Fall arts calendar off to a rousing start: Pioneer Theatre Company’s Scapin, Plan-B Theatre’s Ballet for Aliens, NOVA Chamber Music Series’ Connect with Inspiration

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The 2022-23 performing arts calendar has filled quickly, including a new adaptation of Molière’s play about Scapin the schemer, Plan-B Theatre’s Ballet for Aliens to mark the 10th anniversary of its Free Elementary School Tour and NOVA Chamber Music Series’ concert to open its 45th anniversary season.

PIONEER THEATRE COMPANY: SCAPIN 

The schemer is one of comedy’s most successful archetypes. Some of the greatest comedic performers mastered this archetype, including Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy and Lucille Ball. John Cleese made the hotel owner in Fawlty Towers, the British sitcom, an iconic schemer whose plans always ended up in a pile of hilarious bollocks. One of Julia Roberts’ finest comedic roles was as a schemer in the 1997 rom-com My Best Friend’s Wedding

More than 350 years ago, Molière cast the prototype for the schemer in Les Fourberies de Scapin (The Pranks of Scapin), a timeless homage to the Italian commedia dell’arte art form. In the original, Scapin and Sylvestre, not particularly the brightest sidekick, scheme to unite two young couples despite their fathers’ objections. The play follows the commedia dell’arte form with extended scenes and recurring riffs of physical and verbal antics, known as lazzis.

Xavier Reyes and Kate Middleton, Pioneer Theatre Company, Scapin. Photo Credit: BW Productions.

The physical comedy has held up magnificently. The play has been adapted many times with contemporary settings by theatrical companies around the world. In its adaptation to open its 61st season, the Pioneer Theatre Company (PTC) delivers marvelously on numerous levels, with an excellent cast that invests fully in the narrative of schemes, an appealing set to evoke a Neapolitan neighborhood in the 1960s, fashionable costume designs and a delightful script by Stephen Wrentmore. In terms of comedic timing, there were sufficient moments to indicate that by the time the play closes its two-week production run, the ensemble will have found the groove to extract the biggest punch from its numerous comedic antics.

Wrentmore sets Scapin as a female character and instead of fathers, he transforms the parents into stylish maternal busybodies, who hope that their sons Octave and Léandre will marry properly. There also are numerous musical bits, performed live by a trio of vocalists from the balcony, which parallel the comedic tone of particular scenes. This is another of Wrentmore’s significant adapting elements, bringing forth characters from the original into greater prominence. The trio comprises Zerbinette, Hyacintha (Octave’s romantic interest) and Nérine, the household nurse. The songs range from familiar pop hits of the 1960s to those that may not be contemporary to the period of Wrentmore’s adaptation but nevertheless work well among the harvest of pop culture references that include superheroes, films and Broadway musicals. Personal favorites featured in the production include bits from The Clash 1977 classic I Fought The Law and Beastie Boys’ 1987 hit (You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!).

Sofia Jean Gomez and Adrian Baidoo. Pioneer Theatre Company, Scapin. Photo Credit: BW Productions.

In a PTC blog, Wrentmore, who also directs the production, explains that Scapin “is really a playground for dexterous performers. So for me, Molière is an excellent seducer of audiences. He uses wit, repartee, and humor to hide and deliver his message, but first and foremost, he knows the audience is there to be entertained. And that is something he excels in.”

Those intentions are handsomely realized in this production. Wrentmore incorporates the play’s most familiar set piece, when Scapin (Kate Middleton) lures Géronta (Sofia Jean Gomez) into a bag to hide from soldiers and then beats her with a stick. Arganta (Celeste Ciulla) matches her counterpart in meddling to every act and gesture. Xavier Reyes fully embraces the range of fabulous dorkiness and bozo antics as Sylvestre, who is too lovable to be a menacing thug. Lucy Lavely as Zerbinette nearly steals the show, as she tells the story of Scapin’s scheming with exhilarating satisfaction to the unsuspecting target of the antics. Rounding out the solid cast are Andrea Morales (Hyacinthe), Adrian Baidoo (Léandre), Alex Walton (Octave), Lina Boyer (Nérine) and Zac Thorn (Carle).

The production’s visuals are noteworthy, especially Yoon Bae, scene designer; Brenda Van Der Wiel, costume designer and Samantha Wootten, hair and wig designer. Others include Brian Tovar (lighting designer), Bryce Robinette (sound designer), Zac Curtis (fight choreographer) and Tracey Woolley (production stage manager).

