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In Review > North America


Beth Morrison Projects, National Sawdust

NATIONAL SAWDUST, a new nonprofit venue in Williamsburg, Brooklyn dedicated to new music and experimental work, seemed smaller on my first visit than I imagined it would. For the world-premiere performances of Persona (presented by Beth Morrison Projects, seen Oct. 24), its stageless theater could seat about sixty-five, with a few dozen more in a balcony; the room was set up like a cluttered photography studio, the areas not crowded with spectators were crowded with musicians, a table, a couch, three technicians and lots of tech—cameras, cranes, lights and five monitors. Not to mention the performers! The tight-squeeze, however, was appropriate for the piece, an intimate look at the relationship between two women—so intimate that at one point one of the stars was almost lying on my feet. 

Jay Scheib adapted the English-language libretto from Ingmar Bergman’s 1966 Swedish movie masterpiece, a chamber drama about a nurse caring for a celebrated actress who has had what appears to be a nervous breakdown and refuses to speak. Such a plot poses an obvious problem for opera makers, because opera is all about producing sounds with the voice. On film, the women’s unraveling plays as a pas de deux, but onstage it became almost monodrama. Though Scheib and the composer, Keeril Makan, have written three singing parts, and another starring role for a mostly mute actress, the show belongs really just to one character—the nurse Alma, sung by Amanda Crider, who performs most of the eighty minutes of music alone and thus becomes the chamber opera’s star. 

For her, Makan has composed a clangy, squawky score, alternately skittery, thumping and plunked. It’s unremittingly anxious, and appropriately so, given the roiling instability of the characters’ inner lives. Crider delivered a similarly unnerved performance. She’s needy, alternately dreamy and hostile, feigning a “feeling of deep security” that’s quickly undermined by Elisabet Vogler (an effectively rattled Lacey Dorn). The actress’s silence suggests awesome strength that Alma can never hope to possess, but which she tries to match through over revealing, both her insecurities and her secrets, including an afternoon beach orgy that she participated in—without her fiancée. Though the two women’s relationship soon collapses into power struggle, a battle of wills, something out of a horror movie, Alma at first seems sort of thrilled that someone’s finally listening to her, even if it’s by compulsion.

But it’s not just Elisabet who’s listening—there’s also us. Scheib also directed, and he had a camera or two on the performers at all times, sending the images back to screens around the room so that, even when the characters were hiding from us or each other, backs turned, we could still get a look at their faces. They were perpetually exposed, even at their rawest. It recalled Scheib’s direction of Evan Ziporyn’s A House in Bali, which I saw at BAM in 2010; that production also used streaming video cameras to show the audience onstage action that was blocked from view. Ziporyn was Persona’s musical director, and he kept the eight instrumentalists under tight control, patiently, steadily crafting the music so that peak moments, such as the climax of Act II, were truly harrowing.  —Henry Stewart 

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