nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 14, 2012
Miranda knocked my socks off. This new theater work by Kamala Sankaram and Rob Reese mashes up a variety of traditional musical theatre forms (mostly operatic and classical ones) with uber-reality television and new media technologies to create something innovative and exciting. I've definitely never seen anything like this show, and it's thrilling. If you're interested in what's possible in terms of inventive storytelling in the theater, you need to check this out.
Oh, and it's a whodunit, too; and the audience gets to decide who did it.
CONGRATULATIONS! for volunteering of your own free will to participate in a joint partnership between the New Federation Department of Justice and Liposhamed Entertainment Productions. Court proceedings shall be simultaneously transmitted kino-traffically throughout the civilized region.
So begins the pink synopsis handily inserted into your program for your perusal before Miranda begins. (Do peruse it: it's not only useful to your experience of the show, but it's also quite delightful to read.) As you have probably already realized, we are being transported to a future, or alternate, universe, similar to our own but heightened in many alarming ways. Specifically, we (the audience) are about to serve as the jury for a murder case, one that is being tried on live television on a program called "The Whole Truth." Presiding over the trial is the Differential Autonomous Verification Engine (or D.A.V.E., for short), a disembodied head clad in a stylized English barrister's powdered wig that appears on a large screen upstage. A bailiff is our guide throughout the proceedings: he explains how things work and what we're supposed to do (mainly shout out "affirm" or "deny" at key moments to determine if certain evidence will be admitted in the case). At the end we'll be asked to convict one of the three defendants; the bailiff notes helpfully that unlike old-fashioned trials that had just one defendant, this method ensures that someone will be found guilty, providing a more satisfying experience for the audience (us in the "studio" as well as the presumed millions watching on TV at home).
As for the case itself: a young woman named Miranda Wright was killed—the synopsis informs us that her body was discovered "at approximately eighteen hours and thirty-one minutes on January eleven, two thousand twelve of the Adjusted Common Era Calendar." D.A.V.E. has determined through official- and scientific-sounding methods that the three suspects on trial are likeliest to have committed the crime. Our suspects are Miranda's fiance, Cor Prater; her father, Izzy Wright; and her mother, Anjana Challapttee Wright. Evidence is presented in the form of re-enactments of key events from Miranda's life, mostly things that occurred on the day of her death; these are re-enacted by proxies—performers who take the roles of the late Miss Wright, the suspects, and incidental others—in dialogue and music.
It makes for an extraordinary experience. Sankaram, Miranda's composer and co-librettist, and Reese, director and co-librettist, use operatic singing, music, and spoken scenes to present all the flashback evidence as well as to fully engage and involve the audience in the reality TV format. Information and emotion are conveyed seamlessly with the music, which is performed by the six "proxies" on accordion, electric guitar, cello, violin, tenor sax, clarinet, baritone sax, and bass clarinet (with percussion piped in from somewhere). Sankaram's score is stunning, diverse, surprising, and beautiful. My favorite moments—surprising me, a lover of words—were the ones when the music "spoke" on its own: a duet, for example, between Miranda on accordion and Cor Prater on guitar.
Followers of Reese's career will not be surprised to know that Miranda is strongly and darkly satiric; the "pre-show" includes several videotaped commercials that rival Reese's earlier "Wipe 'N Go, the completely disposable two step cleaning system" (from Survivor: Vietnam) in their comic brilliance. And there's a strong social conscience at play as well; Miranda may seem to be a murder mystery opera, but something much deeper and more important is unfolding here.
Reese and his collaborators have realized Sankaram's vision splendidly. Nick Francone is scenic/lighting/space designer and Jacci Jaye is costume designer, and they have applied a steampunk aesthetic to create a world where the Industrial Revolution of Victorian times collides with the Digital Revolution of right now. The video by Matt Tennie is terrific, and either its own execution or something special about the surface of the screens where it's being projected in HERE's Mainstage Theater makes it look weathered and grainy, like a relic from a century ago. Sound by Matt Schloss is generally fine but occasionally problematic: there were too many places where I couldn't make out the words over the music. Choreography is by Lauren Yalengo and Christopher Grant.
Sankaram heads the cast in the title, singing her own music masterfully and playing the accordion better, I think, than I've ever heard before. Joining her are performer-musicians Drew Fleming, Pat Muchmore, Rima Fand, Ed Rosenberg, and Jeff Hudgins, along with Jerry Miller as the bailiff and Eric Brenner as D.A.V.E. Superb artists, all.
Miranda is the most exciting new show I've seen in this still young new year, and I'm guessing twelve months from now it will stand out among the very best theater achievements of 2012. I love where it takes its audience, and I love the remarkable invention of that journey.