The show runs through Oct. 1. For tickets and more information, see the PTC website. 

The cast. Pioneer Theatre Company, Scapin. Photo Credit: BW Productions.

PLAN-B THEATRE: BALLET FOR ALIENS

Throughout the ten years that Plan-B Theatre has used to develop original plays for young audiences as part of the Free Elementary School Tour (FEST) program, the company has raised the bar steadily each year. This year’s entry, Ballet for Aliens, stands out as the program’s best work to date.

A Sept. 17 free, public performance of the 35-minute play at the Marmalade Branch of the Salt Lake City Public Library system was charming, pleasing and spirited, thanks to the performances of Danny Borba as Jacob, a 12-year-old boy who is not looking forward to his infusion treatment for Crohn’s disease, and Estephani Cerros as Sophie, his nurse.

The play has already grabbed the attention of Utah schools who are looking to book the production, geared toward students in grades 4-6, for presentation. Directed by Jerry Rapier, the production will be available through the end of the 2022-23 school year and will easily have been seen by more than 40,000 students in the state by then.

Ballet for Aliens, Plan-B Theatre. Photo Credit: Sharah Meservy.

The writing in Ballet for Aliens is superb, which the actors have taken to heart. As mentioned previously at The Utah Review, the creative writing team for this year’s production embodies wholly the spirit of the FEST artistic mission. Two of the three writers are high school students — ninth grader Gerard Hernandez and tenth grader Oliver Kokai-Means. The third is playwright Jennifer Kokai, a former Weber State University faculty member who is now the director of the University of South Florida’s School of Theatre and Dance. 

It is Hernandez’s story of his experiences with Crohn’s disease and his love of ballet, which set the frame for the story. Jacob is still learning to cope with the treatment he needs for the disease, especially after his first time did not go so well because his first nurse was not good with needles. He is skeptical about Sophie, but she uses her instincts wisely and decides to play along with Jacob’s imagination. He tells her that he is not from this planet, which is why he has this made-up “Earth” disease and that his parents have disguised their real identities as aliens. Sophie’s bedside manners are exemplary, as she gradually persuades Jacob to allow her to inject him with the hypodermic needle. Sophie empathizes with his concerns about the treatment and the fact that he has to spend extra time in the hospital. 

The script reflects the playful imaginations of its two younger writers, who also empathize with the experiences of the fictional character of Jacob they have created. There are many clever bits, including kazoos (and the actors manage to play this basic instrument quite handily) and a very well choreographed battle (courtesy of Ballet West’s Peter Christie) with the two actors using medical devices as pretend weapons. And, the play has a built-in laugh track, a witty nod to that venerable element of sitcom television that only recently was discontinued, likely for good. Adults may have been annoyed by canned laughter but its inclusion in Ballet for Aliens conveys that today’s youth, thanks to the internet, are savvy enough to be skeptical of such devices but nevertheless can find its nostalgic cache charming in its awkwardness and silliness. And, the playwrights know when to stop, before this bit of audience interaction becomes too cloying. 

Ballet for Aliens, Plan-B Theatre. Photo Credit: Sharah Meservy.

Ballet for Aliens is smart, not just for its intended school age audiences but also for parents, teachers and healthcare workers who could take a cue from Sophie about listening and acknowledging a child who is doing their best to live with and manage a chronic medical condition. Two other free, public performances are slated: Pleasant Valley Branch of the the Weber County Library System (Oct. 11, 10:30 a.m.) and the Collide Arts Festival (May 20, 2023, 4 p.m.), which will be held at the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts.

The production will feature two casts for various performances: Borba and Cerros and Tamari Dunbar and Amona Faatau. Occasionally, the cast will combine actors from each. Schools looking to schedule performances will find contact and essential information at Plan-B’s education page.

NOVA CHAMBER MUSIC SERIES: CONNECT WITH INSPIRATION

Connect with Inspiration, NOVA Chamber Music Series’ season opener, started with three works of exceptional intimacy where the instrumental lines often were maximally exposed. But, it was the concert’s closing work that brought the first take of the Connect theme to its most thrilling moments.

The unique kineticism of chamber ensemble magic was manifested in an electrifying performance of Nikolai Medtner’s Piano Quintet, the composer’s 45-year project which he completed in 1949 and which was published after his death in 1951. As previously noted in The Utah Review, pianist Cahill Smith has been an instrumental evangelist in retrieving the Russian composer from obscurity and in helping audiences as well as musical colleagues discover Medtner’s catalog for being just as worthy as his contemporaries which included Rachmaninoff and other great Russian pianists.

