Saturday, March 30, 2019

James Ehnes returns as ISO violin soloist, with Peter Oundjian, a fellow Canadian (by professional adoption), on the podium

James Ehnes' recordings seem immaculate to me, and his most recent previous appearance as an Indianapolis
Canadian violinist James Ehnes also has family roots in Indiana.
Symphony Orchestra
guest soloist led me to anticipate the best from his performance Friday night of Jean Sibelius' Violin Concerto in D minor.

To say I was not disappointed is an understatement. Among his other honors, the 43-year-old Canadian recently snagged a 2019 Grammy for his recording of Aaron Jay Kernis' violin concerto. He hews to a high standard on the concert stage as well.

Technically secure at every point, he is also an insightful interpreter. On the former topic, for instance, his bow control is phenomenal, which the virtuosity of this concerto requires. It was particularly evident in the first of two encores he played at Hilbert Circle Theatre Friday — Eugene Ysaye's Sonata No. 3 ("Ballade"). In forceful playing there and in the Sibelius, especially when phrases are separated by rests, he never tears the ends off. Some violinists can get away with that kind of roughness, but it is not necessary to attach a shred or two just to display passionate involvement.

The first long solo "paragraph" in the concerto was a model in covering the work's expressive terrain.
The opening phrase, "sweet and expressive," yields to complicated figurations and sudden shifts in dynamics. Admirable was Ehnes' way of maintaining the integrity of that initial statement; you never had the feeling the music had been jerked onto a new plane.

Partnership with the orchestra, guided by guest conductor Peter Oundjian, who boosted the profile of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra immensely in 14 seasons (ending last year) as its music director, was secure throughout: When the orchestra needed to be under the soloist, it was, and that helped all players sustain the tension and release built into the piece's consistent mutual rapport. In the finale, the violinist exhibited pristine harmonics among the dazzling display the composer sets before the soloist. The rapid pace of that movement was bit of a surprise: "Allegro, ma non tanto" asks for a subjective judgment of what "not too fast" means after the generically lively indication of "Allegro." To me the tempo, while sustainable by soloist and orchestra alike Friday, seemed too fast. It made the Sibelius more of a display piece, and frontloaded the work's weight more than necessary on the first movement. Otherwise, the performance's warmth and energy carried the day.

The influence of Sibelius upon the Symphony No. 1 in B-flat minor of William Walton is so conspicuous that the critic and program annotator Michael Steinberg wrote: "A musical acquaintance once challenged me to write about the Walton First without mentioning Sibelius. It is not to be done." The first orchestral tutti in the Sibelius concerto, for example, certainly shaped the long lines that overlap the nervous energy in the English composer's textural handprint.
Wholehearted: Peter Oundjian conducted Walton's first symphony.

The influence continues throughout, but it never makes the Walton seem derivative. The 1935 work is busier and more tonally ambiguous. Its expressive contours are more pronounced and the depth of feeling is allowed more explicit expression than the Finn permits. In Freudian terms, Sibelius often seems to be creatively negotiating repression, while here at least Walton boosts the tumult of his id up to the level of sublimation. This gives outsize freedom to the finale, which immediately announces its triumphalism in a manner that Walton was soon to exploit in "Crown Imperial," a march composed for the 1937 coronation of George VI.

A final link to Sibelius is obvious at the very end: As in the Sibelius Fifth, the Walton First concludes with several loud, separated chords. Its apparently first-ever performance by the ISO brings to mind one of my favorite stories of Raymond Leppard, the ISO's conductor laureate, who in 1975 led the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra in the Walton B-flat minor. It was an especially good performance, Leppard recalls, and I'll let him finish the account: "The excitement was evidently shared by the audience, for in the silence following the first of the final crashes a man's voice shouted a loud 'bravo.' The next crash came quickly upon it, and elicited a rather surprised but audible 'Oh' from the same voice. Another crash and it called out — by way, I suppose, of genial apology — 'Sorry!'"

Nearly dissolving in mirth, according to Leppard's memory, the orchestra could barely finish the series of crashes. The ISO performance didn't afford such amusement, but it was properly stirring. Oundjian's communicative mastery of the score meant that the "Presto, con malizia" second movement, with its heading uncommonly calling for "malice" expressively, was truly diabolical, with some feathery insinuations only reinforcing the mood. The "melancholy" explicitly asked for in the succeeding movement was fully supplied in the flute solos that frame it, and the lonely, questioning mood was conspicuous, especially toward the hushed ending. The grandiose finale, with Walton's individualized treatment of fugal writing ascending to almost overwhelming displays of brass and percussion, took robust flight under the conductor's effusive control.

Friday, March 29, 2019

There's hell to pay in 'The Christians' at Phoenix Theatre

Inevitable shifts in language usually tend toward mitigation or the watering down of old meanings. Many of
Pastor Paul ascends his preaching summit as Joshua, Elder Jay, and the Pastor's wife look on.
these involve the weakening grip of Christianity, despite its continued hold over broad swaths of the American cultural mainstream. "Silly" is related distantly to a state of blessedness. And "profanity" has been leached of its power over our common speech so it can be misapplied to obscenity: "Go to hell" has given way to "F*** you!" Taking the name of the Lord thy God in vain has acquired a mildness that would have shocked our ancestors.

In "The Christians," the impact of religious language remains connected to fundamentalist theology. Lucas Hnath's drama, set in a contemporary megachurch, turns on the importance of hell and its connection to belief in a place of eternal punishment for unsaved sinners. At issue is the universalism of salvation, supported in some places in the Bible, versus an afterlife in which the sheep are divided from the goats, with souls of the deceased placed in one of two camps, heaven or hell. The latter view is asserted in other venerated sources, most vividly by the Christian Bible's grand finale, Revelation.

Confusingly, these opposite destinations are associated with physical locations even among casual believers, biblical support of which is very much ambiguous. Acknowledging divine help in victory, professional athletes sometimes look up and point toward what most of them must know is the endless expanse of outer space beyond our atmosphere, pretending they're thanking heaven just above their heads.

Phoenix Theatre opens its production tonight, continuing to extend the opportunity for meditation on such matters through most of Lent, ending on Palm Sunday. The drama turns on a split between Pastor Paul, a charismatic megachurch founder who is certain God has told him that non-Christians of sterling character will know eternal bliss, versus Joshua, a dynamic associate pastor whose journey toward deep faith has been nurtured by Paul as the church has thrived and paid off a large debt on its splendid building. Joshua is a strict adherent of the belief that the pathway to a heavenly abode lies through Christ alone.

