In Baltimore, theatre fans tend to look to Towson University’s Department of Theatre for up-and-coming actors and directors. And opera aficionados look toward Peabody Chamber Opera for talented new opera singers. Watching Peabody’s version of Postcard From Morocco, directed by Jennifer Blades, last weekend at Baltimore Theatre Project taught me a lesson. Some of Baltimore’s most talented actors are also classically trained singers.
Postcard From Morocco was a one-weekend deal. But this review should give Baltimoreans a reason for showing up at Theatre Project this weekend. Postcard is part one of a two week collaboration with the Theatre Project, which will also be hosting the Peabody Chamber Opera’s contemporary take on Handel’s Giulio Caesare in Egitto (Julius Caesar in Eqypt), directed by Timothy Nelson.
First, a little about Postcard From Morocco. The opera itself was penned in 1971 by Dominick Argento, a Peabody graduate, born in York, Pennsylvania. I’d like to say I know a lot about him, or about Opera, but I don’t. He’s 84. He won a Pulitzer for his version of Virginia Woolf’s Letters. The score itself is easy-on-the-ear twelve tone: modern but not jarring.
Anyway, the play itself — excuse me, the opera — is really more of a scenario than a plot. A bunch of characters from the turn of the century have found themselves in…Morocco. Or somewhere in the middle of nowhere, one of the places you used to go to if you were civilized at the end of the Victorian era. Think Henry James.
This was before suitcases had rollers. The only thing that these characters really have in common is that they all carry suitcases, in varying degrees of bulkiness, that contain something that is essential to his (or her) personality.
So the hat woman carries a hat box. We never get to see the hat itself, but what’s important is that the box itself is large, and round, and looks like it contains a gigantic hat. A man with Old Luggage (Halim Shon) has (you got it) an old suitcase, slathered with stickers, which, he claims (to everyone’s fascination) has nothing worthwhile in it. The man with a Paint Box (Tyler Lee) says he’s filled his box with tubes and brushes, but we have to take that on faith. There’s a Man With A Shoe Sample Kit (Michael Maliakel) and a Man With a Cornet Case (Jeffrey Martin). And there’s a woman with a Cake Box (Melissa Wimbish), which (she says) is filled with the ashes of her lover.
The ninety minute opera is egalitarian and the characters lack names or titles. The premise is pretty clever: the play’s small band of characters carry their core personas around in suitcases, hidden in plain sight, hoping to run into people who they barely know – people who will, they hope, try desperately to find more about them. When the opportunity strikes, they jump at the chance. Every suitcase owner gets his or her moment in the spotlight. It’s the American Idol of self-realization.
This is opera as mind candy. I mean that as a compliment. As an audience member, I was somehow riveted by each locked suitcase or hat box. There may be a hat in that hatbox, or there may not be, but either way, the audience has to spend a lot of time visualizing the inside of that box. (That might be a reasonable way of approaching most plays, now that I think about it.)
Lisa Perry, as ‘Lady With a Hand Mirror’ creates a character with a jittery inferiority complex. The idea is brilliant – a person who can’t stare the world in the face, so she uses a handmirror at all times. Perry plays her character with a deeply rooted anxiety that makes her vaguely attractive. Elizabeth Kerstein, meanwhile, takes on two roles: that of the aforementioned Lady with a Hat Box, and as a Foreign Singer. She comes up with a fascinating mix: a Victorian era pole dancer. As the Man with a Shoe Sample Kit, Michael Maliakel seems born into the role: of a somewhat goofy, lanky guy who, just when you think you have him figured out, develops a strange mystique.
Watching this fluid, but very confident production, under the capable, focused direction of Jennifer Blades, was a real pleasure. If this is any indication, Giulio Caesare in Egitto, this weekend, should also be worth the trip.
Giulio Caesare in Egitto Runs Feb 16 – 19, 2012 at Baltimore Theatre Project, 45 West Preston Street
Details and tickets here