Three Operas by Robert Ashley
nytheatre.com review by Mark DeFrancis
January 15, 2009
To explain Robert Ashley's work is a difficult task indeed. Three Operas by Robert Ashley, which has just completed a condensed run at La MaMa, is a series of electro-synthesized musical stories, told in loose, sing-song fashion, that seek to capture the way our thoughts and memories drift from place to place and weave the fabric of our thoughts. It is as exciting as it sounds; which is to say that if that sounds fascinating to you, then it probably will be; and vice versa. Written and composed entirely by Ashley, these pieces stretch the bounds and definitions of musical art and song, but also made for a difficult couple nights at the theatre. I'll try to explain.
I arrived at La MaMa with some very different expectations. First off, it is very important to explain that Three Operas by Robert Ashley is, to my mind, in no way opera. To use the term is akin to calling a bird an airplane because they both have wings. It is also a completely unnecessary distinction to make, as Ashley's work is a wholly new and fascinating genre which hardly needs to borrow anything from opera's grand tradition.
The first in his series of musical explorations, Dust, is Ashley's unique view of the lost and the hopeless. It seeks to take a closer look at the seemingly random and disconnected mumblings and declarations of the homeless of New York City. Five desperate souls tell their stories in a muttering and fragmented prose against the warping and sizzling electronic orchestration that constitutes Ashley's style. We float aimlessly though bits of memory and narrative as the stories come to life through monologue. Ashley presides over the static procedure which features no movement whatsoever during its 90-minute run. Thus, the work has all the gravity and despair of its subject, but relies heavily on the actors and their narratives in order to convey the complicated objective of turning homeless meandering into poignant dialogue.
Joan La Barbara (as she did every night) rises to the task by injecting humor, character, and vigor into her performance. Her crisp voice and nuanced delivery help to corral the distracted and swerving nature of her dialogue, and I would personally like to thank her for doing just that. She seems practiced and at home with the Ashley style and is certainly the most adept at engaging her audience. Jacqueline Humbert brings a dexterous range and hints of swing, sass, and soul to her downtrodden portrayal of a homeless woman who is convinced that she is Shirley Temple in one of the lighter moments. But fellow cast members Sam Ashley and Thomas Buckner are simply impossible to hear, literally, and too labor-intensive on the ear to follow. Unfortunately for them, their pieces simply fade into a wash of background noise, which is truly a pity as the excellent lighting, set, and costumes are all excellently tailored to a piece with so much potential. In the end Dust is full of ambitious choices both musically and thematically, but it fails to deliver a concise message or expression.
So I returned two nights later for a second stab at Ashley and his Operas. Celestial Excursions is certainly the most experimental and ambitious of Ashley's pieces. Here he tries to convey the doubts and dreams of the elderly for whom stories and memories are the fabric of life. Again five characters are arranged in static positions and deliver bits of emotion and fleeting thought in nearly monotone speech. However, unlike Dust, Excursions is a more loving and engaging collaboration between word, song, and performer. Ashley delights in hints and sensations, and the fringes of emotions and memories. We is never really sure if we are listening to a speaker or following their thoughts in their heads. For brief moments, Excursions finds this balance and unveils a sea of unfiltered dreams which is at the heart of Ashley's work.
Excursions is filled with call and response, dialogues which feel like the internal discussions of one mind reflecting in many different ways. These moments range from thoroughly confusing to sublime as Ashley overloads his audience with sound and word to the point that they become one and the same. It also features my favorite score of his triad, one that lays down soft touches of melody and tone that land gracefully in contrast to the sterile electronics which Ashley has composed.
On a different night in a different seat, It was far easier to hear and understand the cast. Having worked together on this piece for many years, they handled a rhythmically complex score with ease and grace. Excursions even features one of theater's most time honored traditions—an actor moving. Joan Jonas portrays a Silent Character who flows between pieces offering a visual companion to the sing-song dialogue. While these interludes are both stimulating and unique, they highlight both Ashley's greatest strengths and weaknesses. He offers a new experience filled with sensation and wonder, but I haven't the foggiest idea what is going on or what he's talking about. Excursions was simply too confusing, too abstract, and too cluttered to keep my attention and offered very little to take away other than its music. I was even tempted to suggest that Ashley's poetry might be better appreciated in a written form where I would have time to digest it all. Turns out I was right.
Not about the written form, but about the time needed to unpack his complex ideas. Made Out of Concrete was, fortunately, the answer to my dilemma. Same story: five actors, mostly sitting still, performing spoken word and semi-sung poetry, but this time, something was different. Ashley is again looking into the thoughts of the elderly and trying to emulate their drifting patterns, but here his dialogue is far more concise. His stories meander, but they have a point and follow a path clearly. In addition, the scoring and the performances are slower and more eloquent, which took much of the strain off the ear and allowed me to actually understand and enjoy some more refreshing dialogue. Ashley, it turns out, is a clever and insightful poet. His work in Concrete shows a wit and humor that seemed to be absent from either of the previous works I had witnessed. It seems instantly more polished and more direct, featuring considerate musings such as "The Pyramid" and "Thank God I Figured It Out" performed by Ashley himself as well as some more engaging performances by Barbara and Buckner which stand out as my favorite moments of the three-night event. Concrete is neither the most ambitious nor the most experimental of his works on display, but it is the cleanest and most enjoyable in its simplicity.
Robert Ashley is a difficult artist to discuss because he is so subjective. One look around his departing audience immediately shows the gap between those who rise to applaud him and those who exit bewildered by whatever they have just witnessed. Sadly, I lean more to the latter category. There is something to be said for redefining or broadening the horizons of a genre and giving the audience a wholly new experience, but not if it is comes at the cost of so much drudgery. Still, one can only admire the efforts of a man to challenge and experiment in a world that rarely rewards either.