The schism is set in motion by Paul's sermon, which opens the play after a lively gospel number (sung by a choir that returns front and center several times, directed by Pam Blevins-Hinkle). Grant Goodman immediately establishes the hypnotic hold Paul has acquired over his massive congregation: The sermon embraces some righteous bragging, a bit of corny personal sharing, a rosy view of the community's collective advance toward blessedness.

All well and good, up to the point Paul reveals his radical vision for the church, in which he supposes that the congregation's further growth depends on his new revelation: Condemnation of unsaved sinners is not the way to go; doctrinal purity has little to do with the God's enduring love. The new dispensation, he urges, means that hellfire no longer awaits those who pray differently or follow divergent teachings or none at all.

Martha Jacobs's last directing stint at the new Phoenix was "Indecent," a stylistically adventuresome re-creation of the throes of the Yiddish theater set against orthodox Judaism. In both shows, Jacobs shows herself to be a master of timing; she plays her cast like a maestro, and Hnath's method serves her well. As is evident in Indiana Repertory Theatre's current production of "A Doll's House, Part Two," the playwright times his characters' major entrances so as to reorient the drama's direction, not just reveal more about how they fit into a settled structure.

Thus, the epochal sermon in "The Christians" is succeeded by Joshua's rebuttal, and the battle is joined. As the
At the start of a service of celebration, the on-screen message prevails.
drama proceeds, bringing in a genial but savvy Elder (Charles Goad) and Pastor Paul's resentfully dutiful wife (Jen Johansen), the essential parameters of the conflict are set up. But the most crucial contribution perhaps is the anguished testimony of a Congregant (Kelsey Leigh Miller), her domestic and social life torn asunder by the judgmental divide.

After Joshua leaves the church, taking a saving remnant with him, Paul must deal with personal and professional issues involving these three in his wounded institution. The authenticity of God's message to him that salvation lies not in fallible human hands but in His loving embrace faces ferocious challenges from the severely conflicted Elder, Wife, and Congregant. As seen in Thursday's preview, they are played with such clarity and electrifying focus, complementing Ray Hutchins' staunch, deeply embedded Joshua, that even Goodman's command of the stage in the first scene wilts in retrospect as the actor embodies a much more vulnerable clergyman in the one-act's latter half.

The device of extending the hand-held microphones' use to private conversations from their essential role in contemporary sanctuaries serves to re-emphasize the public dimensions that holy controversies tend to take on. All the characters' interactions have that odd blend of private and public confession, revelation, and recrimination characteristic of every movement of mass control, from Protestant megachurches to Communist re-education camps.

The bleeding of hell's meaning into the travails of this world is unavoidable among those for whom the concept of hell can never be discarded. So "The Christians" seems to assert, along with Christopher Marlowe's Mephistopheles in dialogue with the title character of "Doctor Faustus": "Why, this is hell, nor am I out of it." Phil Male's scenic design, along with the lights and sound of Zac Hunter and Ben Dobler, offers a vision of the modern megachurch as heaven's bright vestibule.

Yet the inevitably human range of interpretation gives rise to a hellish scene of endless division, rooted in this life and its abundant supply of refutations to purportedly divine promises. The promises are embodied, with searing irony, in the choir's rousing, expertly prepared hymns. The repeated assertion of the final one that the faithful will "lean on the everlasting arms" is the only point of rest offered by Hnath's disturbing story. Each member of a "Christians"' audience is implicitly charged with deciding if that's enough.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Ensemble Music concert: Hagen Quartet focuses this season on music of its countryman Schubert

Quartets produced late in each composer's career made up the program the Hagen Quartet played under Ensemble Music Society auspices Wednesday evening at the Indiana History Center.

Rainer Schmidt, Clemens Hagen, Veronika Hagen, and Lukas Hagen.
There is always a temptation to see late works, especially from eras when health was easily imperiled and sudden or lingering death was common, as an artistic creator's premonitions of that universal fate. There is some basis to support foreboding intimations in the case of the concert's three pieces: Beethoven's Quartet no. 16 in F major, op. 135; Shostakovich's Quartet No. 13 in B-flat minor, op. 138, and Schubert's Quartet No. 13 in A minor, op. 29, D. 804 ("Rosamunde").

The most insistently gloomy of those pieces is the Shostakovich, a bleak work in one long movement, reflecting the Soviet composer's weariness at running afoul of his government and a mounting succession of health problems. He had five fraught years remaining to him when he wrote his thirteenth string quartet in 1970. Its music stretches Shostakovich's aesthetic reach even as it reinforces his signature reticence punctuated by bravado (often humorous, but not here).

It seemed to suit the Hagen foursome well. Founded in 1981 by four Austrian siblings, of whom three have remained throughout the ensemble's career, the Hagen unifies its interpretations precisely, guided by what is strikingly like extrasensory perception. Eye contact and body language play a minimal role, from what was evident on the IHC stage.

This characteristic lent a special gravity to the B-flat minor quartet's last section. In returning to the haunting atmosphere of the work's outset, the music doubles down on its "memento mori" feeling, evoking the visual-arts meme of a still life, but often with a human figure in contemplation, that includes a skull. I was struck by hints of emotional healing and calm in the Hagen's performance; amid occasional tapping on instruments and separated phrases verging on silence, the hospice evocation was distinctive. This did much to settle the agitation of the faster middle section, a kind of "Totentanz" of feverish irresolution. Here and elsewhere in the work, Shostakovich's experimentation with twelve-tone features, though never abandoning tonality, serve to fragment his usual rhythmic and melodic profile.

Uncanny unity in tone, dynamics and phrasing marked everything the Hagen played. The players seem disinclined to take up invitations in the music to shine individually. Even when a solo turn in the spotlight was offered by the score, it was lent just enough prominence to avoid sounding understated. That was true of the way Veronika Hagen launched the Shostakovich, as well as of first violinist Lukas Hagen's manner in the Beethoven work. That piece has aspects of the stand-out role assigned to the first violin in Classical period quartets, but Lukas was never a showboat.

The best aspect of the Hagen's F-major quartet performance was its poised presentation of the music's lightheartedness, even while not underplaying its dire hints. Particularly vivid was the group's indulgence in the quirky humor of the finale, which is formed around the mysterious "Muss es sein? Es muss sein!" question-and-answer motto. I'm guessing the ensemble leans toward an interpretation of "Must it be? It must be!" that favors a firm but semi-jocular conversational exchange about money, about which the insecure Beethoven typically expressed great interest. There's a little too much whimsy, amply respected in this performance, to read nothing but fatalism about life into the piece.

