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Daniella Ignacio

Choreographer Christopher Evans Discusses His Work for the Fiddler on the Roof

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

Professional productions of Fiddler on the Roof traditionally feature the iconic Jerome Robbins choreography from the original production. The 2015 Broadway revival of Fiddler on the Roof was the first major production to get permission to use new choreography, created by Hofesh Schechter and his company. That revival is now on tour across North America, with the choreography restructured by Christopher Evans, Schechter’s associate choreographer.

Evans has a long working relationship with Shechter, having worked with him since 2005, and was instrumental in the process of developing the choreography for Broadway. I caught up with Evans in the week leading up to the national tour’s stop in D.C. at the National Theatre.

What intrigues you about Israeli styles of dance – particularly Hofesh’s style?

CHRISTOPHER EVANS: I met Hofesh at such a young age [Evans was a student at the London School of Contemporary Dance] that I wasn’t really that hardened by training yet. I could still kind of go anywhere with my training, I hadn’t been fully disciplined, there wasn’t a lot of “unlearning” to do with me. And I think, naturally, that kind of grounded, slightly animalistic way of moving really suited me because I was into martial arts. I always found dance to be just another kind of movement that I had been doing previously. Martial arts is just movement and dance is just movement. I wasn’t interested in particular styles or vocab, I just liked moving.

[Hofesh] came from a folky background but then got involved with Batsheva and Gaga. His way of moving was more about turning imagery into flesh, rather than having very recognizable technique. For me, when I first met him, it was like watching him through the Wild West, I couldn’t categorize it, so I was really enjoying that. Learning how to move like that whilst making a piece was really useful because it meant you could really understand what was going on, not just do the movement thing, but how it’s used to communicate.

How does the choreography differ from the original Jerome Robbins choreography for Fiddler? 

EVANS: It feels, as far as I’m concerned, very far away from what I would consider musical theatre vocabulary, or how [that vocabulary] can sometimes present itself: that kind of cleanliness or the frontal nature of how that dance could be. For me, Hofesh’s movement could be very grounded in detail and grounded in community. When people watch Hofesh’s work, whether they’re dancers or not, they always get the slight feeling like, “I can do that, that looks like something I could do,” it doesn’t look like that kind of virtuosity that’s flashy where you enjoy it because you could never do it. Like, this is connected to something quite human, which I think is perfect for Fiddler because I think it’s ultimately about a community of people who celebrate being alive at every opportunity and any opportunity to dance, and move, and be physical.

What [Hofesh] enjoys communicating with Fiddler, is that in every movement [there] is this feeling of “we are together, and there is something above us, there’s something bigger than us.” In some moments, it sits slightly more into the ancient or timeless, almost tribalist, message of “we are humbled by something bigger than us, in service to something great.” And in other moments, it has that kind of bravado [and] virtuosity, that comes, in my opinion, in a very small, undulating, articulate way.

What I always loved about Jerome Robbins’ choreography is its strength, and drive, and its lines, and its very sure, defined gestures. The power that can come from his choreography is a lot about definition and throwing energy in very specific directions, whereas Hofesh’s work’s power comes mainly from its use of unison: how you can get a whole group of people to do very very tiny things that are actually quite smoky and you’re seeing a lot of unity onstage but you’re not seeing clones of people, you’re seeing people who are sharing some very specific idea, but they don’t have to be exact movement in the same way. So it looks very complex and quite organic. I guess that’s the best way I could articulate dance over the phone. (laughs)

Which moment do you think defines that the most in the show?

EVANS: I would say probably “L’Chaim” is one of those great examples. There are two conflicting energies in the room and it is obviously loaded with tension because of the politics and the context of the story, but all of those tensions subside mainly through this idea of “we’re gonna loosen up and we’re gonna dance, we’re going to enjoy life and we’re going to show off.” What I like about that scene is that it gives the opportunity for virtuosity to be the thing that two opposing groups can share. So it’s a nice opportunity for swingy, smoky, slightly messy, tumbly style of the Jews who are just going to get up and dance slightly drunk, but we’re going to show off. Then there’s the very clean, powerful, sure movements of the Russians. And of course it’s all going to be amalgamated into a big number and it’s just purely about enjoying life.

What are some of your favorite elements of the choreography?

