Thursday, February 16, 2006

Comedy on the Bridge and Brundibar

Get some culture by driving south on I-91. From Springfield, it takes an hour by car, give or take (depending upon your desire to accelerate or not) to reach New Haven. There, you will experience the Yale Rep/Berkeley Rep representaton of "Comedy on the Bridge" and "Brundibar" as it flashes back, instantly, to a time, six decades ago in history, when European Jews were in peril. Allegories both, these short plays are truly transportive.

Moreover, Tony Kushner wrote the libretto for "Bridge" and provides the English adaptation for "Brundibar." A few years ago, Maurice Sendak illustrated "Brundibar," the book; this time, he (with Kris Stone) supply physical design for both presentations. Larger than life Sendak, as it was in "Where the Wild Things Are" surfaces within the confines of Yale's University Theater in New Haven.

"Comedy on the Bridge" finds individuals stuck between two military men who guard the entrance to, ahem, the bridge. Thematically, infidelity becomes paramount as the men and women walk to the center, sing at one another, tend not to's all a bit bizarre and keeps going and going. The instrumentalists, almost all of whom are members of the Yale School of Drama, must be highly talented. If the structure of the bridge is symmetrical, the orchestrations are decidedly not. Instead, this opera, written by Bohuslav Martinu in 1935 (referencing a 19th century play) is ecelctic in tone.

"Brundibar" literally stars two children. Aaron Simon Gross plays Pepicek and Devynn Pedell his sister, Aninku. Their mother is ill and needs milk. The charming, sweet-voiced kids attempt to make some money which they will use to buy milk - by singing. But, Brundibar as in A Big Bully, gets in the way. He also sells milk, sings on the street, grinds away on a musical instrument, and is pretty mean-spirited. I would not call him a frightening character. The youngsters find themselves out on the street and asleep. A spirited array, including a dog (Geoff Hoyle), cat (Angelina Reaux), Sparrow (Anjali Bhimani) and a seemingly sea of children (delightfully representing non-uniform sizes, shapes, nationalities) come to the resue. Eventually, Brundibar (played with zest by Joe Gallagher) leaves the premises and the children manage to get the milk for Mom. If group vocals are your thing, this will be an absolute treat.

Moral: Solidarity forever, solidarity forever! (This is my comment -- not sung in the show).

"Brundibar" (the original opera) was written by Hans Krasa, a Czech Jew, who, before its initial performance in 1942, was sent off to a concentration camp. The production's debut was held at an orphanage in Prague. This is a startling enough story and one which speaks, through high drama, of the atrocities committed shortly before the midpoint of the 20th century. Through music evocative of Ravel and, perhaps, Stravinsky, it makes a poignant anti-war statement.
"Bridge" is 45 minutes and "Bundibar" 35 in length. Kushner, this country's piercing, intellectually challenging, politically riveting playwright, is known, in addition to his perspicacity, for his length. Not so here. He works well within the structure of each play.
Sendak's signature splashes of color and verve, precious finds, are in abundance particularly during "Brundibar."

Tony Taccone, who directed the Berkeley showings which anticipated those at Yale and more to come at Manhattan's New Victory Theater (beginning April 28th), supplies enviably precise direction. He is working with about 40 actors in "Brundibar" and three-fourths of them are children. Credit, then, goes to Taccone, musical director Greg Anthony, and movement director Kimi Okada.

I enjoyed "Bridge" but was completely taken with "Brundibar." Both shows are about making live theater with an emphasis upon live. Opera, in English language, is an acquired taste. We are not especially used to it. Musical comedies often include melodic tunes which circle back to a beginning note or phrase. Not so here. How delectable that melodic shifts are unforeseen. Many moments are unanticipated because the musical shifts are atypical. While "Brundibar," in terms of plot, reaches a climax, the music travels on - and on.