World Music Institute: Discover the Pipa

photo: WMI
The pipa (pee-pah) is an ancient Chinese instrument similar to a lute, with four strings, played almost vertically. Pear-shaped, it has four tuning pegs and about 30 frets, and modern ones have a small sound hole under the bridge. Its sound is haunting, like the sound of nature.
Its origins are debated, but it evolved as a combination of many instruments, the earliest a hand mallet drum to which animal gut strings were added. We first hear of it in documents of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 to 220 AD). Its master, Ruan Xian, lived in the fifth century. It was most important in the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907) and repopularized in the Middle Ages, during the Ming Dynasty. 
And it’s still played today - most notably in the hands of Zhou Yi, who’s been winning awards since childhood for her virtuosity. On November 20 she gave a marvelous concert at The China Institute in New York, Discover the Pipa, produced by The World Music Institute.
Her first piece was similar to a round - the las…

Druid Shakespeare: Richard III

photo by Richard Termine
Richard III has never been my favorite Shakespeare, but the current production in Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival, produced by Druid, a theater from Ireland, has shown me how great this unwieldy play can be. Druid Shakespeare: Richard III is brilliant, bordering on expressionism, directed meticulously by Druid’s Artistic Director, Garry Hynes. 
Queen Margaret skulks across stage before Richard enters, looking like a ghost in diaphanous gauze, in the play’s most surreal moment. Only then Richard enters from the floor with the famous soliloquy. This isn’t the text-based delivery of the 19th-century nor the rushed gone-before-you-know-it delivery that’s currently the rage in some circles. It’s metered, controlled verse supported by character and emotion. This Richard is bragging, not threatening, daring or confiding, and we become complicit in his crimes.
And that complicity remains throughout the play. Richard is a wise guy, his lines, with some exceptions, m…

The Catastrophe Club

photo by Jeremy Varne
The future of the theater lies largely in immersive theater. Sea Dog Theater (along with Janelle Garcia Domig and Christopher Domig) has just produced a very interesting immersive production called The Catastrophe Club. It’s written by David Burnam and directed by Shaun Fauntleroy - in both cases quite well - and produced at a location undisclosed until the day before the individual audience member sees it. You get an email telling you where to report. Very intriguing…
The small audience nearly surrounds the small main playing area. The lighting is suitably harsh. The time is 2520. We’re welcomed by our hostess, Ruth: “Hello, criminal,” she says. Peaceful assembly, it seems, is outlawed in 2520: “The last time there was an infraction for public congregation was 25 years ago. It was a wedding.”
That’s the outer frame of the play: we’ve assembled here to watch in the inner frame: four simulated people from the year 2019. Simulated, but based on “real” people - climate…

A Performance for One

photo: Untitled Theater Company #61
A Performance for One is a ten-minute performance - a sort of performance - from Untitled Theater Company #61, conceived by Edward Einhorn and Yvonne Roen, and written and directed by Mr. Einhorn. It’s an intriguing example of New York's creative avant-garde sensibility. It’s designed for an audience of, well, one. He sits in a small space with the performer - in my case Ms. Roen - who speaks to him for nearly ten minutes about her memory of her father’s hands. It’s not actually her memory, she points out, but the memory of the writer, Edward Einhorn. But “The writer,” she tells her audience, “has abandoned us.”

There’s a lovely passage about this memory becoming our memory. Some of the monologue is a discussion of the role of the audience, the audience as performer, experiencing the actress’ experience of the performance, as she experiences his.
The audience member, who is sitting nearly knee-to-knee across from the actress, is invited to look at …

Theater in the Dark: Carpe Diem

Theater in the Dark: Carpe Diem is one of those creative, cutting edge theater productions that New York is so good at nurturing. It’s conceived and directed by Erin B. Mee and produced by her company This is not a Theatre Company at the TheaterLab space, off-off-Broadway.
For this show, audience members are blindfolded and then led into the theater, which, we learn later, is a large room with tables and chairs by them, as if for dinner. As we sit, we’re led through experience a series of olfactory, gustatory, aural and sometimes tactile experiences, in ten “scenes”. In each scene, something to eat or drink is placed in our hands.
Here’s the outline:
Scene Name: Drink Smell: Jasmine  Taste: Green Tea
Scene  Name: Gather Ye Rosebuds Smell: Rose Petals  Taste: Turkish Delight
Scene Name: Dance of Chocolate Smell: Vanilla  Taste: Chocolate
Scene Name: Bottle-Vase Smell: Lavender  Taste: Wine
Scene Name: Do I Dare? Smell: Perfume  Taste: Prosecco and Pear Juice
Scene Name: Tree  Smell: Dirt  Taste: Sage

Sugimoto Nunraku Sonezaki Shinju - The Love Suicides at Sonezaki

photo: Michelle Tabnick
Bunraku puppetry, a traditional Japanese form, established itself in the 17th  century. Its three elements are the familiar large puppets, narrators (or chanters), and shamisen musicians (the shamisen is a three-stringed instrument resembling a guitar). The proper name for the form is ningyō jōruri (bunraku is a 19th-century name). Jōruri refers to the narrative chanting in the play and ningyō means puppet.
The master playwright of the bunraku was Chikamatsu Monzaemon. In the early 18th century he introduced believable characters to Japanese puppetry who dealt with the real-world situations that his audience faced: the conflict between feudal tradition and human nature.
Chikamatsu (as he is known) produced TheLove Suicides at Sonezaki in 1703. The play recounts the story of 25-year-old Tokubei and his 19-year-old lady friend Ohatsu (who happens to be a courtesan). Like Romeo and Juliet, they can’t be together, so they kill themselves at Sonezaki.
New York’s Lincoln…

Baharat at Djam NYC

Djam NYC is a weekly world music (actually, middle Eastern music) event at The Engine Room in NYC. It features Baharat, a Brooklyn-based band, and Bellyqueen, a bellydance company.
Baharat is a four-musician band, and their marvelous Arabic music includes tones and rhythms not found in western music. It centers on Mr. Burdi’s oud, a lovely pear-shaped 12-string instrument with ancient origins, like a lute, that epitomizes the dazzling sound of middle Eastern music. Mr. Burdi told me that it’s more difficult to play than the guitar, and it’s certainly worth the effort. Its glittering timbre, although somewhat acerbic compared to a guitar, is hypnotic.
On percussion, Adam Maalouf plays a riq (a sort of tambourine), a cymbal with holes in it that alter its sound, and a frame drum called a droombek. They give the music a wide rhythmic range. Sometimes he hits the wooden edge of the drum with is hand for even more variety.
The violin, of course, is not an authentic middle Eastern instrument, …

A Doll's House: A New Opera

photo by Justin McCallum
Making Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House into an opera is an intriguing project. The play is melodramatic - Ibsen had a long way to go before he freed himself of that weakness - and the emotions and giant and varied, sometimes repressed, sometimes explosive.
You’ll recall that this scandalous play relates the story of how Nora sacrifices herself to save her husband, Torvald, through a minor crime, and is blackmailed by Krogstad. To make a long and convoluted plot short, Torvald finds out, and instead of himself taking blame for the crime, as the naive Nora expected, blows up in a fit of abusive recrimination. Fortunately, Nora’s BFF, Mrs. Linde, convinces Krogstad to forget the whole damn thing, and everything would be fine except that Nora’s going to have no more of this arrangement. She storms out, abandoning her children, famously slamming the door after her. Oh, and Dr. Rank is involved too, adding more to symbolism than to plot. 
This month The Corkscrew Theater F…