EVANS: In terms of a pure feel-good wave of energy coming towards you, I love “Tradition” because it’s one of those rare opportunities when the entire cast is dancing together and people of different ages are dancing with the feeling of “we are dancing now because these are the moves we have always had, these are the movements that represent this community and God” and it’s nice that everyone has that at the beginning of the show.

How did you restructure this new choreography for the tour?

EVANS: I think of all the things that were streamlined, the dancing element, because it always had a feeling of being a flexible style to work with, I feel that the dancing got changed. There are very, very small spacing changes that we have because the show now has to accommodate different kinds of venues. I have preferred watching shows on tour in a slightly more compromised space sometimes because I think Hofesh’s style lends itself to that feeling that you’re in the room with the dancers, and there’s not huge leaps or crosses. I’ve enjoyed seeing the dancers being more particular and more skillful with their bodies and space.

But restructuring things for the tour, it’s been pretty glorious and I guess the biggest, biggest, biggest change was an enormous staircase that came up the back and underneath the stage. On Broadway, they came from the bottom of the stage as a shadowy, ghost of the past up and it’s a lovely image but trying to negotiate and find the same punch to start the show up was a cool challenge. I think what we settled on, now having watched it many times on tour, I really can’t remember how the beginning of the Broadway show would have gotten anywhere near the same kind of punch. We have such a percussive start to “Tradition” now. It’s one of those creative challenges where you have to make it work, I think it really does.

How do you feel about this cast?

EVANS: For me, my visits now get less and less frequent. And I think what strikes me is the cast that we have for the tour, I’m always completely staggered by the quality and integrity of the people who absorb every drop of information. I’m so impressed by the cast that we have now. I was blown away by what they achieved in the time I was there. I think it has something to do with the touring mentality; it’s not just the show these people see, these people really travel and they see a lot together and accumulate this wealth of experience together, which for a show like Fiddler on the Roof about such a tight-knit community, it just matures and strengthens. I think the touring life comes out on the stage. Every time I see it, it incrementally gets better.

As associate choreographer, how much of a say did you get in determining the choreography when it was on Broadway?

EVANS: The first time, my job was to audition all the dancers, understand and work out which people are going to understand that world of dance very quickly. Once we had that group of people, there was a beautiful two and a half weeks where it was just me and them and my job was to lead them through the style, unlearn a few habits and help them unlock parts of the body that are really crucial to execute the movements like the pelvis as an anchor to get your agility really from the floor. I think it’s amazing how we can train our bodies to be very specialized. And during that journey of training up for a few weeks, we also played with choreography while waiting for Hofesh to arrive. We’d already started playing with compositions musically and in the movement, so by the time Hofesh arrived, we’d not only had the training in place but we had little pockets of things for him to look at. I personally felt very integrated into the process and we were very closely working together to work out this code of moving which has lasted all this time.

Why should people see this production of Fiddler?

EVANS: I really think the choreography is incredible. It’s just very, very high quality movement that slightly sits just outside of what you expect in a musical theatre setting. Hofesh is a contemporary dancer and he created basically a small dance company within a musical, which I think is quite rare. But also I just think Bart [Sher] is a very clever man and he made a show that is about what it is to be a human being, he managed to achieve the action, the beat and the rhythm, the important stuff that gets it right into that naturalism.

Mozart’s whimsical Magic Flute from Washington National Opera

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

Wild things abound in this production of  Washington National Opera’s The Magic Flute, currently playing at the Kennedy Center. With Maurice Sendak’s artwork at its forefront, the opera’s elements of childlike whimsy makes it an entertaining night for audiences of all ages. Conventions of opera are adhered to, with all of the classical training obvious in each and every performer, from the principals to the chorus … yet there’s something more to it.

There’s whimsy and there’s a clear focus on the power of young people: something this opera always inherently does with its magical story about the journey of a prince, Tamino, and his sidekick Papageno, not to mention its accessible, tuneful Mozart score. This production highlights with no apologies in a language that children can understand: clear English (not the original German) and fun storytelling all-around.

Neil Peter Jampolis realizes the Maurice Sendak scenic design and artwork in a way that allows for wonderful theatrical moments, with lighting design (John Garofalo) that brings it to life even further. It’s clear from the moment the curtains open up and the audience’s first glance is a Maurice Sendak illustration highlighting the moon above the priest. There’s a beautiful connection between static image and dynamic, live theatre through this design. As the light on the scrim dims and the audience begins to see the physical set behind it, for a moment, one might think that the fantastic creatures in the illustration are also onstage.