After intermission came a work more saturated with its composer's portentous fears: Schubert's "Rosamunde" quartet. Again, the bursts of flashiness in the first violin part were not obtrusive. In the finale, every gesture was fully within the embrace of ensemble playing.  And despite its darkly ruminative mood, the third-movement minuet and trio had a sprightly dance motion to it; the Trio even went a bit "country" in its suggestion of the musette (a small bagpipe with pastoral associations). Another confirmation of the Hagen's unity was how this quality lent weight even to transitional passages in the second movement, in between focus on the tune Schubert borrowed from one of his minimally successful stage projects — incidental music to the play "Rosamunde."

Recalled to the stage for an encore, the Hagen offered a short work also featuring its superb violist. In a transcription of a Dvorak song, Veronika Hagen carried the vocal line with extraordinary tenderness, cushioned by her (for the most part) lifelong colleagues.

[Photo by Harald Hoffman]

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Indianapolis Opera finds a congenial spot in 'Camelot'

King Arthur lifts aloft the symbol of his authority.
The material of Arthurian legend is well-worn in the English-speaking world, and among its products that best succeed at keeping the legacy alive is the Lerner and Lowe musical "Camelot."

Indianapolis Opera ended its 2018-19 season this weekend with a production of the show that put lively detail into the familiar story of ancient British knighthood in flower, wilted by shortsightedness and adultery.

The production looked good, nicely laid out and with the cast outfitted acceptably. With "Camelot" that means you can't be finicky about authenticity when the matter at hand derives from a prehistorical period (in English terms, not elsewhere) that has always floated free of known events. It's a timeless milieu, vastly different from our own but with immortal human difficulties in contention.

To make the challenged hero, King Arthur, a naive, well-intentioned innovator in statecraft is most of what's needed to engage an audience's sympathy. And Daniel Narducci's portrayal struck those notes firmly, as seen Saturday night at Butler University's Schrott Center for the Arts. He convincingly stood for the force of civilization, established and sustained by power and justified by adherence to fairness and the peaceful resolution of disputes. Supported by the distant wisdom of Merlin, the wizard whose useful presence in times of trial is thwarted by a spell that removes him from the scene, Arthur is on his own.

For the sake of entertainment, the hard work of influencing the behavior of quarreling elites on horseback toward calmer conflict management goes on in the background. But any King Arthur has to look as though he wields such influence, always helped by the magic that gave him his sword Excalibur as the enduring symbol of his right to rule. Narducci sang with that kind of authority as well.  At first, the hero's gift for self-deprecating humor was too muted, as Arthur is nervously self-conscious awaiting his bride Guenevere ("I Wonder What the King Is Doing Tonight"). It came through winningly in his second-act duet with Marci Jackson's queen, "What Do the Simple Folk Do?"

Lancelot (Luke Scott) declares to Guenevere his forbidden love.
I don't hesitate to call that number the show's best in representing its lighter side. "Camelot" ends sadly with the demise of the kingdom, the only hopeful note being Arthur's stirring reprise of the title song to a young visitor to the battlefield whose hero-worship is all-consuming. So the king enlists him as the last knight of the round table and charges him to convey the story to his neighbors and to posterity. Given that mostly gloomy conclusion, "What Do the Simple Folk Do?" earlier reasserts the bond between Arthur and Guenevere that is destined to die through her love affair with Sir Lancelot.

Jackson's Guenevere lacked the right ingenue quality in her initial appearance. "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood" didn't seem something the bride minded leaving behind. But the characterization later became fully fitting for a queen who quickly assumes a power capable of tempering her husband's idealism. And there was a knowing, self-aware quality in Jackson's performance that made her fatal attraction to Lancelot believable, even after her initial mockery.

In fact, the most unbelievable thing about that forbidden love is how it's generated by the French knight's miraculous, sudden healing of a knight he has slain while jousting in earnest. It's a real deus ex machina in that the miracle seems to stem from Lancelot's purity and moral stature; his God is thus a kind of enabler, planting the seed of Camelot's destruction. This is a disconcerting matter that probably can't bear much scrutiny.

The only chink in Lancelot's armor at first appears to be his lack of humility, which Luke Scott projected well in the conceited song "C'est Moi." Scott, like Narducci, had the vocal equipment required to put his character across, both in his sworn allegiance to the king and in his conflicted drive to betray that trust by becoming the queen's lover.

In other roles, David Paul Mosedale was too soft-spoken to make a dramatic impression as the wizard that was equal to his sage appearance. A murmuring Merlin is not quite the thing to establish the origins of Camelot. Maybe it was a way to make the most complete contrast with Mosedale's major role, that of the befuddled knight errant Pellinore, who becomes Arthur's most conspicuous ally. The actor's Pellinore had a broad nasal intonation and antic brashness, comical at every turn, that made him a distant cousin of the uproarious Cockney Alfred P. Doolittle in another Lerner and Loewe musical, "My Fair Lady."

The other supporting role, that of the conniving, resentful bastard son Mordred, was given a note of menace that ought to have been more provocative and dangerous in Benjamin Adams' performance.  His one big number, "The Seven Deadly Virtues," is a nice piece of satirical writing by the show's creators that needs to be belted out with crisp disdain. It got something a little less specific, though the point the character wants to make is that he's enlisted on the dark side. And indeed Mordred becomes responsible for turning the illegitimate affair at court into a matter of treason, leading to Camelot's destruction.

A. Scott Parry's stage direction was smooth and effective, particularly so in the climactic ensemble song "Guenevere," which makes the case against the queen the cause of civil war. Similarly well-knit was the first-act ensemble number, 'The Lusty Month of May," which ought to have looked a little more naughty, given the suggestive lyrics put into the mouth of the soon-to-be-naughty Queen Guenevere.

The production was conducted by Kelly Kuo, capably keeping stage and pit in sync. The orchestra was especially eloquent in the underscoring of dialogue. Like movie music, these passages do so much to put across the emotional heft of the ageless story. Lighting design by Quinten James, with projections by Zach Rosing, complemented the action, even though there were a few missed cues in which an actor moved into shadow when the light should have been there immediately.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Joined by the Indianapolis Quartet, Drew Petersen brings two-year University of Indianapolis residency to an end

Drew Petersen completed his tenure as UIndy artist-in-residence.
The American Pianists Awards in 2017 went to Drew Petersen, a pianist who was already distinguished for youthful accomplishment when he vied for the prize. Now, his two-year period under the professional wing of the American Pianists Association is coming to an end. Part of the closure is rounding out his status as artist-in-residence at the University of Indianapolis, which he did Friday night in a concert featuring the UIndy-based Indianapolis Quartet.

The near-capacity audience in Ruth Lilly Performance Hall at the Chistel DeHaan Fine Arts Center immediately warmed to the 25-year-old musician, charmed by his performance of Enrique Granados' "Valses poeticos," an enchanting suite of delicately tinged waltzes. Petersen gave each of the seven movements, plus their framing by a prelude and coda, its individual character.

