned. Its narrative flow, with some wonderful twinings and swoopings, is punched up by rhythmic martial passages and the whole provides a clear path for the vocalizing of the story, but nothing in it surprised. Soprano Ekaterina Goncharova’s pliant clear voice was beautiful throughout, even in the most contorted passages. The text was in Russian (Boris Pasternak, based on Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra), but Cleopatra’s anger, pride, suffering and determination came clearly through the voice. It was the feeling, the passion, which made it lead well into The Rite.

The Rite. Huge, glorious, blood-racing. The bassoon! The complex massings and overlays of sound. The freaking percussion—really great. It seemed to me that conductor Valery Gergiev had the orchestra zipping along a little fast at first, and things were somehow both too neat and too blurry, but mid-way he slowed the tempo and all the strands came into better focus. The ending was fantastic: frantic–diminishing energy–renewed frantic effort—collapse. I was danced to death in my seat.

As for Shostakovich, placing him in juxtaposition to these other composers gave me a fresh appreciation for him. I could have left happy after the galloping, almost jubilant, conclusion to his Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 54 (1939), which opened the program on Tuesday. His Piano Concerto No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 35 (1933) played on Monday was completely delightful following the Pintscher. Denis Matsuev brought out an unsuspected latent lyricism, and a bubbling joy in the jazzy sections, with his flashy technique. At times, he seemed to be literally snatching the music out of the piano, flinging it into our greedy ears.

Denis Matsuev played the daylights out of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1 on Oct. 29. Photo: Sony Music Entertainment/CPA.

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