And then the opera begins and the audience immediately sees the three ladies (Alexandria Shiner, Deborah Nansteel and Meredith Arwady – a fearsome trio who can also be flirtatious) attacking a serpent that is coming after Papageno. Said serpent, quite adorable with its big green eyes, waddles out almost unsuspectingly until it’s killed, smoke comes out of it and it creeps offstage. A wide array of creatures inhabit this production besides our friend the dragon: lions with golden manes and creatures right out of “Where The Wild Things Are” that resemble trolls.

Pamina and Tamino are the heart of the story. Sydney Mancasola’s Pamina brings a master class of a performance in “Ach ich fühl,” fully using the legato lines to demonstrate the character’s sadness and allowing her voice to travel up and down fully and freely, which is not easy to do in that aria. David Portillo’s lush tenor provided for a romantic feel for Tamino with just the right amount of vibrato, especially in his opening arias, and when Tamino decides to join Sarastro’s brotherhood, Portillo portrays that resolve with strength and fervor.

Michael Adams as Papageno is the standout in this production. His soaring tenor has a powerful speaking voice to match, with a slight twang that characterizes the chatterbox excellently. Adams finds moments to make the score his own and to create physical comedy with the role and allows the audience to laugh at him, all while making Papageno a person that you want to root for. Especially in his interactions with Papagena (a winning Alexandra Nowakowski), all culminating in the “Pa-pa-pa-Papageno” duet where they celebrate their love, he crafts a truly winning character. Nowakowski is a standout in her own right, as well. Her reveal from the cleaning lady to Papagena’s true form, with bucking “ahhh”s turning into a beautiful true-to-opera “ahhh,” was a comedic highlight of the show.

As the Queen of the Night, WNO veteran Kathryn Lewek (who played the same role in 2014) takes control of the stage and pulls off a stellar “Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen” that was the crowd pleaser of the night. Although she seemed a little off (one could wish for her to get some of the notes from right on top of them, not by working up to them), she still remained in character and made the number a showstopper. Her rival in this story, Sarastro, played by Wei Wu, has a lyrical bass with low notes that are a joy to hear. It can be soft, and one could wish that he could allow it to boom out a bit more, but overall his voice matches the character well.

On a libretto note: I can appreciate the original choice of librettist Emanuel Schikaneder to ground the story with spoken moments; however, sometimes I wished that I could hear more singing, as some of the book scenes tended to drag out and contributed to a feeling of the opera starting to feel long. One full scene in the first act was entirely spoken and, to be quite frank, it was forgettable. The second act opened with the priests and followers talking, rather than a grandiose opening like that of the first act, and I wanted to just get to another magical, musical moment again. Although the performers played the straight acting scenes as best as they could (some rather excellently: at one point, Papageno conjured up two imaginary chickens to play with, much to the chagrin of Tamino and much to the enjoyment of the audience), musical moments in combination with powerful acting and design choices are what draw people to The Magic Flute; filler book scenes, not as much.

However, that doesn’t discount all of the incredible moments of this opera. Washington National Opera’s The Magic Flute takes you on a journey with unexpected moments.Take it all in with heart and joy, and try to remember the childlike wonder of seeing your first opera or musical.

In Theory at Mosaic Theater freedom of speech rings true

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

If you were given free rein to say whatever you want about anything you want…how far would you go? And if you were the moderator of that kind of environment, at what point would you interfere? That’s what Norman Yeung explores in Theory, making its American debut at Mosaic Theater Company.

The play was originally written in Canada in 2009, but this story about freedom of speech seamlessly fits in with the culture of American college campuses today – especially the liberal arts universities of D.C. that profess freedom of speech, yet have professors and students who can be hypocritical when people are allowed to give their opinions. It succeeds as a cautionary tale, raising questions of empathy, complicity and the very extreme ends of the political spectrum.

When Isabelle (Musa Gurnis), a tenure-track film studies professor decides to create an unmoderated discussion board for her class, she aims to rile her students up and get them to dismantle the patriarchy, question authority and democratize their studies of the film canon. However, when the posts and videos on the board start to get questionable, offensive, downright abusive, life-threatening and invasive of Isabelle’s privacy, she becomes increasingly paranoid. She must decide if she should intervene, let the assignment play out, or shut down the board. All the while, her students, her wife and the dean of students challenge her.