I won't say much more about either this performance or that of Schubert's Fantasy in C major ("Wanderer"), since both works were featured on his January recital at the Carmel Palladium and were reviewed here. It's worth mentioning  about the "Wanderer" Fantasy that the short-lived muddiness just before the Allegro finale two months ago was not repeated. There was nothing I detected Friday evening that did not meet the pristine standards of Petersen's usual playing. His interpretation of this piece suggested that he is fully sensitive to the dramatic feeling in Schubert's major works — an affinity that the composer was destined to see unsatisfied in his ambitions to notch a success on the operatic stage.

The piano-rich score of Robert Schumann's Quintet in E-flat major, op. 44, balanced the program nicely, and brought in the string quartet created at and supported by UIndy.  Members Zachary DePue and Joana Genova, violins; Michael Isaac Strauss, viola, and Austin Huntington, cello, have quickly forged an apparently unshakable bond as the ensemble completes three years in existence.

Petersen and the quartet displayed a fine balance of forces from the start, and the five musicians' interpretation of the opening Allegro brillante was notable for flexibility of tempo and a unanimity of "paragraphing" — a sense of the movement's units of significance and subtle changes of direction. The variety of dynamics and astute accentuation, along with detached phrasing, gave special life to the second movement, "in the manner of a march," as the designation reads.

The Scherzo was notable for the color and verve imparted to its two contrasting Trios. As for the finale, Petersen and the quintet dug confidently into its almost muscle-bound energy. At the same time, the contrasting material was not scanted as the music shifted into a mood of respite. As a form, the fugue became vestigial in the 19th century, but fugal episodes were still cultivated by Romantic composers, and they are an essential part of the impact the fourth movement makes here. The strength of each entry was smoothly coordinated, and the drive toward the double bar was as swift and precise as a Blue Angels maneuver. The audience's spirits soared along with the players'.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Return to the scene: Medalists in 2018 IVCI come back for a joint recital at Glick Indiana History Center

With the stress of competition removed for performers and audience alike, the top three players in last year's International Violin Competition of Indianapolis came back to the scene of their triumphs for a recital program Tuesday evening.

Winners of the bronze, silver, and gold medals in the 2018 IVCI presented mini-recitals, nicely balanced in length and idiom, at the Basile Theater of the Glick Indiana History Center. Chih-Yi Chen provided suitably conscientious partnership at the piano.

Captivating encore: Lin, Hokamura, and Hsu play Julian Milone's arrangement  of the 24th Paganini caprice.
Performance order differed from how the three violinists finished in September. To open there was an unusual appetizer in weight and distinction: the magisterial Chaconne from J.S. Bach's Partita no. 2 in D minor, played by silver medalist Risa Hokamura. The elaborate set of variations on a short repeated phrase has long been regarded as the summit of the solo violin repertoire.

The variation form poses an eternal question, especially when it comes to interpretation by a soloist. Should the variations sound like variously contrasting ways of handling the same material, so that a performance emphasizes how they reflect upon one another, as if each had its place in a broad mosaic or musical quilt? Or does that focus take second place to building an interpretive arc over the course of the form, so that the whole sequence has a kind of rhetorical solidity? In other words, is the Chaconne an exhibition or an argument?

However interesting it is to hear an illuminating display of the composer's variation ingenuity, I lean more toward performances of works in variation form that have narrative drive. In the Bach Chaconne, the string-crossing intensity of a couple of variations toward the end should be enough to raise chills along the spine— not because of their isolated glory but because they seem connected to the significance of what has gone on before and, especially, to the calm, concluding restatement of the original. Hokamura started the piece with the initial chords more broken than usual, a choice that signaled commitment to neither approach in particular. But it did herald a deliberate interpretation, emphasizing the reflective side of the music. Despite its technical assurance, it seemed a little too studied and episodic, even granted the attractive flow she imparted to the more tender variations.

She commanded good tempo fluctuation in Tchaikovsky's Valse-Scherzo, which showed a more personal sense of the music's meaning. She let the soaring melody in the middle glide nicely. And she made playful and precise the short, downward-skittering figures in the main theme. For the Ravel Tzigane, the unaccompanied introductory section that puts an authentic gypsy stamp on the work had the right air of spontaneity and barely restrained wildness. After the piano entrance, the riotous atmosphere attained steadiness and verve that was expertly coordinated with the keyboard in the accelerating passages that bring the work to a powerful conclusion.

Such power rooted in folk music was a feature as well of bronze medalist Luke Hsu's finale, Wieniawski's "Scherzo-tarantelle" in G minor, op. 16. A fleet display of any fiddler's technical chops, the work showed Hsu's to be of a high order, apart from such imbalances as blurry low figuration contrasted with abrupt high-register punctuation. To balance all the piece's demands at top speed is a continual challenge. But, even allowing for a final squeal of indeterminate pitch, Hsu's performance admirably indicated he knows just what a display piece is all about. Bravura to burn goes a long way in bringing off such music.

Still, there was perhaps too strong a sense in Hsu's stage manner of a man wrestling music to the mat and pinning it for the win. Fortunately, what we heard was usually more nuanced than what we saw. The Prokofiev Sonata No. 2 in D major, the one he wrote originally for flute and whose music retains some of that air-borne quality, was well thought-out and displayed Hsu's great feeling for tone. The tart fanfares of the first movement were brilliantly articulated, and the succeeding Presto confirmed the violinist's gift  for sharply defined rhythms. The Andante had the hummable quality one expects from 20th-century classical music's finest tunesmith. The finale put Hsu's muscular approach to good use as the duo set the pulses racing.

Between the Prokofiev and Wieniawski, Hsu played the last two movements of Eugene Ysaye's Sonata in G minor for Solo Violin. The complex strands threaded among dizzying chains of 32nd and 64th notes were clear throughout the Allegretto poco Scherzoso, and the Finale con Brio was dramatic, trenchantly accented, and expansive.

After intermission came the opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the gold-medal winning ways of Richard Lin. The evening's most concentrated display of one composer came with Lin and Chen's performance of Edvard Grieg's Sonata No. 3 in C minor. I felt, as I did with what I heard of Lin during the competition, that he consistently imparted his personality to the music without burying it in himself. The playing was well-nigh perfect in pace and pitch, especially in the final measures of the warmly rendered second movement. His rapport with the pianist was airtight, especially in the finale, with its vivid contrasts of tempo and mood.

