Category: Student Forum (31)
Dog Days, a new opera by composer David T. Little and librettist Royce Vavrek, launched the 2012-13 Peak Performances season. To kick off this year’s Student Forum series, Montclair State dramaturgy students respond with their own take on what critics described as “formidable,” “unforgettable,” and “unsettling.” The students were asked to compare the performance to the original story by Judy Budnitz and to analyze how the story worked as an opera. Read on for perspectives by Liz Lehman (below) and Mia Zanette. Thanks to our collaborators at Montclair State’s Creative Research Center for sharing these analyses as part of an ongoing effort to showcase writing by Montclair State undergraduate students.
After trying and trying and trying to imagine Judy Budnitz’s story as an opera, I couldn’t. I just couldn’t, and I’m so very grateful that I couldn’t, because experiencing this production with no expectations or preconceived ideas about it allowed me to be taken through so many wonderful surprises. At the very least, I was expecting it to be presented as a traditional opera—or not. Either or. I couldn’t imagine an effective middle ground. Thankfully, David T. Little figured that bit out himself.
It turned out that each performer was indeed a classically trained singer, with a larger-than-life voice and quivering vibrato. Before seeing the performance, I was afraid that this choice would be too incongruous with such a small, simple story, but any misgivings I had about the medium were put to rest within the first few minutes of the opera. The production opens cold, with the father booming “Get me my rifle!”—and that is just immediately acceptable. You don’t question why the performers are singing, because that’s simply how they communicate. It does not seem at all out of place.
Also impressively seamless is the integration of new technology into this production. In act 2, Lauren Worsham, who plays the young daughter, dances with a mirror for at least 10 minutes. This would be impressive on its own, but to make it even more challenging they fixed a camera to the mirror, which fed a live recording of the actor’s face onto an enormous screen above the set. This results in two scenes playing out at the same time, in the same space, with the same performer. Below the screen, we catch vague glimpses of a young girl admiring her developing figure in the mirror. On screen, however, we are treated to every nuance of her facial expressions, and this paints a different picture entirely. We are forced to watch, point blank, as an innocent child comes completely undone, so injured by her isolation that she looks for beauty in her own starvation. It is truly chilling, not to mention brilliantly presented through a medium one would rarely see in an opera.
Most striking of all, however, is the opera’s epilogue. I was sincerely nervous for the opera to come to this conclusion, because I was enjoying it so much up until that point and also because the ambiguous ending of the original story is so perfect. I was mostly afraid that having an outcome picked for me would be too safe, too anticlimactic. I don’t think I have ever been more wrong about anything.
The gunshot fired at the dog activates this stark new reality as the fluorescent lights are brought up over the action unfolding onstage. The orchestra drops out completely, and tuneless mechanical drones begin to hum to life. Meanwhile, Lisa is left to wash her mother’s dead body, which, as the theater gradually becomes louder and brighter, is absolutely electric to watch. The anticipation mounted in a way that is typically broken within a few seconds, but it just kept building until I actually began inventing terrible ways for it all to finally collapse. We were all sitting there wondering whether Lisa would soon resort to cannibalism, like the rest of her living family, or whether she would die as well, when all that was being played out on stage was the simple action of cleansing. The “noise aria” instilled an acute paranoia in me, the equivalent of which I had never experienced in a theater before.
There’s suspense, and then there’s the climax of Dog Days, which could very well put you on the verge of physical illness. After 12 full minutes of deafening noise, blinding lights, and utterly horrifying events, it came almost too close to being too much to take but ended up breaking at exactly the right time. If I hadn’t enjoyed the rest of the opera so much, I’d think it was manipulative, but it was handled too intelligently to come off that way. You could tell how specifically the noise was engineered and how it played off of the performers’ energy in the live space. You have to appreciate how risky it is to end an opera with a totally wordless 10-minute sequence like that, but in this case it was so purposeful and fitting that I was left shaking in my seat after the performance.
Dog Days is a triumph in more than one way. On one hand, it just goes to show how limitless the potential is for adaptations in theater. I am now totally convinced that you could adapt anything into an opera, and it will work as long as you find ways to make it work. However, what struck me as the most important part of this production was that it brought innovation to an art form that hasn’t seen much development over the past few decades. The creators of Dog Days carefully examined the different ways theater is expanding and reinventing itself and transfused those innovative ideas with the aesthetic of classical opera. It’s so reassuring to see how committed talented, creative new artists are to reviving less-explored media in live theatre. At the very least, it keeps things interesting.
Liz Lehman is a Theatre Studies major in the College of the Arts at Montclair State. This excerpt is from an essay written for the class Introduction to Dramaturgy, taught by Dr. Neil Baldwin, fall 2012.
On a stage littered with large garbage bags, within a half-finished frame of a house and amongst an in-house orchestra, a man wearing a matted dog costume walks up to the door of a starving family’s home, and they begin to sing. A remarkable adaptation of the devastating short story by Judy Budnitz, Dog Days comes to life as a modern opera, blending its vulnerability with an unsettling violence that shoves the audience into the jaws of an unforgiving future reality. Read more »
Student Forum’s first installment of the 2011–12 season offers three variations from a “behind the scenes” perspective, by theater students Jordan Anton (below), Jeremy Landes, and Esteban Cremona. These three acting majors recount their experiences on the costume run crew of the Department of Theatre and Dance’s recent production of the Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman classic Stage Door. Thanks to our collaborators at Montclair State’s Creative Research Center for sharing these unique “reviews.” And for more, don’t miss Jennifer Wilson’s dramaturg’s blog.
As the house lights dim and the characters enter the stage, there is another performance, a hidden one, that is about to begin. Behind the black, wall-like curtain of Alexander Kasser Theater—lit only by an eerie blue lamp—are four people on the edge of their chairs. Startling in appearance, they appear to be waiting for someone…anyone. Finally, a foreign body can be seen nearing the area they are bound to. As predator to prey, they rush to the newly arrived body, rip off the victim’s clothes, and squeeze them into new attire. In a matter of seconds, the body is gone, and the four people who make up Stage Door’s quick-change costume team are beckoned back to the chairs, where they thrive. Any individual who witnesses the surreal, manic nature of the crew in their natural environment would need to pinch themselves to make sure what they glimpsed was real. Read more »
“Hell on Earth” are the first words that come to mind when I reflect upon my tenure as a wardrobe crew member for Montclair State University’s production of Stage Door, directed by Susan Kerner, which ran last week at the Alexander Kasser Theater. All right, perhaps that is a bit harsh, but there was certainly a plethora of instances when that very thought crept into the forefront of my sore, anguished mind. I must admit that I began my time at Stage Door with an eager hopefulness that was very naive. Reality, however, rapidly sank in within minutes of my arrival on day one. It was clear that my grandiose perception of the glamorized life of a wardrobe crew member did not account for the inevitable avalanche of tedious, tiresome work that lay ahead.
Upon my eighth trip back and forth from Memorial Auditorium to the Kasser Theater was when my disdain for this production set in. Read more »
“Your first job is to separate everyone’s costumes and put them in plastic bags, on the hangers. There are more than one hundred costumes—so get to work,” commands Debra Otte. Great, I love this job already. Not only did it feel like there were one million costumes, but each set of costumes did not want to cooperate. I never had so much difficulty putting clothes in plastic bags. I am not one for complaining, so I did not mind too much, but it was definitely a tedious job. It looked like this wardrobe job was going to be a lot of work.
After about an hour of dealing with these clothes, they enlighten us with wonderful news: “Now, you guys have to walk all one hundred costumes across the campus to the Alexander Kasser Theater.” Read more »