Monday, September 24, 2018

'Building the Wall': Fonseca Theatre debut production outlines the moral end game of current immigration policy

To paraphrase an old anti-war question: What if they built a wall and nobody came?
Confrontation across the table: Clay Mabbitt and Milicent Wright play antagonists in "Building the Wall."

That's the question that hangs in the air at the conclusion of  "Building the Wall," a one-act play by Robert Schenkkan now being presented as the Fonseca Theatre Company's

inaugural show. The production, seen Saturday night, continues weekends through Oct. 7 at the new company's temporary home, Indy Convergence. 2611 W. Michigan St.

Fresh as yesterday's headlines, "Building the Wall" takes a plausible look behind the facade of the Trump administration's messy approach to dealing with illegal immigration, including separation of families and their indefinite detention. It's fair to say that a prejudice against legal immigration as well has taken hold.

Could this enforced attitude result, by accident or design, in our country's becoming a place no one wants to come to? Even worse, is there already an Americanized "final solution" in the works?

As Gloria, a history professor, and Rick, a convict, Milicent Wright and Clay Mabbitt work through a narrative that explains how a Make America Great Again true believer has landed in prison for a crime that we only gradually learn about. The prologue to the revelations consists of extensive sparring over their respective stances in today's world. Rick plays defense well in response to Gloria's aggressive inquiry: How did this family man, this lover of order painstakingly building a career in security, end up in an orange jumpsuit baffled by what he sees as his victimization?

Looking in the same direction, seeing things differently.
That the playwright makes Gloria a historian rather than a journalist invites the audience to take a retrospective look at events that are happening, or are imagined to be happening, right now. Such a  perspective is unsettling. The prospect, however, is clear: The moral cost to the United States of a repressive attitude toward the influx of immigrants is incalculable. The intensity of Schenkkan's stageworthy responses to matters that should shame our country is evident from his much-laureled "Kentucky Cycle," which won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize for drama. "Building the Wall" similarly wants to hold our heads close to the mess we've made, like a dog being house-trained.

Fonseca positions his actors at either end of a long table, office-furniture-neutral and suggestive of the
prison setting, with a pitcher of water and two empty glasses in the center. It's a while before anyone takes a seat in the chairs at either end, indicative of the tension that envelops the drama from the start. It's an event when Rick pours himself a glass of water and drinks from it. There is well-judged movement of the actors in the course of the show — none of it extraneous, all of it visually captivating enough to convince us that we're not watching what might better have been a radio play. The audience sits on two sides  of the playing area parallel to the table length.

Mabbitt successfully inhabits a character whose intelligence has guided his career to a position of dizzying responsibility. But Rick is caught in a trap running a detention center without adequate official support. His moral imagination has been hemmed in by Trumpian ideology; the playwright gives him a real basis for his political stance, fortunately, but it hardly prepares Rick to face the requirements of his job. For a while, his chosen profession had seemed like an honest way of putting his belief in American sovereignty and security in practice. Eventually, his beleaguered conscience must yield to the insane pressures that result from an ill-conceived policy.

Gloria brings all this out of Rick until his defenses are in tatters. I question the rigorously tendentious manner of this character, who acts prosecutorially, despite the obvious fact that Rick's crimes are being officially punished as we watch. Despite Wright's steadily persuasive performance as a black woman well-practiced in the rigors of professional survival, I wanted the character to stand for more than a representation of liberal talking-points on immigration, coupled with her dogged pursuit of answers from a felon with much to answer for. Schenkkan has Gloria offer a painful vignette of her childhood in which a cop's racist insult left a mark on her soul, and we're grateful to get that. It means she doesn't simply stand for generic opposition to the inhumane course of U.S. treatment of immigrants and refugees. But I wish there were more to her as a character.

Despite the unfolding drama's focus on Rick, the pacing of the interview is given maximum dramatic impact through the persistence of Gloria's inquiry, reinforced with research paraphernalia — notebooks and folders and a recording device. The audience is teased into a horrific realization
of Rick's crime's enormity, and the calibrated agony that Mabbitt brings to his portrayal elicits a degree of sympathy for him that is meant to be rather embarrassing to feel. And Gloria's being appalled by what she's learning becomes, through Wright's performance, our shock as well. (Unfortunately, ceiling fans on high setting masked some of the dialogue at first.)