In Sarasate's "Zigeunerweisen," an old chestnut that can be counted on to come through afresh when sensitively played, Lin delivered. He had finesse to spare in delineating every mercurial gesture in the first part, where the violin dominates. With the duo in lockstep in the fast concluding section, Lin conveyed the score's earthiness while keeping his tone pure. The piece's touches of glitter — its harmonics and left-hand pizzicati — were neatly tossed off. This was virtuoso playing that didn't stir the uneasy feeling that showing off was the extent of what the piece had to communicate.

The three prize fiddlers gathered onstage for an encore, delighting the near-capacity audience with an arrangement of the best-known Paganini Caprice for solo violin, the immortal No. 24. Distribution of its imperishable wonders was expertly managed by the three medalists. The marvelous arrangement is the work of London's Julian Milone, an old hand at stunning expansions of violin music for multiple strings. It was an ideal nightcap to this violin feast.

[Photo by Denis Ryan Kelly Jr.]

Monday, March 18, 2019

More than academic: Butler jazz faculty reach out beyond campus in Jazz Kitchen debut

Controversy about the strength and sustenance that jazz's home in academia give to the music continues to be lively, as a visit or two to Jack Walrath's Jazz Trumpets Forum (on Facebook) will reconfirm. Whatever happened to learning your craft from older working role models on the bandstand, runs the nostalgic sentiment?

But there is little doubt that high school and college programs that develop jazz musicians are firmly entrenched, even indispensable. The narrow path presented by the dearth of all-ages performance opportunities is just one reason for not depending on the shrinking number of jazz nightclubs to nurture young musicians.

In that context, it's great to see teachers at the college level exhibit their expertise in the public sphere, as happened in one long set Sunday night at the Jazz Kitchen when Butler University faculty took the stage.

In the future, it would be great to hear more originals from the group, but in any case there were some spicy arrangements to savor, starting with pianist Gary Walters' perky setting of Thelonious Monk's "Let's Cool One," which opened the set, and going on to alto saxophonist Matt Pivec's sensitively animated "Witch Hunt" (Wayne Shorter). I also enjoyed vocalist Erin Benedict's nimble version of Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean." It opened with the singer in dialogue with bassist Jesse Wittman and went on to explore some sparse textures without ever going slack.

Wrapping things up was a fitting tribute to the ultimate jazz educator, the late David Baker, in a romp through his "Kentucky Oysters," arranged by trombonist Rich Dole. Walters contributed one of his several stunning solos of the set to that finale; he was also crucial to the success of several of Benedict's songs, an indicator of his long history accompanying singers, principally Carrie Newcomer.

As for the soloing in what seemed to be the gig's mostly jam-session profile, there was a particular thrill to drummer Jon Crabiel's setting aside sticks and brushes to etch an astute manual backdrop for Wittman's solo in "Alone Together," in which the front line was left to the reduced horn contingent of Dole and tenor saxophonist Sean Imboden, compatible partners and individualists as well. Crabiel continued with his hands in play, complemented by footwork on bass drum and hi-hat cymbals, in a richly varied solo turn.

Throughout, Butler student Kent Hickey was an adept substitute player on trumpet, setting down an especially incandescent solo in Dizzy Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia."  Guitarist Sandy Williams, always tasteful and focused, was among the other soloists in that zesty excursion.

This exposition by the northside university's professorial class was sufficient indication that there's plenty of proof in the academic jazz pudding. I will be happy to anticipate more in the future.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Doors into the unknown: IRT's 'A Doll's House Part 2' takes up Nora's story 15 years after famous departure

Torvald leans in to make himself clear to Nora.
The natural feature of Norway best-known to the world is its fjords — narrow waterways to the sea that typically pass between steep cliffs. A brief online search of fjord images indicates that the definitive "steep cliffs" aren't inevitably a feature, and these more gradual bordering slopes are crucial to Ann Sheffield's scenic design for
"A Doll's House Part 2," the Lucas Hnath drama that Indiana Repertory Theatre opened Friday night.

That communicates a lot of the meaning of this cheeky sequel to Henrik Ibsen's 1879 realistic tragedy of the collapse of a middle-class Norwegian marriage. The vistas awaiting Nora Helmer as she escapes from a role she finds disrespectful and confining vary ambiguously from the closed-in feeling of her domestic life to the promise of something more open, reaching to the sky.

The production's beautiful backdrop, with the deceptively gentle mountains bordering the water on both sides, is the mute natural frame for Nora's fate. The house that she left 15 years before is shockingly minimal in its
Returning home, Nora explains her long absence to Anne Marie.
furnishings. Between the visible outdoors and the oddly institutional appearance of the Helmer home's interior, we almost get all we need to know about what Part 2 has to communicate. Individually grasped liberty under restrictive social mores can be barren. In Jean-Paul Sartre's existentialist formulation, we are condemned to freedom.

Director James Still takes an approach both playful and stark in the movement of the play's four characters: The returning Nora and her desperate agenda, her abandoned husband Torvald, the couple's daughter Emmy, and the household's longtime nanny and housekeeper Anne Marie. Their conversational maneuvers involve shifting chairs around like chess pieces, trying to regulate a proximity to each other that matches their words and suits their moods.

The circumstances of Nora's departure have upended family life and the Helmer reputation in their small town.
With difficulty the fleeing wife and mother has painfully crafted a good living as a feminist writer under a pseudonym; the reason for her return, though it's revealed early, is so crucial that spoiler etiquette forbids me to divulge it here. The surprises with which Hnath lards his script are well-distributed and fortunately too well-grounded to strain credulity: Revelation of the sort of person Emmy has turned out to be as a young adult is a paradigm shift. When it comes, the feeling is not dismayingly obvious, but entirely natural. Hnath has thoroughly processed his great predecessor's uncanny skill at dissecting why people act the way they do.

He does so with a startling blend of raw emotional upheaval and manic comedy. He allows the four  — particularly Torvald and Nora as they rake over and stoke the embers of their long-dying marriage — to give vent to temper tantrums that skirt the edge of sit-com blowups today's audiences are familiar with. Obscene insults and foot-stamping find their way into elaborately well-articulated arguments. Whatever shocks Ibsen provided to audiences of his day are updated commandingly in the new play's language and this production's  detailed gestures, tense pauses, and frenetic movement. In character the actors occasionally address the audience, intensely broadening their arguments, as if to say "Can I get an amen?!"

At the summit of the virtuoso performances is Tracy Michelle Arnold's portrayal of Nora. The character's range of emotions, from her confident anti-marriage exposition in the first scene to the tortured neediness so variously evident later, get free rein. Yet there's never the sense that the characterization is off the rails or scattershot in its focus; there is an undeniable through line from entrance to exit. Arnold's Nora is neither a ninny nor a Nestor, but something infinitely more complex. Again, taking care to avoid specifics, let me simply indicate that her exit confirms and extends the tragic dimensions of the original play.

