REVIEW: Zhang Huan’s Stunning, Ambitious “Semele” at BAM

Photo Credit: Jack Vartoogian/Frontrowphotos

Photo Credit: Jack Vartoogian/Frontrowphotos

See this review published on Flavorpill

Baroque opera meets Buddhism in the Canadian Opera Company’s U.S. premier of “Semele” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. In the hands of director Zhang Huan—a Chinese performance artist based in Shanghai—George Handel’s 18th century oratorio takes a turn away from tradition as Chinese and Japanese cultures intervene with the Greek tragedy.

“Semele” is Huan’s directorial debut and first foray into theatrical set design. In his notes on “Semele” Huan stated, “My goal is to allow the opera singers to reenact this classical Western opera on an Eastern stage latent with the tragic emotions of Semele—while at the same time allowing the audience to experience the dramatic beauty and pain common to all human beings.”

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Contemporary Culture and Opera Converge: Anna Nicole at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House


I want to Blow you All…..a Kiss!

Anna Nicole at BAM is a theatrical tour de force of one of our first “famous for being famous” reality darlings: Anna Nicole Smith. One can only laugh at the sardonic and overwhelmingly crude language beautifully sung in high Opera fashion. A fusion of low brow celebrity culture weaved through classical Opera style, this show is for all who are able to take a wonderfully orchestrated joke about our obsession with the trailer trash turned tabloid queen Anna Nicole.

The opera itself, including the ensemble, language, music, and stage design, personifies the large personality of Anna Nicole. The plot weaves a path through the starlet’s life, beginning with her humble roots in Texas, and ending with her untimely death. We see a star rise to fame through sexual exploitation: her moment of stardom is because of her good looks and great body (post plastic surgery of course). As a poor, uneducated, single mother stripper in Houston, she hits the jackpot and captures the heart of billionaire oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall II. After his death, her attorney Howard Stern, labeled “Darth Vader” and “Bambi killer” by the chorus, becomes Anna’s right hand man, taking on an ambiguous role as lawyer/manager/friend/lover/husband. Anna gains weight, abuses prescription pills, and sadly dies shortly after giving birth to a baby girl.

The opera borderlines Brechtian Absurdist Theater and Surrealism. We are not shown a scene by scene retelling of a provocative TV star’s rise and fall from stardom. Instead, a wonderfully fantastical world is created through larger-than-life stage design, audacious costumes, raunchy scenarios, and jazz-inspired music. A chorus of reporters and paparazzi follow Anna’s every song and dance as she quickly skyrockets to Reality TV fame. Personified film and video cameras stalk her every move and capture the highs and lows of the starlet’s life. She was on cloud nine rising the ranks of audiences worldwide, quirky and lovable in her southern naiveté. Her blast to celebrity status came during the 1990s, the beginning of Reality TV and audience obsessions with the daily lives of young Americans. If we remember the Real World, producers selected varied candidates to exemplify the backbone of the United States as a nation that prides itself in economic, political and social diversity. Anna Nicole exemplified the American Dream by rising the economic ranks to a stature of not only financial prosperity, but celebrity success. She was a Reality Darling, and the death of her son Daniel and herself to accidental overdoses was a contemporary Greek Tragedy.

In Act I we laugh to the rambunctious antics of a young woman attempting to rise the ranks from trailer trash to financial stability. Act II takes on a somber tone dealing with Anna’s drug abuse, weight gain, court battles, and her son’s death. The sparkle and spunk of a once vivacious Playmate is lost inside of an overweight addict following the every suggestion of her lawyer Stern, arguably a man who had a paycheck in mind over the well-being of his client. We cannot just blame Stern for her self-destruction. Her rise to fame, stardom, and untimely death was a lethal combination of Anna Nicole’s charming ignorance, and our world’s obsession with Celebrities.

The last scene is powerful and makes you momentarily question who really is at fault for her death: Anna Nicole, heartbroken after her son Daniel’s accidental overdose, wraps herself inside a body bag while the personified paparazzi and reporters scatter trash and debris around her filthy home. The ironic and comical tone of earlier scenes is completely transformed to a dismal expression of a woman who cannot withstand the overwhelming antics of her Celebrity status. She becomes a martyr to Celebrity Culture, a sphere where the basic human right of privacy is completely disregarded by the Media. Of course Anna Nicole was Media hungry and chose to put her life on display, but we can still question the “Reality” in Reality TV. Anna Nicole is a great example of the formation of Celebrity Culture and contemporary Paparazzi Mania. We have, indeed, created a monster: Tabloid Media.

A metaphor sung by the Chorus at the beginning of the play very much inspires my ideas on Reality TV/Celebrity Culture. The Media/Chorus described Anna and her life as a comet, a body in space that ferociously speeds through the air and lights up the sky. As vibrant as they are propelling through the atmosphere, their light eventually subdues and they either disintegrate gracefully in outer space, or, penetrate our earth’s atmosphere and die a brazen death by impacting the terrain. Anna Nicole was definitely the latter; she fought a long fight to be America’s darling, and she most certainly did not leave this earth without an impact.

Composed by Mark-Anthony Turnage
Libretto by Richard Thomas
Directed by Richard Jones
Conducted by Steven Sloane

Yes, the Theater!

Bertolt Brecht

Bertolt Brecht

It is not enough to demand insight and informative images of reality from the theater. Our theater must stimulate a desire for understanding, a delight in changing reality. Our audience must experience not only the ways to free Prometheus, but be schooled in the very desire to free him. Theater must teach all the pleasures and joys of discovery, all the feelings of triumph associated with liberation.

Last week I saw a read-through of a play at The Brecht Forum by Justin Kuritzkes titled “Drones: A Protest Play.” Set in a sci-fi, futuristic, dystopian United States overwhelmed by hyper protective government activities, the play questions social liberties and human rights during a technological “Big Brother” age. Scenarios of techno-war serve as the main scenes, with soldiers and aircraft pilots operating drones oversees rather than physically fighting themselves. This sense of safety is liberating for soldiers at first; they sit in their barracks chugging Mountain Dew and eating donuts gossiping about their equality as male, female, gay, or strait soldiers, all working together without government inquisition. The high-ranking officials even promote sexual liberation and congratulate themselves on their open-mindedness towards at one time taboos, but in the end basic human rights. However, this freedom comes as a price when big business corporations manufacturing the drones forcefully coerce legislators to promote national, corporate and eventually private sales of drones to U.S. citizens. Now, machines monitor our every move and our freedom becomes a false consciousness, one that makes us feel safe because we are being protected at all times, but one that also violates our freedom of privacy.

The show played out as absurdist vignettes of different scenarios between the President, his agents, legislators, soldiers, their wives and even university officials lobbying for new government grants to build drones in their engineering departments. Seven actors played countless characters, all professing through verbose monologues their favor for their new drone-filled world. Government officials and soldiers were egocentric with Freudian death-drive complexes and had little regard for factual evidence regarding the terrorists destined for doom. For the most part their killing operations ended in tragedy, with soldiers so anticipating a siege they instead drone-blitzed not only civilians, but also American citizens overseas. This play showcases a problematic scenario between man and his machines, and I’m looking forward to seeing “Drones: A Protest Play” in full swing.

Written by Justin Kuritzkes

Directed by Sam Alper

Dramaturg/Assistant Director: Celine Song

Sound Design: Harrison Adams

Cast: Jeena Yi, Micah Stock, Andrew Zox, John Gordon, Wei Yi Lin, Chris Tyler, Ari Rodriguez.