"Building the Wall" addresses the logical progress of an inhumane immigration policy that one hopes will be derailed somehow. The improbability of that is reinforced by the play. Schenkkan can be criticized for singlemindedness and hyperbole, I suppose, but the drama is worth taking in as an antidote to our toxic tendency to turn aside from the conditions it describes.

The production succeeds also as a way to underscore Fonseca's predilection, long pursued at the Phoenix Theatre, for new plays that are topical, edgy, and dramatically gripping. Add to that his commitment to diversity and you have in this new venture heartening prospects for the values he has long brought to the Indianapolis theater scene.

[Photos by Ben Rose]

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Indy Jazz Fest sets up its festival-ending block party with a spiffy Cabaret concert

Guest artist Sean Jones takes care of business as  bandleader Steve Allee looks on.
Finding the "big beat" theme attractive as the Indy Jazz Fest draws to a close, the Steve Allee Big Band welcomed a mid-career star trumpeter, Sean Jones, to the bandstand at the Cabaret Friday night.

The concert was focused on a celebration of Freddie Hubbard, born here 80 years ago and commonly boosted into the pantheon of Indianapolis jazz musicians.

Of the three names occupying the top niches in the Indianapolis wing of those who made their first splash in the middle decades of the last century, Hubbard in my view doesn't have the same luster as men who advanced their instrument in jazz as much as trombonist J.J. Johnson and guitarist Wes Montgomery.

His greatness has a lot to do with timing and the way he fitted smoothly into one of the the music's most fruitful eras, especially as represented on the Blue Note label. And two of the monuments of the avant-garde, John Coltrane's "Ascension" and Ornette Coleman's "Free Jazz," featured the burgeoning talent of the precocious Hubbard. He is a figure to reckon with on so much of the 1960s forward-looking mainstream, and briefly showed in the subsequent decade that he had something to contribute to "fusion" before that sub-genre washed out.

At any rate, he is worth celebrating as a player and writer with unimpeachable Hoosier roots, but it's difficult to understand the aura that surrounds him as a crucial influence. Jones pegs Hubbard as such a figure, and he is not alone in this estimate. Sometimes I'm inclined to sign on to such kudos, and I leaned that way in my review of this festival's opening night. Nonetheless, though I never heard Hubbard live, it was more fun to get a lot of Sean Jones Friday than it was to imagine up there on the Cabaret stage the ghostly reappearance of the man he was celebrating.

Jones displayed a wider expressive range than his hero. His technique seemed more solid than what I hear on Hubbard's records. (If you choose to play so many high notes, shouldn't you split fewer of them?) Maybe it's a matter of standing on the shoulders of a giant, but I liked the way Jones made the most of his high regard for Freddie: He was never wedded to lots of notes on fast pieces ("Bird Like"), but throughout found a way to vary any approach deep into Hubbard territory with something of his own, more understated and patient.

That showed up on a favorite Hubbard composition, "Little Sunflower," in which Jones launched his solo in the low register, coloring it with some half-valving. Gradually he became more flamboyant, somewhat in the Hubbard manner; but he never abandoned an apparent interest in finding something fresh to say in the piece, giving it a bluesy cast without distortion. The tone for this first-class statement had been set by Freddie Mendoza's trombone solo — smoothly laid out, trying a little tenderness, but still assertive.

Jones' work with the band was thoroughly sympathetic and supportive of the first-class arrangements, several of them by bandleader Allee. "Red Clay," from the cusp of Hubbard's transition away from hard-bop into a more marketable idiom, was fun to hear. The catchy tune has an unfortunate way of reminding me of Bobby Hebb's pop hit "Sunny," which was paraphrased in several solos, but it's one of the Hubbard originals that helps keep his flame burning brightly.

The 17-piece band distinguished itself in its lead-off performance of "The Song Is You," in a jumpy arrangement that had the virtue of putting the ensemble through an aerobic warm-up. It incorporated burning features for altoist Michael Stricklin and drummer Steve Houghton (who throughout both sets displayed all one might ask of a big-band percussionist).