Becca Brown plays the Helmers' self-possessed daughter.
As Torvald, Nathan Hosner matches Arnold angst for angst. Torvald's discomfort at the unexpected return of his estranged wife sends seismic waves out from the stage. His face registered it all, lips curling and uncurling, cheek muscle twitching. Self-consciousness attains new heights, and Torvald talks about it, of course. Hosner also  caught  the comical dimension of an alpha male's insecurity in a world about to change into the 20th century's emergence of feminism. Critiques of marriage had been already launched in the turmoil of Ibsen's era, and the sequel's updated language forges a bond with progressive notions that were bubbling up many decades before sexual liberation was pharmaceutically enabled.

Becca Brown conveyed Emmy's blunt appraisal of her mother's behavior and its effects on the family. For the most part, Emmy is a cool customer, but Brown shifted into the character's emotional overdrive easily. Kim Staunton moved beyond the long-suffering maid stereotype she embodied at first to complete the four-sided exhibition of personal resentments and grievances, meeting fire with fire.

Alex Jaeger's costume designs were rich in period atmosphere, and the actors wore them magnificently, despite the flopping about required of Hosner and Arnold. Michelle Habeck's lighting and Tom Horan's sound complemented the action — assisting its dips and swirls, its soaring and plunging — at every turn. Besides being condemned to freedom, the people in "A Doll's House Part 2" helplessly live out another Sartrean condemnation: Hell is other people.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Site-specific Fonseca Theatre Company production spotlights the legend and luster of Lady Day

When an actor portrays a famous person, mere mimicry isn't everything. But we expect a reasonable facsimile in order to get the uncanny thrill we have whenever a stage or screen depiction sets before us a celebrity we think
Monica Cantrell as Billie Holiday
we "know" well.

Opinions are sure to differ, but to get an outside example out of the way: I admired Sam Rockwell's impersonation of George W. Bush more than Christian Bale's otherwise amazing spittin' image of Dick Cheney in last year's "Vice." Rockwell's very approximateness to "Dubya" won me over.

Thus, I liked the obvious sense that I wasn't really seeing Billie Holiday before me Wednesday night when "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill" opened in a Fonseca Theatre Company production at the Linebacker Lounge. Monica Cantrell's full-fledged representation of the extravagantly admired singer came through most completely in her singing. When a performer with such a distinctive style as Holiday's can be so well re-created, you have all you need to make Lanie Robertson's play succeed.

Cantrell, who did the show a generation ago in a Phoenix Theatre production,  had that in abundance. Already in her first song, "I Wonder Where Our Love Has Gone," I had a catch in my throat. What a marvelous grasp of Billie Holiday she displayed there! The first time she sang the song's bridge, the touch of whimper she imparted to the words "treat me" was spot on. Other authentic touches — delicate ornamentation, perfect diction and pitch sense, and suitable expressiveness — kept animating Cantrell's performance throughout the 100-minute show.

Another Holiday characteristic,  behind-the-beat phrasing, never taken to the edge of distortion, was immaculate. It first showed up in the second song, "When a Woman Loves a Man." It helped put across the poignancy of "God Bless the Child," especially in the lingering phrase "that's got his own." Directed by Dena Toler (with music direction by Tim Brickley), Cantrell covered the Holiday spectrum — sometimes in the same song. "Easy Living" hinted at heartbreak, but had a smile at the end.

Stock-still and statuesque in a long white dress, she riveted the packed bar's attention with "Strange Fruit," the searing sketch of Southern lynching outrages that Holiday made a personal anthem. The way Cantrell sang the grotesque phrase focusing on the victims' appearance — "bulging eyes and twisted mouth" — dared listeners to avert their gaze. (The song focuses on Dixie atrocities, but the practice is often illustrated by a photo of a double lynching in Marion, Indiana, in 1930).

Some fans of Holiday are swept away by her late period, when heartache and substance abuse had ravaged her voice. But though this show's setting is a Philadelphia dive bar in 1959, the year of Holiday's death, Cantrell's singing had the strengths of the singer in her prime. That seemed fully appropriate: The show is a portrait of an immortal, and why shouldn't her best work be evoked? The way she sang the lugubrious "Don't Explain" evoked some of that late-period fragility quite well.

Who knows how close the spoken words Robertson puts in the singer's mouth match reality? It's certain that the device of having her so fully address the audience between songs doesn't jibe with Holiday's mystique — the isolated diva on whose every note fans used to hang. But I think the anecdotes and the caustic comments about the hard life Holiday lived help complete the dramatic self-portrait. In all her talk, she honors her inspirations — Louis Armstrong for his feeling, Bessie Smith for her big voice — understandably leaving out Ethel Waters, with whom there was no love lost. She references her sorry episodes of prostitution, and she speaks with a combination of rue and affection of the unreliable men with whom she made risky liaisons. She speaks fondly of her triumphs as well, and the ambition that fueled her rise from the depths which eventually claimed her.

The show has  a few scraps of dialogue with her pianist, played by Jon Stombaugh, and her friend Emerson, the bar proprietor, voiced by producing director Bryan Fonseca. These serve to reinforce the mood of reminiscence as well as to allude to her ongoing health crises, which were to result in her early death at 44.

I leave to the end my misgivings about one long anecdote. It's a matter of tone, but how Cantrell delivered it may have been stipulated in the text. Obviously, I have never experienced racial discrimination. But I was surprised that Billie's story of her being denied use of the toilet in an upscale restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, was treated as an amusing triumph. With the touring Artie Shaw band gamely agreeing to eat with her in the restaurant's kitchen, she had to endure the hostess's denial to her of access to the restroom. So she gleefully recounts her long-delayed response: peeing on the floor, and all over the racist maitresse-d'hotel's shoes. To me, that's a story of thorough humiliation — Billie's, not her appalling antagonist.

Either Robertson's Billie is to be seen as hiding that humiliation, or she truly felt she won the "argument" by her unavoidable letting go. I was relieved (no pun intended) when the singing resumed, even though the vehicle was the indelibly tragic "Strange Fruit." As usual, music often conveys what needs to be conveyed. I'll just have to settle into the puzzle of knowing how to interpret the anecdote that preceded it.

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Greatest Generation blues: District Theatre's 'Yank!' gives voice to hidden passions in the World War II U.S. Army

Nothing quite as transformative as a big war happens in most American lives, but beneath the surface there have
Mitch (Tanner Brunson) comforts Stuart (Jonathan Krouse) in "Yank!"
long been other transformations pushing to emerge into full, free view. Yet conformity is always the official requirement, especially to the military mind, and that means that a society's reigning values acquire the force of law. There are no atheists in foxholes, says the adage; and that presumption once covered unconventional sexual orientation as well.

