Monday, September 7, 2015

Outré Theatre: Bed & Sofa (reviews)

B&SOutré Theatre opened its production of Bed & Sofa at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts on August 28, 2015.
One of the most acclaimed productions of its season, this enchanting three-character “silent movie opera” (based on Abram Room’s scandalous 1926 Russian film comedy) premiered at the Vineyard Theatre in New York, where it received two Obie awards and seven Drama Desk nominations, including Best Musical. In Moscow, in 1926, a housing crisis rages. In a cramped apartment, Ludmilla, a put-upon housewife, lives in dreamy complacency with her cheerful despot of a husband, Kolya. When Kolya’s handsome comrade, Volodya, arrives from the country, but can find no lodgings, Kolya offers him their sofa.
Skye Whitcomb directed a cast that featured Noah Levin, Rebeca Dias, and Elvin Negron.  Sabrina Lynn Gore was the assistant director, with musical direction by Caryl Fantel.
Christine Dolen reviewed for The Miami Herald:
Musical director-keyboard player Caryl Fantel, violinist Luibov Ohrimenco and cellist Konstantin Litvinenko deliver a strong yet artfully shaded live version of Pen’s intricate, Russian-flavored score. Under Skye Whitcomb’s direction, three actor-singers explore the comedy, sensuality and shocking turns of the piece. The result is sometimes moving, sometimes a bit maddening, in part because the Abdo setup at times works against the show’s intimacy.
Levine, Negron and Diaz all have the voices to handle the music, through Diaz’s is lighter and sometimes overwhelmed by the men’s power when the three are singing together. Levine and Negron have some memorable solo and duet passages.
The main apartment set (by Whitcomb, who also did the lighting) is a pretty dismal affair, bare-bones and with furniture that doesn’t suggest the ‘20s (or earlier). Separate areas — Volodya’s office, a platform/doctor’s office, Kolya’s job site — are similarly minimalist and disconnected, requiring the actors to go roaming among the tables where the audience is seated, dissipating focus and involvement with the unfolding story. Sabrina Lynn Gore’s costumes for Kolya and Ludmilla are effective, but Volodya’s look is too contemporary. Sound can be an issue too, as the musicians (fine as they are) at times overwhelm the singers.
Whitcomb and Gore, respectively Outré’s artistic and managing directors, are drawn to ambitious material. Bed and Sofa certainly qualifies as thematically bold and musically intricate.
Bill Hirschman reviewed for Florida Theater On Stage:
…Outré Theatre Company has pretty much accomplished what it set out to with the 1996 Bed and Sofa — staging a decidedly offbeat mashup of a 1927 Russian silent movie and a Russian opera of the period about a ménage a trois among working class proles.
The performers, Noah Levine, Rebeca Diaz and especially the honey-baritone Elvin Negron, have solid voices; the direction by Skye Whitcomb and Sabrina Lynn Gore is serviceable, and the musical direction by Caryl Fantel is admirable.
But the actual concept with music by Polly Pen and lyrics by Laurence Klavan only sounds good on paper. In execution, it’s innately misconceived. The two art forms, no matter how well performed, simply do not mesh.
The technical end of the production is its weakest aspect. The scene changes are clumsy, noisy and pull the audience out of the moment; if there was ever a need for a connective musical underscoring to keep the audience in the mood, this was it.
Outré is …important as a company whose batting average may not be consistent, but which never rests artistically and is always pushing at the expectations of the audience to make for a richer cultural scene. That means inevitably a project isn’t always going to succeed, depending on how you define that term. Bed and Sofa is one of them. But it’s a price patrons pay for having a company willing to take risks.
Ron Stafford Hagwood covered it for The Sun-Sentinel:
Bed and Sofa is a strange, awkward and off-kilter entertainment.
The music, with its repeated phrases and atonality, is enchanting, especially with the precise performance of a three-piece band. They do everything possible to sustain the shifting textures of the show (from comedy to tragedy and back again). But even they can't keep the musical aloft with clunky scene changes. The cast wandering through the Abdo New River Room before settling on one of the set's puzzle pieces breaks the spell. The sound balance loses or drops some words.
