Symphony Pastorale/Fugue Series
nytheatre.com review by Robert Weinstein
August 9, 2008
"Fugue Series," the opening piece of New Zenith Theatre's Symphony Pastorale/Fugue Series, is set in a museum. It opens with the entrance of a janitor, a goodly sort with a large wooden push-broom and large black glasses, sweeping the floor and turning on the museum lights. The lights reveal two paintings: a partially nude female cradling a baby and a partially nude female in a more sensuous pose. (In a unique bit of staging, both are played by the same woman.) Once lit, the scene's action revolves around the janitor's and every character's reaction to these two pieces.
It's a charming act and director Ed Wierzbicki keeps it moving at a brisk pace; not an easy feat considering Robert Barnett's script calls for six actors to portray 40 characters, none of whom utters a single word. A lot happens in the scene and all of it is guided through the actors' movements and gestures and informed by Brian Wilbur Grandstorm's lively score. Characters enter and exit, flirt, observe, argue, plead, joke, tease, comment, trick, and conspire, using only their bodies and the physical space provided.
The gimmick's an interesting one, held together by a cast who give themselves fully to the conceit. The action includes an argument and reconciliation between a mother and a daughter; the courtship of the daughter by an engaging young man in a suit trying to enjoy a sandwich on his lunch break; the unforgiving commentary of a docent leading a group of tourists through the museum; and a mother trying against all cynicism to find one person in the museum to see the beauty in the art surrounding them.
The performance style can be limiting and somewhat distracting at times—if we are allowed to hear the actor's footsteps and thigh slaps, why are we not allowed to hear their voices when they move their lips in the heat of an argument?—and the logic of the proposed world can be confusing: when was the last time you saw someone cooling down from a running session, or a gay BDSM couple guiding each other by a leash, in a museum? But for sheer inventiveness, "Fugue Series" is an enjoyable exercise.
"Symphony Pastorale" is more ambitious in both presentation and scope. Described in the program as a "musical 'life' concert," the piece tells the story of a "life in four acts" by creating a soundscape via five formally dressed actors and actresses controlled by a baton-waving orchestra conductor. But instead of instruments, the actors tell the story by using their voices.
The life story being told belongs to a man named John and it begins by creating the hospital room and the chaos of his birth. Characters include John's mother, the supportive nurse, the clinical doctor, the worried father and, in the stroke of clever perspective, the infant John, reluctant to leave the womb. The conductor steers the actors, all seated in front of music stands containing scores, pointing his baton when a sound or phrase needs to be heard or waving it languidly while the actors are locked in to the natural rhythms of John's turbulent entrance into the world.
The scene's a riot. Watching the actors shift their intense focus between the conductor and the score provided one of the true highlights of the evening.
Subsequent episodes within "Symphony Pastorale" deal with John's adolescence, his sexual coming-of-age and the ensuing vagaries of his domestic life as an adult. New Zenith Theatre successfully mines the poetry out of these scenes through the flexibility of the actors' voices, their attention to the details and rhythms of the episodes, and their sensitivity in easing the piece from the anarchic promise life offers at its onset toward the humane and tragic comedy life often becomes.
Like "Fugue Series," "Symphony Pastorale" pushes against the boundaries of its style and periodically breaks the confines of its conventions—during one part in which John tries to seduce a young woman in a car, the actors break the soundscape by physically interacting with each other—but overall, the company employs its fascinating style to explore some thoughtful, humorous and tragic themes.