The story is difficult to take seriously until Isabelle begins to go down the path of obsession. It becomes clear that there’s something else going on here – that it’s a thriller and not just your typical “hot take” on freedom of speech. In the beginning, Isabelle seems like a caricature of a professor, a satire on how professors who profess “freedom of speech” have no idea what they’re talking about. The way that Gurnis carries herself and speaks is so declaratory and self-important sounding that it’s no wonder that her students are resistant. One sitcom-like exchange between her and her students:

“Everything’s allowed here,” she proclaims.

“That’s a terrible idea,” one of her students responds.

Until the audience sees Isabelle’s relationship with her wife and understands the dynamics within their interracial marriage, it’s unclear who Isabelle is. Once this relationship begins to play out, you start to understand where she’s coming from and how much this means to her: the idea of giving these students the freedom to think, speak and share their voice when they may never have gotten to share their voice before. Gurnis portrays Isabelle’s idealism with fervent passion and by the dark, intense culmination of it all, succeeds in playing out these emotions in an absolutely captivating, gut-wrenching way.

Andrea Harris Smith plays Isabelle’s wife, Lee, in a way that makes her one of the most human characters of the play. Lee is a black tenured professor and author who’s heard her share of racialized hate speech, and Smith plays this character with just the right mix of coolness and firmness. She’s there for Isabelle at the beginning of the project, but becomes increasingly upset with Isabelle as she refuses to take down extremely offensive comments that began when Isabelle screens clips from “Birth of a Nation.”

The four students that Isabelle is drawn to the most, Josh Adams as Richard, Benairen Kane as Davinder, Camilo Linares as Jorge and Tyasia Velines as Safina, provide youthful voices who challenge Isabelle’s opportunity to challenge authority, which is an interesting dichotomy. They grow and learn to speak their minds in different ways. Some push the envelope a bit too far, like Jorge, and others, like Safina, learn to open their minds and think about films they initially did not want to even think about. Adams takes a star turn towards the end that sent chills down my spine.

A simple set (Daniel Ettinger) gives just enough specifics to establish all three main settings: the classroom, the living room of Isabelle and Lee’s house and Isabelle’s office. The stage is filled with accents of light greens on the chairs, the couch and panel walls, with a splash of orange in Isabelle’s office, as well, to give the illusion of warmth and openness.

The lighting design (Brittany Shemuga) supports this, illuminating the set with five lampshades with singular light bulbs hanging above, creating the constant feeling that they’re in the classroom. One particular lighting scheme that stands out is in the scene in which Isabelle plays one of her most contested film selections from start to finish, as Isabelle stands in a very dark stage with light only on her showing her paranoia.

Dylan Uremovic’s projection design reflects the dizzying, overwhelming effect of technology on the lives of Isabelle and her students; the films seep over from the classroom into Isabelle’s personal life, and display the toll that it takes on her. At one point, as Isabelle texts one of her students, a Bitmoji version of the student’s head pops up, which displays her unrealistic view of what she thinks the students are like.

Another level of anonymity and eerie thrill is added through the sound design (David Lamont Wilson.) As the posts are projected, different voices of the students read off those posts, line by line. You can never tell who is truly who or if they’re reading lines they actually posted. In between scenes, the techno music allows the audience to reflect on the events that have just transpired and adds to the dark vibe.

As a college student of color who is studying media, I highly recommend catching this production, especially to other young people who are having conversations like the ones in this production every day. Theory is a welcome addition to Mosaic’s Season of Awakenings. Prepare to be awakened and shocked and, in Safina’s words, “wake up to the fact that this world sucks – so thank you.”

How Matthew McGee created new, more terrifying Audrey IIs for Little Shop of Horrors

By Daniella Ignacio

This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.

In a season with high profile productions of Little Shop of Horrors on Broadway and across the country,  the DMV is getting its own taste of the Alan Menken sci-fi musical theatre classic this October, with a new twist. Little Shop of Horrors at Constellation Theatre Company may be in a small space, but they’re doing big things, especially with its innovative puppet design by the intrepid puppet designer/actor Matthew McGee. The four pods – designated as Pods One, Two, Three and Four – display the terrifying development of a plant into an alien-like monster.

