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No "Doubt" about it: Vermont Stage Company performs at FlynnSpace

The current play on display at FlynnSpace is John Patrick Shanley's Doubt, a play about an incident that may or may not have taken place, and the results that flow from this so-called incident are equivocal to say the least. As I sat listening to the performance, I kept hoping that the exposition at the beginning was just taking a long time to set the stage, as it were. No such luck. In this era of smaller casts are better, Doubt comes to us on the heels of Art and Wit and Proof without the verbal clarity of any of them, without their sense of purpose, and the only scene worth staging is the one that Shanley claims was the first part of the play that he wrote, namely the scene between Sister Aloysius and Mrs. Muller, when Sister Aloysius is probing Mrs. Muller to see if her suspicions are correct with regard to the actions of Father Brendan Flynn towards Mrs. Mullers son. It is an artfully constructed scene, and has some of the only verbal wit in the play. The d_uement of the play is so abrupt that it leaves no doubts about (a) the general poverty of the play and, (b) the general poverty of the American theater scene that this should be awarded the Pulitzer Prize (I am actually a longtime admirer of Shanley's work, especially his script for Moonstruck, which is everything that this play is not). There is a third choice, of course: that the production is so inconclusive, the directions so inept, and the acting so uncomprehending of the infrastructure of the play, so uncomprehending, too, of the subtext under all the spoken text, that the fault is not in Shanley's court, but in that of director Sara Lampert Hoover and the cast of four, as well as all the designers and behind-the-scenes workers at Vermont Stage. Although I don't think the cast was in perfect shape at last Thursday night's performance, the performance I attended, I do think that they were doing their jobs reasonably well, given the material supplied to them. I vote for the production being stronger than the play itself. Staging this in the round is not ideal, but they did manage some semblance of reality. In fact, it may be part of what was wrong with the VSC production: too many realities in a restricted visual space. I did find that Alison Edwards as Sister Aloysius fumbled lines more than once, and failed totally to convince me at any point that her acting was more than skin deep (to be a harridan is one thing; to be a successful harridan is quite another), but Heather Nielsen (Sister James), Mark Nash and especially Pascale Armand (Mrs. Muller) achieved reasonable characterizations. The audience seemed as equivocal as the play -- they seemed to yearn for opportunities to react, and they didn't seem too bowled over by the last sections of the last scene of the play. They did, however, applaud the performers. Heartily. Having lived through the 40s and 50s in Catholic educational institutions, I felt that there was the skeleton of a play here. It's simply too bad that Shanley didn't doubt his own writing of this play. It is, after all, one thing to build a play on implication, but there isn't very much evidence in what this member of the audience inferred about the situation that wasn't better said by J. F. Powers in a series of novels and collections of short stories about the interactions of priests with other priests as well as with nuns that were published in the 1950s and early 1960s, not to mention an abundance of more recent movies and television movies on the same or similar subjects. The play continues its run this weekend at FlynnSpace. The Vermont Symphony Orchestra
Robert De Cormier led the combined forces of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra, the Vermont Symphony Chorus and soloists Arianna Zukerman, Mary Westbrook-Geha, Roger Grow and Kevin Deas last Saturday evening, January 26, as they gave the first Vermont performance of Beethoven's Missa Solemnis at the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. The performance was one of the most ardent performances that De Cormier has ever conducted with the VSO since he joined the group as director of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra Chorus in 1993 at the invitation of then-Music Director Kate Tamarkin. Despite the difficulty of the work in its construction, that construction became secondary to the work itself and its impact on an audience. Without knowing a great deal about this work, though guided by my having participated in literally one hundred settings of the mass text, through this performance I nevertheless had a clear picture of what parts probably were written for actual use during a church service, and what parts were written after any possible ceremonial opportunity by Beethoven's patron, Archduke Rudolph of Austria had passed. Indeed, the Kyrie, Gloria and Credo would fit nicely into a liturgical setting. Thereafter, the Sanctus, Benedictus and Agnus Dei partake of that exploration/experimentation that marks all of Beethoven's late works, no matter what the medium. The latter movement, the Agnus Dei, is imbued with the dramatic spirit that marks all of the work of Giuseppe Verdi, but especially his setting of the Requiem Mass. The Sanctus, with its extended violin solo, is an anomaly not just because of the violin solo, but also because Beethoven has set the text to one of the quietest settings that I know, whether orchestral or a cappella. The chorus in general and the soprano section in particular did a marvelous job in contending with the writing in general and the tessitura. Now and again, especially when the brasses were playing, the singers were overtopped by the orchestra, but in general the balance was good. The four soloists sang their quartets very well --Zukerman displaying a nascent dramatic soprano, Westbrook-Geha a very even, seasoned alto, Grow a very clear and well-placed tenor voice, and Deas, giving the best performance to date with the orchestra, handling both the upper and lower reaches of the bass solo with aplomb. They seemed engaged throughout the evening in the drama of the work. The orchestra committed itself entirely to attending to De Cormier's slightest direction, and concertmaster Katherine Winterstein shone in her performance of the violin solo. The architecture of the work was very clear in the performance, and if all of the accents were hard for the conductor to deliver, the sound which resulted always seemed to be correctly accented. Not that is of great import, but I was unable to tell whether the singers, both soloists and chorus, used the Church Latin pronunciation or a Germanicized pronunciation. Add another important date to the ongoing history of the VSO. Briefly noted
Simon Chauss_baritone and Eliza Thomas, pianist, together with Tim Tavcar as narrator, will perform Franz Schubert's song cycle, Die Winterreise twice in early February Saturday, February 2 at 8 p.m. in the Unitarian church in Montpelier, and Sunday, February 3 at St. Paul's Cathedral, Burlington. Admission is $15. Info at 802-223-1279 or visit them at www.wordstagevt.com ... and don't forget: Montr_ will be the scene of multiple performances of Rossini's The Barber of Seville, beginning with the performance on Saturday evening, February 2, and concluding with a matinee on Saturday, February 16 at 2 p.m. The production features young Canadian and American singers primarily (I have seen the Rosina in comprimaria roles, and she should be lustrous as Rosina). Info available at 514-985-2285.

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