Then again, there are moments that linger long after the show, at 80 minutes with a 15-minute intermission, is over. When Volodya takes Ludmilla to the cinema, Diaz is luminous, and the scene has a sweet ache to it, especially after she sings, "I seldom have the honor of going out." Later, when the two men play a game of checkers, the cuckold versus the conqueror, the wry humor of the show is brought squarely into the light.
Bed and Sofa is so many things that even if some of them don't work, there is — at least for the adventurous theatergoer — plenty left that does.
John Thomason reviewed for Boca Magazine:
Among the many clever paintings by the deadpan “word artist” Wayne White is a work titled “Date Mate Sate Grate”—a four-word narrative that describes his bell curve of a modern relationship. I thought of this while watching the roller-coaster structure of Outré Theatre Company’s Bed & Sofa, an effervescent-turned-sour love triangle running now at the Broward Center.
Bed & Sofa bills itself as a “silent movie opera,” a paradox that only makes sense once you see a production of it, and Outré’s is a solid, if not quite immaculate, interpretation. The show is entirely sung-through, with the music—expertly performed by a three-piece band just off stage left—full of operatic leitmotifs and clever reprises. It’s a Sondheimian sonic slate that’s alternately sprightly and despairing, and sometimes it’s pliable enough to encompass both of these emotions at once.
And yet Bed & Sofa’s silent-movie roots show, particularly in the quality of the actors, whose wide-eyed, gesture-heavy performances channel the best of silent screen acting—not the preening, ostentatious ham of a Lugosi or Valentino, but the subtler work of an Emil Jannings or George O’Brien.
Negron has a strong baritone, but his most unique asset is his expressive eyebrows, which guide the rest of his countenance down tragicomic avenues as the narrative’s hangdog cuckold. Levine is indeed possessed of the “sensitive face” which Klavin’s lyrics require, and his lanky form and rubbery face bring a gangling comic personality to Volodya. Diaz boasts the best operatic range of the three of them, and even when she’s not singing, she embodies Ludmilla’s perennial frustrations as an unpaid, unappreciated housemaid.
Skye Whitcomb’s direction required much invention, given the script’s paucity of stage direction, and in addition to his central one-room set, he employs both wings of the Abdo New River Room stage as well as the usual raised platform that sits, somewhat awkwardly, mid-audience (This staging element is only justified at the very end of the play; in the first act, it’s mostly a useless organ, like a scenic appendix). More bravely, he takes his time with the pacing, allowing his actors to do nothing for what feels like a couple of idle minutes in the first act—a rare example of savory, real-life contemplation in a musical-theater genre that generally moves at ersatz assembly-line speed.
Whitcomb’s set might leave something to be desired; certainly the anonymous furniture doesn’t say “Moscow, 1926” so much as “Fort Lauderdale Big Lots, 2015,” but I found plenty of humor in the tacky Stalin wall calendar (it’s referenced in the lyrics!) and Russian dolls that sit self-reflexively among the room’s décor. Whitcomb’s lighting decisions are even curiouser, with spotlights illuminating nothing and characters wandering among the audience in darkness. The biggest problem, though, is the sound balance, which on opening weekend was far from perfect. You may find yourself struggling to catch important exposition when the voices lose their competition with the music; Negron’s lowest notes were submerged completely under the piano and strings.
This “Bed & Sofa” has a bit of a way to go before it achieves the effortless nirvana that Pen and Klavin’s source material suggests… But it’s certainly headed the right direction, and if the aural bumpiness can be resolved, this immensely likable piece is on track to be one of Outre’s most memorable productions to date.
Outré Theatre presents Bed & Sofa at the Broward Center for the Performing Arts through September 13, 2015, 2015.

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