That is the difficulty at the core of "Yank!," a musical of gay romance getting its first local production now at the District Theatre,  the old home of Theatre on the Square, 627 Massachusetts Ave. The product of Joseph Zellnik (music) and David Zellnik (book and lyrics), the show was brought here by Tim Spradlin, a local theater veteran who believes passionately in "Yank!" and directs this production.

Seen Saturday on the District Theatre's Christel DeHaan stage, the performance nearly brought off the complex blend of choreography, song, and drama it requires to make maximum impact. The balance of comedy and pathos was managed vividly and with the intensity the World War II story demands. On a stage of few props and minimal set, slide projections of period photos helped lend suitable context.

The men of Company C celebrate the squad.
In an era when military service was (without the slightest controversy) seen as vital to the nation's survival, young American men had to follow an even stricter model of masculinity than most of them feel today. Yet the prejudices and expectations of 70-plus years ago continue to exert control.

The World War II model required men in service to miss two kinds of women in different ways. There was Mom, and there was the girlfriend. The latter was boosted into fantasy by such Hollywood celebrities as Betty Grable, Lana Turner, and Rita Hayworth, swooned over in publicity photos kept underneath mattresses. Whoever got the enlistees' juices flowing was always assumed to be female. Male bonding was necessary for the sake of survival, but there could be nothing erotic about it.

The illustrative Zellnik song, given the requisite gusto by the cast's Army recruits and draftees of Company C,  is "Your Squad Is Your Squad."  The deliberate redundancy of the song's title is perfect to make the internal rapport of each army unit seem self-evident. But such mutual support and commitment could never extend to the kind of romance that develops between the popular Mitch, adept at "passing" for straight, and Stuart, a shy, clumsy private who keeps a revealing journal that will prove to be his undoing.

In the second act, the shared dream of the two secretive lovers gets an outing in song just before "Your Squad Is Your Squad" commands the stage. It's the dream that Jonathan Krouse (Stuart) and Tanner Brunson (Mitch) sing into being in "A Couple of Regular Guys," a hymn to a blissfully shared post-war life that is never to be. In this song and elsewhere, Krouse and Brunson made the romance come alive and communicated it with an unfaltering depth and energy. The characters' surreptitious behavior seemed as natural as their unguarded moments of free, passionate expression. The story rests on the delicate balance Stuart and Mitch maintain, and the lead-role performances went to the nth degree in making the show work. The interrogation of Stuart approaches torture, and Krouse brought the right intensity to his victimization.

There were difficult ensemble numbers that varied in their security and balance Saturday night, but the vocals, supported by an offstage band, usually hung together well. The score isn't an easy one, and the band, behind a curtain off to one side of the theater's wide stage, often ran into intonation problems.  The edginess of the harmonies, whether intentional or not, certainly underlined the dramatic tension. And coordination between voices and instruments usually hit the bull's-eye. Conductor Michael Davis and vocal director John Phillips trained the musical forces to survey and command the broad landscape well enough to move the story of divided loyalties along and deliver its essence.

Two other notable performances in the dozen-strong cast deserve individual mention. Jessica Hawkins took the role of "Every Woman" — from the era's torch-song stylists and sentimental big-band singers to a role reflecting the same-sex attraction that women also had to hide in order to survive.  She shares her expertise in "Get, Got It, Good." The solo "Blue Twilight" wove a tapestry of romance, and "The Saddest Gal What Am" represented the silly aspect of what so many couples separated by war must have felt deeply.

As Artie, D. Scott Robinson represented the type within military and corporate structures who manage to get what they want, the people who game the system. A photographer for "Yank," the tabloid for servicemen to which Stuart is assigned as reporter, Artie sees Stuart for who he is and pushes back against the naive man's link to the ambivalent Mitch. He's as out as can be, under the circumstances. He knows how to make the less restrictive job of army photographer work for him. The role is a less rascally version of Billis in "South Pacific," less sordid than Milo Minderbinder in "Catch-22." The audience is likely meant to admire Artie's openness and frank assertion of his identity against a repressive system. That's best expressed in "Click," a number that requires precise tap-dance skills that Robinson came close to but the three-man support contingent largely missed.

"Yank!" conveys, from its title on out, the esprit de corps the magazine of the title is supposed to promote, never exposing the horrors of war but always meant to boost morale. It can also be taken as a reminder that inducted soldiers are yanked out of their personal identities and forced to conform in often self-denying ways. That  applies across the board to the military's hostility to individualism; to gay warriors of our parents' and grandparents' generation, the yanking was much more severe. Many peacetime bridges would have to be crossed before more positive transformations could be embraced, though retrograde forces survive.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

Svetlin Roussev returns to the ISO schedule for the first time since his IVCI Laureate status got him there in 1998

Svetlin Roussev, the distinguished Bulgarian violinist who has amassed many distinctions since his placement among six International Violin Competition of Indianapolis laureates nearly 21 years ago, made the most of his concerto appearance Friday night with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra.
Jacob Joyce made dashing impression as a stand-in for ISO's originally scheduled guest.

The "Sounds of Spain" theme allowed him to occupy the guest soloist spotlight with Edouard Lalo's expansive "Symphonie espagnole," op. 21. Across five movements, the Spanish-influenced work by a French composer lives up to its title: It weaves musical threads between violin and orchestra throughout, even though the solo instrument is never out of prominence for long.

The concert was also remarkable for the Classical Series debut of the ISO's associate conductor, Jacob Joyce. The second-in-command staff conductor for music director Krzysztof Urbanski was pressed into service by Bramwell Tovey's cancellation due to a family emergency. (The international blogger Norman Lebrecht noted the substitution in a post yesterday that had Joyce's title wrong and indicated Tovey withdrew because of his personal illness.)

Joyce will conclude his debut weekend in the ISO's premier series today in a Hilbert Circle Theatre concert beginning at 5:30 p.m. The abbreviated Coffee Classical concert Thursday morning started the current focus on the impressively experienced 26-year-old musician; it will continue when Joyce leads the annual Side-by-Side Concert Wednesday. James Johnson, the orchestra's CEO, announced from the stage both the conductor substitution and the ISO's decision to dedicate this weekend's concerts to the memory of Andre Previn.

Roussev and Joyce exhibited a firm partnership throughout "Symphonie espagnole." As I observed in a review of his 2017 IVCI recital at Indiana History Center, Roussev is a deliberate interpreter, exhibiting a full spectrum of sensitivity to the material. The probity of his artistic personality doesn't mean he lacks a feeling of spontaneity, however. There was plenty of fire and tenderness both in his Lalo performance, capped as it was by a fleet rendering of the Rondo finale that brought the audience to its feet.

