nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 15, 2008
The Raven is an "epic opera" created by Ellen Stewart and about two dozen collaborators who come from Japan, China, Kosovo, Italy, Puerto Rico, Congo, Hawaii, and many other places around the world; it's based on a 250-year-old play written by an Italian poet and has text in English and Mandarin and is performed using video, projections, puppets, masks, dancing, movement, song, dialogue, and lots and lots of music. This is, first and foremost, a celebration of the possibilities of theatre; see it with your heart open and with neither assumptions nor preconceptions, so that its singular magic can work with maximal potency.
The story of The Raven is a fairy tale—a complicated fairy tale, whose outlines are helpfully provided to audience members in two pages of the program. Briefly, it's about King Millo, who kills a raven while hunting. As a result he is cursed by the raven's owner, an Ogre, who tells him the curse can only be lifted if Millo marries a woman with white skin, scarlet lips, and raven-black hair. The king's brother Jennaro finds such a woman, but she too comes with a curse, placed on her by her father: if Millo marries her, he will be killed by a dragon. Jennaro also acquires a horse and a falcon for Millo, but they have the worst curse of all attached to them: if Jennaro gives them to Millo, Millo will die; and if he doesn't give them to Millo, he (Jennaro) will be turned into a marble statue.
There's certainly a point to all of this: my companion said she thought the fairy tale was about not tampering with nature (and the critic in the New York Times said it was about self-sacrifice). For me, it's about whatever each audience finds in it...and I found the constant awesome wonder of creation and re-creation, issuing forth over and over again as Stewart and her colleagues kept finding different, remarkable, imaginative ways to tell this convoluted tale.
So Jennaro's boat is created, right before our eyes, out of a few large pieces of wood and fabric positioned just so in front of three screens on which crashing waves are projected...and then it's created again, halfway through the show, at one side of the audience seating area. Three actors portray the horse and another works the enormous and beautiful puppet that is the falcon; more actors, shrouded in another of Federico Restrepo's puppet creations, embody the gigantic, fearsome dragon. And Jennaro is indeed turned into marble (that design is by Gretchen Green).
Parts of the story are sung (particularly noteworthy are the contributions of countertenor Benjamin Marcantoni, as one of Millo's ministers, and the invaluable Sheila Dabney, singing various roles and narration from the wings). Parts are danced or presented as stylized movement a la Peking Opera or Butoh. The live orchestra, directed by Michael Sirotta, plays beautiful music nearly nonstop, in many styles and moods, composed by Stewart, Sirotta, Heather Paauwe, Yukio Tsuji, and Cao Bao An.
There are even interludes where the story is shunted aside for a moment, so that we can appreciate the beauty of some performer's specialty—I'm thinking particularly of Juliana Lau, who performs two Chinese-inflected ribbon dances, the first of which is lit gorgeously by designer Filippo de Capitani.
Not everything works in The Raven or goes exactly as intended; the dozens of collaborators on- and off-stage are at different skill levels and some are more polished and precise than others. But the new vistas they collectively open up for their audience constantly astonish and delight...and what must they all be learning from one another in the process!
Ellen Stewart, whose age is reported to be somewhere in the 88-90 range, made an appearance at the curtain call of the performance I attended; I was so glad to see her, for her spirit infuses every moment of The Raven. If I'm still exploring theatre with even half the open-hearted curiosity and vigor that this show reveals when I'm that age, I will count myself to be very successful indeed.