Review: Versatile acting troupe keeps ‘Go West!’ on track through some missteps

Review by Rebecca Ritzel

Matt Burkhartt | Staff Photographer
Chautauqua Opera Company artists perform Act 2, Scene 3 of The Ballad of Baby Doe.

Depending on whom you ask, Go West!, Chautauqua’s second annual inter-arts collaboration, came together in 500 years, seven months, 12 days or three hours.

The planning took place mostly over email, the rehearsals were too short, and the dress rehearsal, by some accounts, veered way off course. Yet by the time the Amphitheater filled up on Saturday — and it did nearly fill up, with patrons who stayed through to the finale —  Chautauqua’s arts groups had collectively traced the arc of westward expansion, delivering strong ensemble performances, and creating a two-and-a-half-hour space for Chautauquans to marvel, watch, listen and think.

Credit Andrew Borba, associate artistic director of Chautauqua Theater Company, with leading the multidisciplinary wagon train and spending hours poring over songs and poetry to ensure that the entire evening would stay tightly circled and cohesive. He succeeded.

It was Borba’s CTC actors who bore the heaviest loads in Go West! in terms of preparing original material for the performance and providing the narrative threads that tied together cowboy-and-Indian dances and a few contributions that felt contrived and unrelated. Borba is blessed this summer to work with an unusually versatile troupe, and it was the actors — singing, dancing, banjo-playing actors — who best embodied this collaborative spirit of exploring the Wild West.

The performance opened with the thespians marching to the words of Walt Whitman, whose epic poem “Pioneers! O Pioneers!” would resurface throughout the evening. Onstage, they unfurled a white screen reminiscent of a wagon sail, a backdrop for the first of many iconic images. (It would later be replaced by a larger screen.) All the while, the orchestra underscored the poetry with the slow-burning largo of Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 9.

Accompanying the spoken word is immensely harder than a soloist performing in accordance with dynamic markings in a score, and under the baton of Chautauqua Music School Festival Orchestra director Timothy Muffitt, the balance of sound was nearly perfect, which is no small feat.

The actors, lead by Marianne Rendon and Stephen Michael Spencer, donned various hats and scarves and headdresses to portray a cast of historical characters stretching from Christopher Columbus to Marlon Brando. (More on just how that actor fits into the inter-arts montage in a bit.)

On two platforms erected in over seats of the Amphitheater, actors reprised Jefferson and Napoleon’s Louisiana Purchase negotiations, and a miniature boat “ferrying” their correspondence across the stage drew the evening’s loudest laughs.

From there, the actors were off to tromp through the aisles, reciting from Meriwether Lewis’ journals as they parted the theater like wagons fording the Columbia River. A less exuberant spirit settled over the crowd during the section dedicated to the “Oregon Trail” (projected subtitles synced with the program notes kept the transitions clear.) Rarely heard journals from pioneer women recounted the horrors of cholera, starvation, racism and death. The most memorable image of Go West! found the actors facing the organ pipes as one-by-one, projected crosses appeared on their backs.

The imagistic spoken-word-and-music reverie was disrupted, regrettably, by the opera company’s too-chipper contribution for the evening, a scene recounting a presidential stump speech from The Ballad of Baby Doe. The company had opened the opera the night before, and the scene came like a commercial for Monday night’s second performance of composer Douglas Moore’s one-hit wonder. Tradition and technical issues — not enough portable head microphones to go around — meant that the singers performed without amplification, and they failed to project over the orchestra despite Muffitt’s efforts to keep his players’ volume as pianissimo as possible.

Other tough-to-surmount technical details included the lack of follow spots, small, roving lights that could have tracked performers who moved through the aisles, and difficulty hearing unmiked vocal students who joined the actors to sing numbers from the musical Paint Your Wagon and later the opera Grapes of Wrath. It’s worth noting, however, that the Festival students’ selections seemed very much in keeping with the evening’s themes, and that Gretchen Krupp delivered a searing solo to close out the section on the Great Depression.

The Chautauqua School of Dance and Charlotte Ballet performed a total of three new works, all choreographed by Mark Diamond and created especially for the Chautauqua season. The student dancers fared a bit better in Aaron Copland’s saloon caper “Buckaroo Holiday” than they did in an earlier frontier ballet set to a string quintet by Chautauquan Christian Woehr. Synchronization problems plagued both numbers, but Samantha Griffin and Nicola Kubzdela were stand-outs as a high-kicking barkeep and Indian princess, respectively.

The only professional dancers in the program were Charlotte Ballet stand-outs Pete Leo Walker and Anna Gerberich, who performed a duet with their usual combination of smooth and seductive prowess. They wore minimal buckskin costumes, and danced accompanied by Cayuga flutist, Dan Hill. Because this section focused on mythology of the West, and because it was followed by a back-to-reality segment on the environment and industry, the concept worked, and came off as art rather than an idealized trope.

Smooth segues were a strength of Go West! and imagery was key in that process. Last year’s inter-arts collaboration, The Romeo & Juliet Project, notably left out the visual arts, but Christopher Ash’s videos and Dave Shumway’s photos represented the silent discipline well. Glacial lakes and mountain ridges morphed into oil wells and factory flames, quietly hammering home the point that man’s imprint on the West is not limited to quaint log cabins.

The evening could have closed with more doom and gloom of droughts in California and oil sands landscapes in North Dakota, but Borba wisely panned the metaphorical lens back to take a wider view of the final and future frontiers. Space exploration fueled speculation of popular culture, and video montage featured images of everything from rocket launches to Marlon Brando. Because, as the actors whimsically recalled in the Neil Young song “Pocahontas,” performed by the actors, it’s a Hollywood dream that someday we’ll sit beside the campfire, “Marlon Brando, Pocahontas and me.”

Philip Glass’ “Facades,” a restless series of phases featuring the orchestral strings and soprano saxophone, paved the way into an uncertain finale. The one-time nature of the performance made the whole evening as ephemeral as a tall tale. Perhaps the closing chorus of “Amazing Grace” was more Kumbaya than the occasion required, but one Chautauquans will continue to recount, over many moonlight and campfire-lit evenings to come.

Rebecca J. Ritzel is a theater columnist and dance critic for The Washington Post. She teaches Writing about the Arts at the University of Maryland and studied dance, drama and music at Syracuse University.

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  1. Chautauqua - Through the Eyes of Dave Shumway | Blog - Dave Shumway

    […] Sharing drinks and conversation with critics and patrons the colloquy often ended at the same conclusion, “the imagery held the production together.” As a photographer and cinematographer I often rely on music to hold my works together, but for once I was able to lend my art as the string that held a production together. The critics had nice things to say too.  […]

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