Bow and baton parallelism symbolizes tightness of Roussev-Joyce partnership
The meeting of minds between conductor and soloist was exemplary. A crucial factor may have been Joyce's achievement as a prize-winning violinist, continuing beyond his student years. I was impressed by how unified the teasing tempo changes in the Scherzando: Allegro molto were, by the deftness of the accompaniment during the Intermezzo: Allegretto non troppo, and by the balanced aptness of the wind-chorale sonorities in the Andante.

When Roussev was not onstage, Joyce and his ISO colleagues exhibited similar affinities. The flashiness of such music as the "Orgia" finale of Turina's "Danzas fantasaticas" didn't interfere with an adroit tying together of the movement's rhythmic patterns.  Throughout the evening, flow was always a vital part of the point, and yet, particularly in Ravel's "Rapsodie espagnole," the distinctness of orchestral voices was given personality and sufficient weight. Soloing hewed to a high standard, including that of guest concertmaster Caroline Goulding, Roger Roe (English horn)  and Robert Danforth (principal horn).

The inevitably stirring suite of dances Manuel de Falla devised from his ballet "The Three-Cornered Hat" had the brio and full-spectrum brilliance of a finale. At nearly 10 o'clock when the orchestra finished it, the suite left the impression of wrapping things up, but there was still a pair of movements from Falla's "La vida breve" to follow. In retrospect the more reflective music, though nicely brought off here, might better have been placed before the orchestra donned that fancy hat.

In any case, a seal was put upon the associate conductor's auspicious main-series debut. Lebrecht seemed to imply that this weekend may give Joyce some of the luster of Leonard Bernstein's 1943 burst into fame with the New York Philharmonic. But we live in different times in a different place, and must take typically modest Midwestern satisfaction in our good fortune.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Phoenix Theatre: 'The Hotel Nepenthe' offers rooms with a view, even to those who never check in

Bellhop (Scott Van Wye) holds the telltale hatbox, flanked by Betsy Norton and Jolene Mentink Moffatt.
Have you ever had any truck with bibliomancy? Me neither: who could hope to get insight or guidance by opening a book randomly and finding just what you need there?

People who believe in it often use the Bible. If you don't get insight from the first passage you lay eyes on, the process permits a few tries. But not too many, because then it wouldn't be random. Chance has to remain in charge; to Bible believers, the chance that seems to rule the effort is really the guiding hand of the Author.

Bibliomancy has seemed worth my trying only once  — last night, after I got home from the preview performance of "The Hotel Nepenthe," a play by John Kuntz that will run at the Phoenix Theatre through March 24. The 95-minute one-act engaged me, but I needed a key to it in retrospect. What book might be equal to this show's concatenation of mystery and fun, its shuffling of encounters between people, its multiple levels of meaning?

No contest. I opened "Finnegans Wake" by James Joyce, the classically confusing word-mad portrait of night, hoping something there would tell me just what to make of "The Hotel Nepenthe." After a few brief page flips, there it was, on page 143: "The answer: A collideorscape!"

A senator and his wife greet well-wishers at a rally; nepenthe will follow.
The punned-upon real word shines through the neologism. That's it! The production is a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds in addition to the rapidly changing patterns of human interaction, with four actors playing a host of people, all under the shrewd direction of Phoenix artistic director Bill Simmons. Credit Michael Moffatt and Brian G. Hartz, respectively, for the well-coordinated lighting and sound design. The edgy original music by Jordan Munson helps keep the nervous vibe foremost. And Kuntz keeps turning the tube right through the magical finale.

In Joyce's "collideorscape" we have the play's themes of people colliding as well as seeking escape. The "or" in the middle is the toggle switch, the fulcrum of the action's teeter-totter.  These are often needy folks who have trouble perhaps identifying their needs, but certainly in devising a way to ease the pangs of need and regret. Which way should they turn? How can they get what they deserve? But check that! As Hamlet warns Polonius: "Use every man after his desert, and who should 'scape whipping?"

The opening encounter sets the tone for just one kind of the show's display of thrust and parry. The first is a contest of curiosity versus conscience as Jolene Mentink Moffatt's nosy car-rental worker tries to find out what's in the hatbox that Scott Van Wye's bellhop has brought over from the Hotel Nepenthe. The contents will eventually be revealed, on the order of the Chekhov dictum that if a gun is mentioned in the first act, it will go off in the last. It's one of several tie-ins Kuntz supplies from scene to scene, most of them abruptly introduced and released in the best "collideorscape" fashion.

Right behavior is never far from being a central concern, even when that concern is blithely set aside. Protecting the vulnerable is a keynote as well. The temptation to do otherwise is ever-present: "You can hide a dead baby anywhere!" is a repeated shocker of a line. Despite challenged inhibitions and the feeling that all norms can easily be unstrung, this is a moral play, including when it sends up conventional etiquette. A swift series of blackouts with Ben Asaykwee's tophatted groom asking the bellhop to take the newlyweds' luggage up to the bridal suite spins the wheel freely (comprising balletic turns, combat, farcical shouting, and lasciviousness) around the banal request and compliance with it.

The cigarette icon
Nepenthe is a substance supposed to bring the balm of oblivion to unhealed wounds. The play's suggestions as to how easily we hurt others and ourselves flow constantly as the scenes change against the spookily grand, sleek, all-purpose backdrop of Daniel Uhde's set. A starlet (Betsy Norton) gabs self-indulgently while she gets it on in a bathtub with an eager lover, then spins off into a name-dropping extravaganza that brings in more well-known figures, past and present, than the cover of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." It's one of several displays of talkativeness — as brief and brilliant as Catherine's wheels in a fireworks show. They are distributed among the four actors liberally, and contrasted with painfully taciturn, even cryptic, pyrotechnics that just go "boom!"

Danielle Buckel's costume and property designs straddle the boundary between realism and fancy, some of it retro, some if it underlining the ambiguous note in the program that the time of the play is "maybe now...maybe not." The bellhop's uniform recalled for me the old Philip Morris cigarette ads, an unintentionally comical reminder of mortality. Or else the image of the organ grinder's monkey. He is the very picture of any hotel's inherent blend of intimacy and strangeness, of order and randomness. Of all 20 characters, this one is most emblematic of "The Nepenthe Hotel"'s thematic obsessions. The cast plumbed them with slightly menacing, inviting charm Thursday night. The kaleidoscope shimmered and glowed along the lines of the Joycean collideorscape.

[Phoenix production photos by Zach Rosing]