BWW Review: METROPOLIS at Constellation Theatre a Showcase for Tom Teasley

BWW Review: METROPOLIS at Constellation Theatre a Showcase for Tom Teasley

There are few films that truly stand the test of time: Fritz Lang's expressionist masterpiece Metropolis, with its dystopian vision of mad scientists and machines devouring all of humanity, is one of them. The visual elements are so striking and the story line so compelling that it has attracted a cadre of composers in recent years. Although often set to a rock soundtrack, Constellation Theatre's house composer Tom Teasley has created a thrilling, propulsive musical setting that is more than a match for Lang's own amazing work.

If you have never seen Metropolis, or if you want to introduce a friend (or a youngster) to the joys of silent film, this is the way to do it. Lang's accomplishment is all the more remarkable when you realize that he did all this in 1926, long before computers (let alone CGI) even existed. Working with reels of film which he alternately splices and superimposes, he manages illusions and miraculous transformations that were as groundbreaking then as they are breathtaking today.

Metropolis was produced toward the end of the silent era, when film was designed to be shown with live musical accompaniment. For a big-city premiere, you had to have a full orchestra in order to give the flickering images a bit of grandeur. Paying for a live orchestra was sometimes so prohibitive, however, that the musicians' salary on opening night often exceeded the cost of the film itself. And because movie houses outside of town worked on shoestring budgets, you often ended up in the local cinema with a grandiose film projected atop a poorly-tuned upright piano, with a neighborhood kid off to one side providing the odd sound effect (coconut shells for horses, etc.).

Fortunately for Washington film buffs and fans of Constellation Theatre's global vision, we have composer Tom Teasley at the helm-a multi-instrumentalist who is as much at ease with digital technology as he is with traditional musicianship. Teasley's repertoire should be familiar to Washington audiences, and his years as a musical ambassador overseas-especially in the Middle East-clearly inform his work here. So in addition to the treat of seeing the film on the big screen for which it was intended, Teasley works his magic in his own pool of light. Your eyes dart back and forth, to see how he manages the action, and if you know the film by heart (confession: I do), the admiration for what's unfolding before your eyes and ears just grows.

Teasley is literally surrounded by traditional and electronic instruments of various kinds, the ancient and the new interact in fascinating ways as he weaves a rhythmic and melodic path to accompany Lang's immortal images. What struck me was the way he established a leisurely groove before the film opened, but one that matched the pace of the action on screen perfectly. Electronic flourishes marked the transition between scenes, and leitmotifs emerged for the principal characters.

Saturday the 19th will see the close of this experiment, sadly, but I hope Constellation can bring this production back so that more audiences can enjoy the live, creative interaction between musician and classic film.

Another special treat of attending this production was Teasley's ease with the audience and his willingness to create a mini-workshop where he demonstrates his process, shows us how his instruments interact with each other-and he also offered a tantalizing glimpse of music for Constellation productions to come.

Running Time: 55 minutes without intermission, but with a rich post-show discussion.

Production Photo: Composer/Musician Tom Teasley. Photo by Daniel Schwartz.

Performances were November 16-19 at the Source Theatre, 1835 14th St. NW, Washington DC.

For tickets, call 202-204-7741, or at: www.ConstellationTheatre.org

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