Subsequent challenges were met in the solos and the multifaceted group presence along the way; backing riffs behind the soloists were always exciting and to the point. Another standard, "You've Changed," was a miracle of tone color shifts, framed by bass clarinet and four flutes at start and finish.

After "The Song Is You," Jones was onstage pretty consistently, always focused and stylistically adept. Among the many concise descriptions of Hubbard, the guest trumpeter exemplified the one Wynton Marsalis offered as an obituary — "exuberant." Jones never strayed into anything resembling the wicked phrase Whitney Balliett of The New Yorker once hung on the Indianapolis icon: "glassy vacuity."

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]

Friday, September 21, 2018

Phoenix Theatre sets sail on the mainstream with "Bright Star"

Small-town young folks Alice and Jimmy Ray bond over an icebox
To open the 2018-19 season, the first in its four decades as an alternative theatrical mainstay without Bryan Fonseca at the helm, Phoenix Theatre has made the canny choice of mounting a show with name recognition and an explicitly old-fashioned approach to storytelling.

It's also a musical — a genre that has yielded big hits in the Phoenix's recent history. Thursday's preview performance of "Bright Star" on the Russell Stage at the company's expensive new home, 705 N. Illinois St., played to a full house, and tonight's show is a sellout.

Suzanne Fleenor, a Phoenix founding member, directs the show. She draws from the large cast a full measure of commitment and  likability to this "very sincere, non-cynical, non-ironic show," in the words of co-creator Steve Martin, who collaborated with Edie Brickell. The working partners fashioned a story out of a bizarre incident at the turn of the 20th century, when an infant in a valise was found abandoned near a Missouri railroad track. Who discarded the baby and why was never known.

Unwilling grandfather prepares to toss the valise from a train.
From that event, Martin and Brickell came up with a story incorporating a lovely coincidence that  resolves the mystery of a fictional young World War II veteran's origins. Martin was at pains to make clear to Stephen Colbert in a TV interview the distinction between the event that inspired the show and the story that the co-creators came up with on their own. It's impossible to get at what generated "Bright Star" while being scrupulous about spoiler alerts, so I won't try.

But I will honor the suspense that the story builds up about the veteran, Billy Cane, who nurses post-war literary ambitions, and the lit-mag editor, Alice Murphy, who encourages him with a good dose of tough love.  The North Carolina setting provides the opportunity to link to the great era of Southern literature, and Martin (I suspect) is responsible for the name-dropping nudges — Carson McCullers, Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, and others.

It's peculiar that Cane tries to impress Murphy with what purports to be a letter of endorsement from Thomas Wolfe: Would a literary ephebe within hollering distance of Asheville not know that Wolfe died seven years before the 1945 setting? Alternatively, would he plausibly expect to fool the head of a prestigious regional literary journal?  Murphy quickly sets him straight. (Martin's fascination with Wolfe also shows up in the set piece of an angel gravestone in the first scene, calling attention to the death while Billy was abroad of the woman who raised him along with Daddy Cane. Anyone not immediately reminded of "Look Homeward, Angel" has some catching up to do.)

I attribute the literary allusions to Martin because of the comedian's record of having extensive knowledge of literary culture. That brings up a more important point: It seems the show's book is chiefly the work of Martin, with the songs co-written, generally to Martin's tunes and Brickell's lyrics. The result, while mostly unified, tilts the dialogue toward wittiness and the song texts toward plainness. Brickell displays an almost monosyllabic naturalness in her lyrics that makes Oscar Hammerstein II look sophisticated in comparison.

The creative seams in "Bright Star" show, in other words. The overall feeling of secrets and prejudices yielding to the power of love is a constant, however, underscored in abundance by  the  songs. The production embraces the show's sincerity. Even the minor characters are vividly portrayed. Fleenor, perhaps encouraged by the original script, has allowed some character responses to be exaggerated, evoking the successful, time-tested formula of Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre. With or without hyperbole, the performances place a premium on instant communication.
One of the staging triumphs is a party scene celebrating strong drink.

