Arts & Events

STAGE REVIEWS: Lisa Scola Prosek's opera 'Daughter of the Red Tsar;' Aurora's Bay Area premiere of Kristofer Diaz's play 'The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity'

By Ken Bullock
Saturday September 08, 2012 - 02:35:00 PM

'Daughter of the Red Tsar' 

When the lights at The Thick House on Potrero Hill go up—or rather, when they dim to dreamlike blues—for the final night of 'Daughter of the Red Tsar,' a girlish form is writhing as though fraught by nightmare on a bed center stage, with figures draped in shawls, heads covered, almost shrouded, kneeling downstage ... Down the aisle through the audience another figure in bridal gown processes, and at the head of the bed bursts into exquisite—almost exquisitely painful—high notes ... The young woman on the bed awakes: "I thought I heard my mother's voice," she sings. It's Crystal Philippi as Svetlana, daughter to Joseph Stalin, telling her Nurse (Maria Mikheyenko) about the ghostly appearance of her dead mother Nadya (Valentina Osinski) that troubles her sleep—and much of Lisa Scola Prosek's remarkable—and compact (80 minutes)—new opera about the first meeting of Stalin and Churchill in Moscow, 'Daughter of the Red Tsar.' 

Churchill, the notorious anti-communist—played and sung with gruff ebullience and sly charisma by that ever-adventuresome tenor, John Duykers, is secretly flown to the invasion-beleaguered Soviet Union by a chorus of sopranos, their voices and gestures rising and dipping like wing elevators, to meet the formidable Red Tsar himself, admirably presented by bass/baritone Scott Graff as laconic, pricklish ... Their meeting is heralded by both and on both sides by hesitation, old bitterness—both express their nations' resentments at "going it alone"—suspicion and foreboding. ("I do not like this thing I have to do ... I do not think it will go down well!") Much hinges on whether the Western allies—Britain and the freshly-involved U. S.—will open up a Second Front, taking the onus off the Soviets. (Thomas Prosek's imposing set, dominated by Stalin's massive desk, backed by a huge wall map of Eurasia and the Mediterranean, is the overriding image of the production, with Alexis Lane Jensen's costumes filling out the stage Prosek's design defines.) 

Stalin, too, is haunted by his late wife's specter, which he fends off brusquely. And Svetlana's in love, dallying with Alexei Kapler, a Jewish writer—bass/baritone Philip Skinner singing lushly, with broad romantic gestures—who jokes about the doom of poets in Russia, pantomiming Pushkin's death in a duel while Svetlana giggles. Meanwhile, the kulaks sing of their attachment to their leader—Graff standing on a stool, peering stolidly through a picture frame, dusted by Mikheyenko—who brought them "prosperity, electricity"—and Churchill, first slipping out a mickey of scotch from his dressing gown, wallows in a hotel bath, the shower head held aloft like a microphone by splendid mime Roham Shaikhani as ever-present NKVD chief Beria, appropriately silent—and often drunk, weaving and dancing—throughout. Churchill's approached for the preliminaries by Molotov (Wayne Dexter Wong), a diplomatic wrangle over who will be nice, and the mistake of treating the other "roughly." 

The two titanic national figures finally meet at midnight, Stalin's desk becoming a banquet table—drinks abound ... Meanwhile, Svetlana's beau is "disappeared," interrogated and tortured by the NKVD, his love letters to Stalin's girl (who's next seen gushing over them, sitting on her bed) read aloud and derided. 

The meeting between the two leaders breaks down, from servile toasts to sweeping generalities, thinly-veiled allusions to appeasement ("If they feed the crocodile, the crocodile will eat them last"), cryptic remarks ("a riddle wrapped up in a mystery") and finally caustic reproaches of cowardice and "the Nazis should finish them off; it might be better," all mediated by the two interpreters (who serve also as chorus throughout, picking up the background roles), sung by Natalie S. Moran and Kira Dills DeSura, with rolling eyes as they translate in the ear of each leader, grimacing in turn. 

Abruptly, the two turn away from each other—then Duykers as Churchill equivocates and patronizes: "When I think of all that oil ... We should really start again!" Suddenly, all is charm, compliments, smiles—Svetlana is presented to an admiring Churchill by her proud father, while the emaciated figure of her doomed beau intones from the wings—and the meeting—and opera—end in mutual duplicity, not crocodile tears for all swept away in the storm that sweeps over the world. 

