Friday, March 18, 2016

Reverend's Reviews: Romantic Princes & Singing Marines


Both Long Beach Shakespeare Company and Long Beach Opera are currently presenting truly unique productions through March 20th. Shakespeare's Pericles, Prince of Tyre is a sweeping, rarely performed saga involving the lovelorn title character, multiple exotic locations, incestuous kings, virtuous women, lusty pirates and much more. It is also a late-career work by the Bard, who may not have been its sole or primary author.

The play opens in ancient Antioch. Young prince Pericles, longing to have a wife and family, is hoping to marry the king's daughter but must first solve a riddle. If he fails to do so, Pericles not only won't win the princess's hand but will lose his head. Pericles answers the riddle correctly; however, its disturbing revelation forces him to flee to his homeland and, from there, other historic kingdoms such as Tarsus, Pentapolis and Ephesus. He encounters numerous challenges along the way, including a theatrically-impressive shipwreck. Many years pass before the play's happy ending, which is unusual in what would otherwise seem one of Shakespeare's tragedies.

As written, Pericles boasts more than 30 characters. Director Helen Borgers' cast of nine assume all of the roles, often with only masks used to differentiate the characters and locations. This proves problematic, even confusing at times. Some of the performers are skilled enough to distinguish their roles through vocal or physical changes. This is especially true of veteran actor Leo Lerma, who effectively assays a number of kings, advisors and townspeople. Most of his fellow cast members aren't yet up to Lerma's level of experience or proficiency.

An exception to this among the younger performers is Joe LoCicero, who is superb as Pericles. Handsome and confident, LoCicero perfectly conveys the hero's inner struggles as well as Shakespeare's sometimes convoluted text. That he does so while often making direct, prolonged eye contact with audience members makes his performance that much more impressive. LoCicero also served as the production's fight coordinator.

Tim Leach's special effects in concert with Saki Sato's lighting go a long way in transforming the company's small space into a believable storm-tossed sea, a drought-stricken wasteland and another land of plentiful greenery. Despite it's occasional shortcomings, LB Shakespeare's Pericles demands attention since the play is so rarely staged. The company also deserves credit for taking the risk. For tickets, visit the LB Shakespeare website or call 562-997-1494.

Fallujah is an altogether different yet similarly noteworthy enterprise. Long Beach Opera is currently presenting its world premiere at, appropriately enough, the National Guard Armory on 7th Street. This intense musical work by composer Tobin Stokes and librettist Heather Raffo was inspired by the experiences of Christian Ellis, a Marine who served in Iraq in 2004. He returned home suffering from a broken back as well as even more debilitating post-traumatic stress disorder.

The opera opens with USMC Lance Corporal Philip Houston (played by LaMarcus Miller, who is excellent both vocally and dramatically) being placed in a hospital room for observation following his third post-combat suicide attempt. Fellow Marine and best friend Taylor tends to him while Philip's adoptive mother anxiously waits to see her son. Philip is plagued by flashbacks to his time in Fallujah, where he witnessed numerous atrocities and his tentative friendship with an Iraqi boy, Wissam, resulted in tragedy.

As with many LB Opera productions, Fallujah is an immersive experience. It features an actual military transport and uniformed performers patrolling the aisles with guns drawn in addition to its real-life military setting. The orchestra, under the assured direction of Kristof Van Grysperre, is veiled by a large camouflage tent. Lighting projections and overhead videos occasionally punctuate the music and action to dramatic effect.

In what ultimately struck me as excessive, several Iraq War vets speak of their experiences via video interviews prior to the opera's start. While their reflections are insightful, they really don't add to or better prepare audience members for what they are about to see and hear. Two or three of the interviews might be acceptable in an effort to help set the stage, but they go on for nearly ten minutes and end up being repetitive.

Stokes' score is, like many modern operas, minimalist but serviceably dramatic and pleasingly lyrical in spots. I especially liked the occasional "head-banging" rock flourishes that Stokes incorporates during the Iraq flashbacks. These are guaranteed to wake up anyone who might be in danger of falling asleep. Raffo's libretto and the overall production are deeply moving at times, especially in recounting the doomed friendship between Philip and Wissam. The opera's finale, in which Philip's mother tenderly assures her troubled son that she will listen to his stories without judgment as he begins a difficult recovery process, is beautiful.

All in all, Fallujah is a potent production with a promising post-Long Beach future. It is being performed through March 20th and tickets may be purchased via the LB Opera website. The March 18th performance will be broadcast live on KCET and Link TV at 8:00 PM.

Reverend's Ratings:
Pericles, Prince of Tyre: B
Fallujah: B+

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film and stage critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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