There are of course too many songs. The first act in particular seems cluttered with them. Fortunately, the bluegrass style is adroitly established and sustained by a nine-piece band under the direction of Brent E. Marty, placed directly behind Rob Koharchik's evocative set. As a choral ensemble, the cast is stunning. We certainly hear from it often.

There is much admirably coordinated choreography, designed by Carol Worcel. Production numbers are so common that a duet between proper father and wayward son Dobbs (played by Charles Goad and Patrick Clements, respectively) stands out as a welcome relief in the first act. In the second, so do Clements' anguished solo as a man paying dearly for a youthful indiscretion and a show-stopping showcase for Molly Garner as the lit-mag editor with a heart-rending past. I liked the balance of song and story-telling as the show moved toward its conclusion, with all the hoped-for romantic knots finally tied up in the tradition of comic opera and musical comedy alike.
Rousing finale: Everything comes out all right at the end.

So pleased do they seem to be about working together that Martin and Brickell lose emphasis on making their presentation anywhere near as lean as the story's essence. Fleenor has followed their lead with gusto, and that's all to the good: "Bright Star" doesn't allow for anything half-hearted. There are a few wonderful coups de theatre, especially in the second act. When the old valise is brought out of storage at the Cane home, Alice's double take of recognition was spine-chilling. And Daddy Cane's revisiting the time he found the abandoned satchel and its contents while hunting frogs at night, enhanced by some of Laura Glover's expert lighting, could hardly have had more resonance.

"Bright Star," whose title is certainly an allusion to John Keats' famous sonnet, has the same penetrating yearning for steadfastness as the poem. Through song, dance, comedy, and pathos, the Phoenix show addresses everyone's desire for an identity and purpose worth clinging to, and for the promise of the kind of settledness and stability that sorts out all the negatives and neutralizes them.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Monday, September 17, 2018

Indy Jazz Fest: Brazilian trio joins with adept clarinetist, after Indianapolis saxophonist's quintet opens

Something of a novelty still, a double bill at the Indy Jazz Fest featured two female wind
Anat Cohen has played in a wide variety of musical contexts, but is especially fond of choro.
instrumentalist bandleaders. Jazzwomen with marquee names have historically been singers or pianists.

The headliner Sunday evening at the Cabaret was Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen, who would be the first to admit that the Trio Brasileiro is not her band, but one she is always eager to collaborate with in pursuit of the Brazilian genre known as choro. Introducing the evening of stimulating music was local saxophonist Amanda Gardier, who definitely is the head of her band, a quintet specializing in her compositions, many of which are on her first CD, "Empathy."

Amanda Gardier, in a Mark Sheldon portrait.
Gardier's style on the alto sax is smoothly produced, with a fluid, well-centered tone. Her phrasing is flexible and carefully placed over her rangy themes. She played five songs, sticking in one favorite standard, "I'll Be Seeing You." The familiar tune helped make the audience aware just how comfortable the personnel is in each other's company: Her sidemen are Charlie Ballantine, guitar; Jesse Wittman, bass; Clay Wulbrecht, piano; and Chris Parker, drums.

The ballad "Smoke" is a good place to single out Gardier's composing acumen. Its long, looping phrases embrace a relaxed mood capably. As a player, she carries a showcase for herself superbly, while as a rule the quintet on Sunday presented a balanced, unified front to the enthusiastic audience, though bass and drums tended to remain in supportive roles.

Gardier's "Two Sided" concluded the set, with Wulbrecht setting the tone with a piano solo chordally based somewhat in the Latin style in contrast to his usual affinity for single-line soloing. Ballantine's resonant guitar playing sounded particularly inspired in this tune, and the ensemble settled into a strong coda that made for an ideal conclusion for her Indy Jazz Fest debut as a leader.

Trio Brasileiro was formed in 2011, but the brothers Lora have been playing together for a couple of decades.
Sitting in tall chairs lined up as if for a panel discussion, Cohen and Trio Brasileiro launched into a tightly coordinated set that paradoxically communicated relaxation and jigsaw-puzzle affinities at all tempos.  Trio Brasileiro had its own history well-established before the clarinetist became an occasional partner. Its well-attuned members are brothers Douglas Lora, guitar, and Alexandre Lora, pandeiro (a hand frame drum similar to a tambourine), with Dudu Maia, mandolin.

