The Disembodied Soul
nytheatre.com review by David Reinwald
August 15, 2004
When you walk into the room, there is ambient music... bells and other soft sounds that are soothing and relaxing. Three large Chinese paper lanterns hang from the ceiling. The stage is bare. Soon after, the cast of six singers softly walk in, barefoot, dressed in simple yet fashionable costumes (designed by Joanna Gang). They all are seated at the back of the stage, and this exquisite modern opera, presented by Willow Breaking Productions, begins.
The Disembodied Soul takes its story from an original musical drama from the Yuan dynasty in 14th century Northern China. It is a beautiful and mystical account of the love of Ch’ien-na (Jessica Ordman) for her betrothed, Wang Wan-chu (Daeil Cha). This love is so strong that upon Wang Wa-chu’s departure to study and become an “official,” Ch’ien-na’s soul (portrayed by Jessica Luck) embarks upon a journey to follow him and reunite. The enchanting fairy tale also includes the supporting cast of Mrs. Chang, Ch’ien-na’s mother (Siobhan Kolker), Mei Hsian, Ch’ien-na’s maid (Katie Vagnino), and Chang Ch’ien, Wang Wan-chu’s servant (David Conner).
The cast of the opera unites as a team to take the audience on a musical journey, set to digital compositions by composer Joemca. Joemca’s music provides an evocative and creative soundscape. The singers’ voices soar over the glorious rhythms and musical overtones. Ordman’s voice is strong yet lyrical, and depicts the dramatically somber side of Ch’ien-na. Meanwhile, Luck’s angelic voice carries the sweetness and endearing charm embodied within Ch’ien-na’s soul. Cha and Kolker are both strong in their dramatic sensibility and help the story catapult forward. Vagnino assists, while Conner brings a pinch of comic flair to the stage.
The Disembodied Soul works so well because it is balanced in every aspect. The direction by Daya Wolterstorff and movement by Elissaveta Iordanova enable the cast to fully use dynamic staging and harmonic movement, giving the small performance space rich depth. The lighting by Kevin Hardy is lush, even in its minimal resource.
My only quibble is that the acoustics of the room made it hard at times to hear the singers over the accompaniment. The lyrics (by Chang Teh-hui, translated by Liu Jung-en) are so poetic and sentimental that I did not want to miss a single word. I also wanted to hear more singing from the two men, especially Conner, whose beautiful singing was minimized by his small role.
I hope that this show and Joemca’s music can be heard in the future in a larger setting. This heartfelt performance is a must-see.