The Emperor of Atlantis feels simultaneously “too soon” and “right on time”. The creative minds of In Series have devised an inventive, timely, though somewhat uneven double bill that takes on weighty subjects including the toll of war, the rise of fascism, and even the meaning of life. It’s a potent theatrical tonic for anyone grappling with our current fraught moment in history.
The double bill opens with The Soldier’s Tale, an adaptation of the 1918 Igor Stravinsky suite intended “to be read, played, and danced.” A soldier (Dimitri Gann) heads home from the battlefront of [ostensibly] World War I for some much-needed rest, guided from above by the sharp-dressed Narrator (Ashley Ivey). On the road home, he meets the Devil (Rosalynd Harris), who offers him the chance for unlimited wealth…if only he’ll trade his prized fiddle. What follows is a kinetic and brisk morality play that meditates on the price of trading one’s integrity for money and power.
The Soldier’s Tale and Emperor of Atlantis
closes June 24, 2018
Details and tickets
Beyond the basic plot, the thread is tough to follow through a meandering stream of modern dance and spoken word. Single plot points stretch to accommodate 5 minutes of alternately impressive and goofy modern dance. The narrator physically enters and exits the story without warning. Harris becomes the Devil, then the soldier’s wife, then the soldier’s mother, without much explanation. It’s all like a strange, pleasant dream you can only half remember the next morning. Still, it’s an entertaining dream, anchored by Harris’ power and charisma. Costume designer Donna Breslin contributes an amazing bolt of fiery orange silk, which creates one of the more jaw dropping entrances I’ve seen on a theater stage. You’ll know it when you see it.
The appetizer of The Soldier’s Tale is soon followed by the main course, Emperor of Atlantis or Death Goes on Strike. The connection between the two works isn’t readily apparent beyond their World War-linked origins, and the basic themes of conflict, greed and ambition. Perhaps it’s best not to think too hard about it.
Written in the Terezin Nazi concentration camp by Jewish prisoners, Emperor examines an Orwellian dystopia where the self-proclaimed dictator rules with an iron fist. The Emperor (barrel-chested baritone Andrew Thomas Pardoni) maintains an iron grip over a half-brainwashed citizenry. In an ominous introduction, the omnipresent Loudspeaker (bass-baritone Jarrod Lee) conveys the Emperor’s dark wishes, and a relentlessly cheerful Drummer (smooth mezzo Louisa Waycott) gives fascist marching orders to the citizenry.
The wiry Harlequin (tenor Adam Caughey) gives the audience a slight breather from Big Brother with the darkly comic “Days for Sale”, a lament duet with Death himself (wry bass-baritone Andrew Adelsberger). It’s a striking visual and narrative choice – using a clown as the last sane person, his only friend the angel of Death.
In these opening scenes, the authoritarian atmosphere feels uncomfortably close to home, aided by director and writer Nick Olcott’s modernized references to “fake news” and “Making Atlantis Great.” Costume designer Donna Breslin and set designer Jonathan Dahm Robertson mine a variety of historical touchstones, including classical morality play archetypes, 1950’s postwar America, and German and Soviet propaganda. Working in concert, they’ve created an atmosphere that’s both fantastical and eerily familiar.
The Emperor’s iron grip persists until his preemptive war on an all-too-convenient “Enemy” proves too brutal even for Death, who goes on strike and grants de-facto immortality for all.
This unexpected twist upends classic dystopian tropes and lightens the early gloom. I was expecting a somber production through and through, especially given the original’s concentration camp roots. But what unfolds next is an uplifting meditation on freedom, love, and leading a meaningful life.
Caughey, Adelsberger, and Pardoni add additional strong vocals as the ground shifts under the regime’s feet. Waycott entertains as the increasingly frantic and puzzled regime cheerleader, while Lee faithfully narrates the Emperor’s changing fortunes. Tenor Samual Keeler and Soprano Randa Rouweyha, as the unnamed “Boy” and “Girl,” offer the highlight of the evening in their beautiful duet “Now the Clouds of Sin and Sadness.”
Emperor of Atlantis and The Soldier’s Tale together provide an entertaining, if fairly uneven, evening of theater. Through dance, spoken word, and sharp operatic vocals, they remind audiences to choose love over power and hope over fear, and to never forget the painful lessons of history. Judging from the news, that’s worth the price of admission.
The Emperor of Atlantis by Viktor Ullmann . Original Libretto: Peter Kien . Translation and direction by Nick Olcott . Music direction & conducting: Stanley Thurston . Featuring Andrew Adelsberger, Adam Caughey, Samual Keeler, Jarrod Lee, Andrew Pardini, Randa Rouweyha, and Louisa Waycott . The Soldier’s Tale by Igor Stravinsky . Direction and choreography: Jaime Coronado . Music direction & pianist: Frank Conlon . Writing and co-direction: Rick Davis . Featuring Dimitri Gann, Ashley Ivey, and Rosalynd Harris. Instrumentalists: Gavin Fallow, Breanna Gromicko, and Frank Conlon . Set design: Jonathan Dahm Robertson . Costume design: Donna Breslin . Lighting design: Marianne Meadows . Stage manager: Caelan Tietze . Produced by In Series . Reviewed by Ben Demers.
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