KPBS AIRDATE: March 12, 1997
It’s been a wild week in the theater: two world premieres and a revival of a genre-crossing ground-breaker.
The first world premiere was the long-awaited, long-hyped new opera, “The Conquistador.” I had heard a preview, with storytelling by composer Myron Fink and musical excerpts by members of the San Diego Opera. Fink is fascinating and eloquent, and his story is terrific. It’s the true tale of Luis de Carvajal, late-16th century conqueror of Mexican Indian tribes, governor of a Mexican province and crypto-Jew. He has lived as a devout Catholic all his life, but when his secret heritage is revealed, his family is burned at the stake and he is imprisoned for life.
This is clearly the stuff of opera, but the opera fails to deliver. Fink is far more entertaining than his music, which is, in two words, repetitive recitative. There is so little lyrical or melodic line here; it’s all narrative. And there’s shockingly little genuine emotion onstage. The libretto doesn’t help. Donald Moreland’s text is clunky, and wholly un-poetic. The piece is bloated with themes: persecution of Jews, persecution of Indians, subjugation of women, the hardships of the New World, and, of course, the corruption and collusion of the Church and the conquistadors. The cast is enormous, but mostly, they just stand there, facing the audience, under Sharon Ott’s disappointingly static direction. What justifies the $1.4 million production costs is the costumes, the scenery, the stage pictures and the glorious voices. It just isn’t enough.
Now, speaking of amazing voices, and amazing grace, “The Gospel at Colonus” is one unlikely melding of styles. It commingles the catharsis of ancient Greek theater and modern-day soul-stirring, black Pentecostal church service. Conceived in 1983 by writer-director Lee Breuer and composer Bob Telson, the piece went on to win Obie, Tony and Grammy Awards, in addition to a Pulitzer Prize nomination.
As part of a world tour, the show made a brief local stop in Cerritos, with most of the original Broadway cast intact. The Oedipus story is used by the preacher, the imposing Roscoe Lee Brown, as a sermon about redemption, with the ‘congregants” acting out the parts. But the story takes a back seat to the singing. In a stroke of casting genius, the role of Oedipus is played by Clarence Fountain and the Blind Boys of Alabama. There’s an awful lot of mugging and posing by all the primary vocalists, but the audience eats it up. The evening, set in the wildly magnificent new Center for the Performing Arts, is less theatrical than inspirational. The revelatory, redemptive bring-down-the-house finale, “Lift Him Up,” led by the crystalline voice of Carolyn Johnson-White, made the show well worth the trip.
A lot closer to home, and, for technical reasons, more than worth the trip, is the world premiere of Len Jenkin’s “Like I Say,” at the Mandell Weiss Forum in La Jolla. It’s the annual UCSD Quinn Martin production, with guest director Robert Egan, from the Mark Taper Forum in L.A.. The direction is the star of the show, along with the scenic, lighting and sound design. This is such a beautifully sparse yet detailed production, thanks to Egan, who teases excellent performances from most of his 14-member student cast, while underscoring the eerie unreality of the piece.
Set somewhere on the U.S. coastline, in The Hotel Splendide, the play is a quirky cross between “No Exit” and The Hotel California. Both the inn and its inhabitants are damaged and run-down: the writer, the runaway, the painter of death, the tired manager, her tidepooling employee, and two traveling puppeteers. It takes a long time till Jenkin reveals the pain of these characters, or what they’re looking for. There isn’t much action, except in the imagination of the writer, with his interminable Candid-like tale of Coconut Joe from Kokomo. The play is not as profound as the playwright would like to think, but it does address the healing power of the creative process. The piece needs paring, but the language, the voice and the atmosphere are there. And the production is flawless.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1997 Patté Productions Inc.