A combination of well-known choro pieces and Cohen's compositions in the genre made up the program. There were occasional chances for showcasing something other than the full combination, such as clarinet-pandeiro and guitar-mandolin duets. They confirmed that compatibility among this expert personnel can be cut all sorts of ways.

To end the set, the joy and near-combustible energy of team sports in soccer-mad Brazil got an extensive exposition (complete with a momentary group imitation of the "flopping" phenomenon) in the aptly titled "1-0." That's a not uncommon final score of the kind that makes some North Americans shy away from the world's most popular sport. There was nothing to shy away from in the effervescent appeal of Cohen and Trio Brasileiro at the Cabaret Sunday night, however.

Sunday, September 16, 2018

International Violin Competition of Indianapolis: Final concerto performances and announcement of the finalists' award positions

2018 Laureates: Anna Lee, Shannon Lee, Ioana Cristina Goicea, Luke Hsu, Risa Hokamura, Richard Lin.
It was no sure thing to guess ahead of time how the jury would rank the six finalists in the 10th Quadrennial International Violin Competition of Indianapolis. Personal impressions gathered of the young finalists at each stage are incomplete, as my attendance this year amounted to less than half of the performances, though I heard just over half of the 38 participants from Sept. 2 through last night.

I will focus here only on the three finalists who performed concertos at Hilbert Circle Theatre Sept. 15 with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Leonard Slatkin, who is probably the hands-down elder statesman of American maestros.

Slatkin's firm, unflashy control had much to do with what made bronze medalist Luke Hsu's performance of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto in D major acceptable. This is a great work by a favorite composer of many, but one to whom I'm largely unsympathetic. So, fortunately, Hsu's performance was riveting, but partly for the wrong reason: It was quite headstrong. There was tempo-pushing from him that a lesser maestro than Slatkin might have had trouble with. The excitement thus generated was somewhat unnerving.

Allowing for that, Hsu launched the work attractively. The depth of tone in the soloist's opening statement, plus an overall gravitas in Hsu's manner, evoked favorably the legacy of David Oistrakh. The first-movement cadenza was cleanly articulated, though maybe a little too dogged. The second movement brought forth a rich, loamy lyricism, the rise and fall of Hsu's phrasing sounding quite natural. But the finale confirmed the impression that Hsu was a little too much on his own track to be an entirely convincing concerto soloist.

A much different impression was created by Anna Lee (fourth-place laureate) in the Mendelssohn Concerto in E minor, op. 64.  She wrung all the passion out of the music — a quality it can be easy to short-change in Mendelssohn. More important, she was a fine partner with the orchestra in a piece that must be counted the perfect violin concerto: It has no empty display, yet the writing for the solo instrument is never diffident and always speaks with authority. The wind chords in the background of the soloist's suspenseful conclusion of the slow movement amounted to a great illustration of this concerto's' unfailing balance of forces.

Exemplary partnership was also exhibited in sixth-place laureate Shannon Lee's performance of William Walton's Violin Concerto. The work puts a premium on seamless dialogue between violin and orchestra. In the first movement, for example, any conspicuous orchestral challenge to the soloist is reserved for martial rambunctiousness near the end. Across three movements, the music takes in a wide variety of tempos, textures, and emotional terrain. It is nonetheless among the more soft-spoken violin concertos, and that quality suited Lee's temperament. Her playing sounded a little undernourished overall, but the interpretive approach seemed unerring and sympathetic to her style.

The other three finalists, and their positions, are Richard Lin, gold medal;  Risa Hokamura, silver medal, and Ioana Cristina Goicea, fifth-place laureate. Their awards and various special prizes will be presented starting at 5 p.m. today at Scottish Rite Cathedral.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

High distinction at a late hour: Three finalists inaugurate IVCI romantic/modern concerto phase

My responses to the first night of finals Friday at Hilbert Circle Theatre followed a pattern established by how the same three International Violin Competition of Indianapolis participants struck me at the first night of Schrott Center for the Performing Arts presentations Wednesday.

I'm wary of being quick to confirm first impressions, and I've always been reluctant to pick favorites to win the quadrennial contest. For one thing, I heard less than half of the performances this year, so it would have been useless to have set up a bracket.

