ELLICOTT CITY – “What masques, what dances shall we have to wear away this long age of three hours between our after supper and bedtime?” asks Duke Theseus in Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
As we celebrate Independence Day this week and approach midsummer, perhaps it is time to spend these hours outdoors for an evening’s entertainment. Venues offering theatre and entertainment outdoors include Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in Vienna, Virginia, with shows ranging from Yanni to Kenny G, from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony to the summer shark-thrilling movie “Jaws” in concert screened to the live accompaniment of the National Symphony Orchestra, “just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water.”
The night Tony Bennet sang great American standards at Wolf Trap Park in Vienna, I attended an “off-campus” Wolf Trap evening’s entertainment closer to home at Union Market in North-East Washington. There Halcyon, Wolf Trap Opera and the Hong Kong Ballet presented recently “The Seven Deadly Sins,” a forty-five-minute Modernist work from 1933, with music by Kurt Weill and text by Bertolt Brecht. Some see this as a play by Brecht, others as an opera by Weill and still others as a ballet chanté or “sung ballet” by both. It is all three, yet defying the conventions of all three.
In traditional Christian theology, the Seven Deadley Sins are sloth, pride, anger, gluttony, lust, avarice, and envy. This provides thematic structure to the work, “The Seven Deadly Sins” is set as a road trip through America by Anna Number 1 (sung with beauty and emotion by Annie Rosen) and Anna Number 2 (danced with enthusiasm by Ye Feifei). The two Annas (both opposite manifestations of the same person) travel through Memphis, Boston, Baltimore, and other American cities, encountering as they do the Seven Deadly Sins - though with a twist, as suggested by Brecht later changing the title of the work to “The Seven Deadly Sins of the Bourgeoisie.” Do the Seven Deadly Sins apply the same way in modern capitalist, materialist society as in traditional theology? The show asks the audience to consider the question today.
The production also offers the audience more than an intellectual challenge, including splendid choreography a little more frantic than one is used to in traditional ballet. The music itself – performed in wonderfully atmospheric Cabaret-style by two pianists and a drummer – is a stunning juxtaposition of classical tradition, jazz and atonalism. Brecht always sought to create staged disharmony so that the audience would think about the social meanings of his work, and the “orchestra” here continues this tradition, with Pianist Number One wearing a baseball cap and Pianist Number Two wearing a 1940’s fedora. The singers of the Wolf Trap opera in the “Family” chorus shift adeptly from modern opera to barbershop harmony.
Another striking aspect of this production is the set design. It is customary to see minimalist presentations of Brecht plays. Indeed for work from 1933, the year which marks the transition from the Weimar Republic to the Nazi era in Brecht and Weill’s native Germany, one expects to see stark sepia tones. Yet perhaps because this is summer in America, and “The Seven Deadly Sins” is a sort of road trip through the USA, gaudy yet grand saturated colors are used for the costumes and set backdrops. Projections included beautifully stylized calligraphy.
For those whose tastes do not run towards avant-garde opera with lines like “The lazy slut would lie abed all morning,” we suggest a more traditional outing into theatrics and nature: the Chesapeake Shakespeare Company’s production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (through June 29), performed outdoors among the ruins of the classically-inspired Patapsco Female Institute building in Ellicott City.
There are several plot strands to the play, all involving love: four young lovers in Athens, the quarrel between the King and Queen of the Fairies, and a group of tradesmen’s sincere but laughable efforts to stage “Pyramus and Thisbe,” a love story from Ovid’s Metamorphosis. In this highly accessible production, the best part by far is the spoof-of-Ovid plot. José Guzman as Nick Bottom steals the show with his energy, antics, and line delivery. This production is unusual in that other more serious parts of the play, such as the commands of Fairy King Oberon, are influenced by the comic spirit of Bottom and the Tradesmen.
Some unusual production choices are: Egeus, demanding that “fair Hermia” marry the parental choice, is in this production not the father but the mother, played sternly and ably by Molly Moores. Michael Toperzer and Elana Michelle skillfully enact multiple roles, first as the sedate Duke Theseus and his bride Hippolyta, and later the more over-the-top “jealous Oberon” and “proud Titania.” Finally, in a bold choice of music, the production opts for musical interludes in Greek, based on more than 2,000-year old Greek hymns and epitaphs.
Few props are employed, with the production instead of using the site’s ruins and trees to great effect. While the impressive ruined stonework might in other contexts instill somber reflection, this high-spirited and thoroughly accessible production uses them as the backdrop for laughter and merriment. It is especially true if one experiences the dark and avant-garde “The Seven Deadly Sins” first. Indeed, it is pleasant to spend a few hours – in the words of Oberon – “lulled in these flowers with dances and delight.”