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Brennan Hall as Medoro, Anya Matanovic as Dorinda, Kiera Duffy as Angelica and Hadleigh Adams as Zoroastro in R.B. Schlather’s production of Handel's Orlando at Whitebox Art Center
© Ian Douglas 2015
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Duffy, with Drew Minter as Orlando
© Ian Douglas 2015

Y ou know Orlando. Not Ariosto’s knight, diverted from martial glory and driven to madness by love — I mean the drunk, homeless guy in a graffiti-tagged subway station, wearing pajamas under his trench coat, who mutters to himself while stalking a trashy, gum-cracking blonde in a fake fur. As it happens, in director R. B. Schlather’s intimate, voyeuristic take on Handel’s Orlando , seen April 26 at the Whitebox Art Center, the two were one and the same. This was just one of the ways in which Schlather’s Orlando was unique; the rehearsal process and performances were free, open to the public and live­streamed, and attendees at both were encouraged to Instagram their experiences. If all this sounds like an avant-garde stunt, rest assured, it was far more than that. By reducing Handel’s love quadrangle to its essence, then recreating the drama with recognizable denizens of the 1970s Lower East Side and presenting it in a storefront gallery in that very neighborhood, Schlather created an intense, accessible, immersive experience that illuminated the emotional heart of Handel’s work.  

The relationship dynamics remained unaltered: Orlando is obsessed with Angelica, the aforementioned blonde, who — though she may be a prostitute and not Queen of Cathay — is still the best catch in sight. Her beloved, Medoro, is no African prince but struts around in tight polyester pants with a pick in his Afro, while the shepherdess Dorinda, a drab outer-borough exile, pines for him from behind coke-bottle glasses and an enormous potted plant. The sorcerer Zoroastro appears in multiple guises — the Village People’s “Leatherman,” a Santacon refugee, and in white briefs, dispensing his magic via acid and beer. The action takes place entirely on a narrow subway platform, with the audience caught between the playing space and the orchestra — as captive as one is when stuck on a train between a weirdo and a mariachi band. The singers, maintaining tremendous focus, contributed gutsy, physically challenging and musically sensitive performances. Without exception, they conveyed vivid internal lives that gave immediacy to every note and gesture. Countertenor Drew Minter plumbed the depths of passion, anger and pathos as the dissolute Orlando, while countertenor Brennan Hall sang with sweetness and clarity as the blithely vain Medoro. Hadleigh Adams delivered Zoroastro’s arias in a thundering bass with a secure top. Both Kiera Duffy, as Angelica, and Anya Matanovic, as Dorinda, sang with lustrous tone and superb control, even when tasked with climbing over the subway bench or, in Matanovic’s case, effecting a full transformation from nerd to club girl.

There were plenty of in-jokes: Orlando’s token of love was a Yankees pin, and when Angelica and Medoro paired up at the end of Act I, they consoled Dorinda with a cake — an up-to-the-minute nod to Bettina Banayan, a culinary student who recently became internet-famous for frosting a cake on the subway and sharing it with wary commuters. The production would lose something if removed from the space — which is part of the point; it’s installation opera — but Schlather’s gift for visceral, high-stakes human drama is certainly transferable. Supertitles were projected on the side walls, requiring an effort to see them, but the performers’ intentions were so clear that translations seemed superfluous. Although the ensemble led by Geoffrey McDonald had some ragged moments, the entire theatrical experience, taken as a whole, was revelatory. spacer 


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