The cast—particularly Duykers, Philippi and Graff, as well as the non-singing but gesturally tuneful Shaikhani—sing and play with elan. Melissa Weaver—who greeted the audience before curtain as a snippy Slavic bureaucratic functionary—has brilliantly stage directed a genuine opera, Scola Prosek's orchestration (steadfastly conducted by Martha Stoddard, chamber orchestra of Emmanuela Nikiforovna, Michel Taddei, Ariella Hyman, Joel Davel, Jerry Kramer and Lisa Sylvester on violin, double bass, cello, percussion, accordion and piano), vocal lines, lyrics and dramatic continuity provide the antithesis and counterpoint, combining in a complex but unified image—what opera is, by definition. 'Daughter of the Red Tsar' marks another—big—step forward for this gifted composer-librettist, whose (now) seven operas mark progress in the operatic form, a crucial element in the development of today's theater. We're lucky to be able to see these premieres locally—and look forward to seeing her next project, again at the Thick House, next year—and undoubtedly seeing 'Daughter of the Red Tsar' again. 

The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity' at the Aurora 

"Seriously, they give me a pair of bongos ... " Macedonio "The Mace" Guerra, lifelong Big Time Wrestling fan turned pro himself, leads the audience through the current incarnation of the hybrid sport-as-scripted-spectacle, a natch for theatrical consumption—and incidentally his own "sentimental education" in a bastardized art form and the business deals behind it which essentially require that he keep his mouth shut, as well as his own personal and ethnic bowdlerization ... in Aurora's entertaining Bay Area premiere of Kristoffer Diaz's 'The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity.' 

The three-sided audience at the Aurora is treated to a ringside view of the overblown festivities, the actual ring dead-center, backed by twin video screens, the whole theater festooned with flashing lights (Nina Ball's set design). When the spectators (no better word for those of us onlookers) file in, we're greeted by a little warm-up, some preacting by wrestler (and fight director) Dave Maier, who tells us when—and what—to chant and cheer, inviting us to join him for a little fun in the ring ... 

Tony Sancho, in a splendid Bay Area debut as Guerra, handles a sometimes awkward role with grace and affability. The play, though pretty well put together and paced, is essentially a monologue by Guerra, phasing more and more in and out of brief vignettes, jockeying for position with his boss (a feisty, blustering Ron Gnapp as Everett "EKO" Olson, creator of THE Wrestling), the champ and prima donna (a solid Beethoven Oden in the gilded title—and hair—role)—and Guerra's own discovery, Indo-American muslim street hipster Vigneshwar "VP" Paduar (an affable, funny Nasser Khan), who morphs into The Fundamentalist, with Guerra burlesquing his Alfonso Bedoya-inspired bandito-guerilla sidekick, with a compound name evoking Che and Fidel, among others ... finally evolving into the series of fights with the wordless antagonists The Bad Guy, Billy Heartland and crusty vet Old Glory (all played by Maier), to set up The Fundamentalist as the challenger-fall guy for the further apotheosis of Chad Deity. There's a nice light touch—and switch of narrator, from Guerra to VP, in the denouement. 

The play—it somehow manages, more than most spectacles-as-theater to show off a certain amount of dramaturgy—gets to discuss, sometimes act out, questions of race, identity, the image of society in a nation of consumers ... but at moments a spectator has to pause and wonder why, if the modified thrust stage of the Aurora's to become a ring, with the audience its bleachers cheering section, why not something tougher, like Brecht/Weill's 'Mahagonny,' or more "normal" in terms of celebrated play ('Chad Deity' was nominated for a Pulitzer), 'The Grea White Hope'? 

Nonetheless, the Aurora team—including director Jon Tracy, designers Nina Ball, Maggie Whittaker, Cliff Caruthers, Kurt Landisman, Jim Gross—and consultant Dan "Helfyre" (who got in the ring with Maier before the show opening night) and Elizabeth Cadd (THE dancing girl, whose multiple image, whether in bikini top or bhurka, dances acroos the big video screens)—combine to give it their all, acquitting the production well. 

It's an often engaging evening, but—theatrically speaking—I'd call it a draw. 

At the Aurora Theatre, 2081 Addison (near Shattuck),Tuesdays through Sundays at various times, through September 30. $32-$60. 843-4822;