Ioana Cristina Goicea: Mastery in Shostakovich.
Wednesday's program offered an unavoidable basis for comparison: Richard Lin, Risa Hokamura, and Ioana Cristina Goicea all played Mozart's Violin Concerto No. 5 in A major, K. 219.  At that concert, Goicea overcame my tendency to be a little weary hearing the same piece a third time on the same evening. As I noted in my previous post, she found more personal meaning in the piece than the others, but without distorting anything.

On Friday, with guest conductor Leonard Slatkin on the podium leading the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, Goicea gave the most astonishing account of a core-repertoire concerto here in memory. I hesitate to proclaim my memory thorough enough to be certain of this, but I am struck by how completely she got to the essence of a difficult work.

At the beginning of last year, Zach De Pue, then ISO concertmaster, played the Shostakovich First on the regular season. The performance was moving, largely successful, and rich in evidence of deep commitment. I would set Goicea's distinctly above it.

"Nocturne: Moderato" opens the concerto with a special challenge: Can understated, slowly unfolding music grab and hold the attention as the first movement's unconventional structure is deliberately laid out? Goicea's playing was fully equal to giving a resoundingly positive answer. Her tone was steady, glowing but not too shiny. It seemed the perfect way to captivate the audience for the rigors to come.

The soloist gets to dig in with the arrival of the second-movement Scherzo. Goicea was incisive and in control, with pinpoint rhythmic articulation enabling the violin to hold its own against a busy accompaniment. On to one of Shostakovich's greatest achievements — the third-movement Passacaglia and Cadenza. The Russian composer often seems to me self-indulgent in his slow movements. This one combines formal and orchestral ingenuity in a manner that moves the whole work onto a high spiritual and aesthetic plane. There's no feeling of wallowing.

Slatkin's stature as a seasoned maestro came to the fore in maintaining balances throughout. The way English horn and bassoon come in to anchor the violinist's signature treatment of the passacaglia theme was spine-tingling. Goicea's solo cadenza was remarkably intense, yet imbued with a wide spectrum of color. The "Burlesque" finale worked out all the preceding "dark night of the soul" moods while retaining the notes of desperation and sardonic humor that lend a picaresque quality to Shostakovich's fast movements.

Everything fell into place; it was the kind of performance that made you feel privileged to be there. It was 10:30: A two-and-a-half-hour concert suddenly didn't seem too long. I don't like to talk of "definitive" performances of a piece of music; it makes any further performances by anyone seem superfluous. Let's call this one "essential," in that it represented so completely what this great work is all about.
Maestro Slatkin: Besides the centennial birthday boy, he's America's other superb conducting Leonard.

Elsewhere, we heard another exhibition of youthful ardor from Risa Hokamura, this time in Tchaikovsky's Violin Concerto in D major, op. 35. I have to admit I can't do full justice to her achievement because the piece, like most of Tchaikovsky, no longer resonates with me.  There were indications, not just because of her sigh of relief at the end, that the work tires her somewhat. I suspect, though, that further seasoning will make her revisiting of this repertoire staple more than satisfying to those who like Tchaikovsky more than I do. 

As he had Wednesday, Richard Lin opened the concert with an appealing interpretation, technically self-assured and artistically valid — this time of Max Bruch's "Scottish Fantasy." Orchestra and soloist established the nostalgic atmosphere immediately. Lin allowed the phrases limning each of the borrowed Scottish tunes to blossom. He handled slight ritards in the second movement adroitly and put a nice finish on it. He displayed good rapport with ISO principal harpist Diane Evans; the interaction was capped in the finale, which vividly presented the designated "warlike" (guerriero) profile before recalling the first-movement tune hauntingly.

Tonight the other three finalists will be heard from, and I will try to give the Tchaikovsky concerto its due. I never tire of the Mendelssohn, fortunately, and William Walton's concerto will be a pleasure rarely encountered in comparison to its companions on this much-anticipated program. Shortly afterward, the medalists (first, second, and third place) will be announced. Those prizes and a host of others will be presented Sunday evening at Scottish Rite Cathedral.