Midway through the third movement of the quintet, a work which took 27 minutes to perform, Smith’s face was beaming with pride and appreciation. It was a significant performance, with Smith joined by his Utah State University music faculty colleagues — The Fry Street Quartet, who also serve as NOVA’s music directors. Unlike the three other works on the concert known for their intimate spaciousness, Medtner’s quintet dominates in its towering musical architecture and the challenge for all five instrumental voices to elucidate the flow and shape of many musical idioms and languages encompassed in the music. It’s a hefty workout, as the second and third movements are played without a break and the third movement is longer than the first two combined. Indeed, to achieve the nonverbal coherence and synchronization that were evident in the performance, it was Cahill’s deep admiration for this composer and Fry Street’s utmost diligence to do justice to this work and to respond appropriately that made this possible. This is what connection and inspiration can achieve. 

Hasse Borup, violin; Cahill Smith, piano, Arvo Pärt, Spiegel Im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror). NOVA Chamber Music Series.

The concert opened with a paragon of simplicity and purity: Arvo Pärt’s Spiegel Im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror), in a pristine performance by violinist Hasse Borup and Smith at piano. The instrumental part of the 1978 work, one of Pärt’s examples of his “tintinnabuli” effects, could conceivably be performed by young musicians who are just beginning to master their respective instruments. But, Pärt’s music also requires a nuanced maturity and incredible senses of patience and control to execute appropriately. A compelling example came through in this performance.

Pärt also was present in a different way, as evidenced in the Utah premiere of Sarah Kirkland Snider’s 2015 You Are Free, which Grand Valley State University’s New Music Ensemble commissioned for their Music In Their Words project. They asked the composers to write music that incorporated the speaking voice of a 20th century composer who had influenced their own work.

The work, which last six minutes, featured a six-piece ensemble, including Borup and Smith, as well as Caitlyn Valovick Moore (flute), Lee Livengood (clarinet), Louis-Philippe Robillard (cello) and Jason Nicholson (marimba). It was a directly intimate rendering and includes a field recording of Pärt’s voice in an interview he did with Björk as part of a 1997 BBC documentary. His words set the stage for Snider’s musical response and reaction, which resonated with the spirit of Pärt’s explanation: 

Maybe it’s because I need space for myself – even if I am working. I think that sound is a very interesting phenomenon. You can ask why people are so influenced by music – they don’t know how strong the influence of music can be on us – both good and bad. You can kill people with sound…and if you can kill, maybe there is the sound that is the opposite of killing. The distance between these two points is very big. And you are free. You can choose. In art, everything is possible, but everything [what is made] is not necessary.

Caitlyn Valovick Moore (flute), Zachary Hammond (oboe), Lee Livengood (clarinet), Lori Wike (bassoon) and Jessica Danz (horn). Nathalie Joachim, Seen. Nova Chamber Music Series.

Another Utah premiere was Nathalie Joachim’s Seen, a 15-minute set of five short movements scored for wind quintet. The pieces are inspired by Whitfield Lovell’s Kin Series, in which the artist incorporates found objects of symbolic importance into his conté drawings of ordinary African Americans. Joachim, a Haitian-American composer, produces a fine representation of cultural memory as portrayed in Lovell’s drawings. 

Each wind instrument has a solo, as represented variously in the movements which have descriptive titles such as Mysterious Flowers, This Old House, Sleeping Baby, Tiny Golden Bells (a personal favorite) and Empty Space. Wind quintets are not frequently featured in the NOVA series but Joachim’s writing gave the Utah Symphony wind players a lovely opportunity to shine: Caitlyn Valovick Moore (flute), Zachary Hammond (oboe), Lee Livengood (clarinet),  Lori Wike (bassoon) and Jessica Danz (horn).

Next month, NOVA takes its Connect series to the theme of beauty. The Oct. 23 concert zips through the sonic spectrum with the bookends being two masterpiece trios written respectively by composers who were at opposite ends of their careers when they penned their respective works – Hungarian composer Ernö Dohnànyi’s 1902 Serenade and Brahms’ 1891 Clarinet Trio in A minor, op. 114

George Crumb was even younger – just 18 when he composed Three Early Songs in 1947 for mezzo soprano and piano. The other work is Iannis Xenakis’s Dikhthas, a 1979 piece for violin and piano, which demonstrates in 13 minutes why the composer was also one of the greatest game theorists of his time.  

For tickets and more information about the season, see the NOVA website.    

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