As the puppets are moved around the space and adjusted to be in the right place for a photo call, McGee speaks fondly of them, calling each of the four pods “this guy” like an old friend throughout the interview. McGee said that as a son of puppeteers, who joined them as they toured around California doing shadow puppet shows at elementary schools, puppetry is a pivotal part of his life.

“I like to tell people I was raised by puppets because I’ve been exposed to puppetry my whole life,” said McGee. “Growing up with it, going to festivals in the summertime, taking workshops and learning about puppetry…over the years, I just started tinkering with it and learning more by experience.”

McGee’s recent projects include designing puppets for The Lion King, Jr. in Alexandria, Minnesota’s Andrea Theatre and My Father’s Dragon at Synetic Theater last winter, in addition to his own short film puppet theatre pieces.

He believes in the power of making the impossible happen through puppetry in theatre.

“I’m a big advocate of incorporating puppetry for theatre because it is, in my opinion, the closest thing to magic that you can get on stage besides doing actual magic,” he said. “You can go to the movies and get CGI and special effects, but to see a piece of live theatre and have it be just as fantastical as something you could see in a movie, that excites me. If you can get people to go ‘Whoah! What am I seeing?’ [and] if they think they’re seeing the impossible, that’s magic and that’s what I live for.”

McGee’s original inspiration for the puppets came from his love of the original Little Shop movie, which he said has some of the best puppetry in a movie that he’s seen. He wanted to bring the life, articulation and believability of the original Jim Henson puppets into this production, while also expanding upon the possibilities for making the puppets easy to maneuver yet still terrifying and progressively alien-like. He called the process a “primarily solo undertaking of monstrous proportions,” which started in August.

Oftentimes, with the bigger Pods Three (which sings “Get It”) and Four (the final man-eating version of Audrey II), the puppeteer has to sit or stand inside the puppet with their arms stretched out to control it, which McGee acknowledges is a workout.

In McGee’s designs, Audrey II is devised as an adaptation of a bunraku rod puppet where the puppeteer is not confined inside the puppet. Puppeteer RJ Pavel wears a black jumpsuit that covers him from head to toe, gets into a harness that’s connected to the back of Audrey II’s head through a rod and operates the plant from behind using that rig system. He uses handles that control the mouth through the leaves the mask him and is completely hidden from the audience.

“You get to see the stem of the neck, and you get to see the head moving and everything is alive,” McGee said. “Just seeing it in action – even for me, knowing how it works, I think ‘there it is, there’s the magic.’”

A lot of the material used for the plants is high density foam rubber sheet, which comes in sheets with different thicknesses and dry out patterns based on a model mockup. McGee blew out the pattern to the scale that he needed, and then traced it on the foam, cut it and glued it together to get the shapes of the heads and the leaves. They were then painted and coated in rubber to make them durable.

McGee said that he’s taken a lot of joy out of the differences in color patterns on the leaves, which are inspired by not only plants, but reptiles like lizards and frogs. The baby Pod One, “Twoey,” has leaves around his head that have highlights of greens and purples. By the time it progresses to Pod Three, he’s still got purples and greens, but the tips are blue, orange and yellow – it’s not exactly your typical “mean green mother,” but it’s definitely “from outer space.” When we spoke, McGee was finishing up Pod Four, which will be darker, with more of a grey tone.

“I’m excited by the contrasts of darks and brighter eerie neon greens and yellows, so it becomes less earthly,” he said. “The bigger he gets, the more alien he should become. It starts out looking like a little flytrap but by the end he has to have the essence of a flytrap that grows into something truly monstrous.”

McGee also uses his puppets to tie this production directly to the DMV area during the time period of Little Shop. McGee put Twoey in a Wilkins coffee can, a popular DMV coffee brand during the ‘60s, to pay homage to the fact that this production is being done in Washington, D.C., where Jim Henson got his start. To make this “puppet nerdy happy little Easter egg,” he found photos of the cans, edited the label from those photos, and Photoshopped it to put it onto the can.

“It’s so satisfying,” he said. “I get to tie in all these things [together] and make it pertinent to not only the time period but also this show and the location.”

McGee was also involved in teaching the actors to use the puppets, and spoke highly of the puppeteer RJ Pavel, who’s had puppeteering experience before. Pavel bases the movements on a lot of the inflections and cues of Marty Austin Lamar (the voice of Audrey II), and translates it into the physical life and the plant’s body language.