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Review: Exhilarating CARMINA BURANA Brings 'Total Theatre' to the Skylight

Review: Exhilarating CARMINA BURANA Brings 'Total Theatre' to the Skylight

17 Skylight artists. Seven Danceworks dancers. 25 Chant Claire Chamber Choir members, plus four Chant Claire guest artists. Six percussionists. Two pianists. One conductor. One visionary artistic team. One stage. It all adds up to Skylight's exhilarating Carmina Burana, an experience dubbed "'total theatre, in which music, dance, and text are inseparable."

First, a short history lesson. Carmina Burana is the magnum opus of German composer Carl Orff. His cantata is based off a collection of poems dating from the Middle Ages, whose themes examine the full scope of human existence, from life to death, joy to despair, love to loneliness, and the changing of the seasons.

At the center of Carmina Burana is the Wheel of Fortune, highlighted in the instantly-recognizable "O Fortuna," a thunderous anthem that speaks to the turning of Fate's wheel. The wheel depicted in the Carmina Burana manuscript has four sides, representing human fortune and misfortune: regno (I reign), regnavi (I have reigned), sum sine regno (I am without a kingdom), and regnabo (I will reign). It's important to understand the themes of Carmina Burana, but less so the nuances. As it's performed in Latin, German, and Old French, this is a piece that's better when it's fully felt, rather than fully understood.

In this collaborative Skylight production, the Wheel of Fortune is conveyed throughout: in raised circular stage design by Lisa Schlenker, in the large looming moon illuminated by lighting designer Jason Fassl, and in the multigenerational cast brilliantly costumed by Shima Orans. The greyscale costumes are contemporary, ranging from streetwear and sneakers to a three-piece suit, from a mechanic's jumpsuit to an evening gown. Together, these remind audiences of the persistent relevance of Carmina Burana, despite the Middle-Aged poetry upon which it's based.

The performance begins and ends with the aforementioned "O Fortuna," which sandwiches three distinct themes: springtime, the tavern, and love. Throughout these three movements, Stage Director Jill Anna Ponasik has indeed achieved "total theatre." Musicians, opera singers, lyrical dancers and actors, and multimedia projections fill the Cabot stage with near-constant motion.

Some might not know where to look. Others might find supreme beauty in this vibrant, exciting display that melds into a cohesive work of art. Should any one leg be removed, the whole thing would topple - or at least feel less complete.

The voices are naturally magnificent. Special mentions to Shorewood native Katie Koester, whose sweet soprano is a standout, and to the utterly sublime power of soprano Cecilia Davis. But truly all vocals, from the soloists to the chorale, deserve the highest praise. Orff's orchestrations are mighty and, at times, incredibly tender; the troupe assembled by Skylight and Chant Claire serves Orff well.

As for the dancing and movement, the limited breadth of the Cabot only rarely appears evident. By and large, every inch of the performance is expertly choreographed by Dani Kuepper for vignettes that feel full, not crowded. As the vocalists treat our ears, the dancers offer a delightful feast for the eyes - none more than Lady in Red, Christal Wagner. Wagner dances divinely, her manner such that she seems to inhabit another plane of existence when she moves. She is magnetism. Her red dress evokes immediate emotion, as do other strategic moments where color pops against the otherwise grey wardrobe.

For all its transcendent beauty, the scenes and staging throughout Carmina Burana are marked by Jill Anna Ponasik's signature playfulness. The springtime sequence is especially charming: Families lounge and children frolic in a merry picnic scene, as dancers whirl about the stage wielding scarves of punchy spring green. In a sudden downpour, the cast brandishes umbrellas as letters fall from the sky - letters bearing good news or ill (the Wheel of Fortune strikes again). Next comes a baby shower, where glad tidings burst upon the greyness in rainbow swaths of fabric and tissue paper.

In the second movement, set in a tavern, raucous fun erupts. Here we find bickering lovers, a mad dash for McDonald's fries (drunk munchies anyone?), a glamorous sequined jumpsuit, and ample frivolity. Although Ponasik ensures such revelry, works under her direction also promise moments of real poignancy and grace. One such moment follows a woman from childhood to old age and the metamorphosis of her beauty. Another, a stirring duet between singer Alaina Carlson and dancer Posy Knight, in which the dancer perishes and a funeral procession follows. In silent memoriam, Fassl's lighting creates a warm, otherworldly glow that is, in a word, exquisite.

As the reprise of "O Fortuna" heralds the finale, the Wheel of Fortune continues to turn. For all its sorrows and silver linings, life marches on. The Skylight's Carmina Burana is an unparalleled way to experience it.

Photo credit: Ross Zentner

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