BWW Reviews: Modernist Score Releases Trials of Skylight's El Cimarrón

The truth in a story seen on stage can move an audience to powerful reflection. The Skylight Music Theatre presents a brief production run of El Cimarrón in the Studio Theatre at Milwaukee's Broadway Theatre Center to christen the New Year. In the first days of 2014, a stage where the uncomfortable truth of inhumanity unfolds through the trials of a runaway Cuban slave, Esteban Montejo, and then comes to poetic life through the contemporary and modernist music of Hans Werner Henze's opera. Artistic and Music Director Viswa Subbaraman collaborates with the accomplished vision of Stage Director Eugenia Arsenis so El Cimarrón mesmerizes the audience with virtuosity on multiple levels.

Originally intended as what Subbaraman and Henze described as a "recital for four musicians," El Cimarrón's seventy-five minutes plays as a tour de force for a one man stage performance by baritone Eric McKeever. Three musicians, flutist Scott Metlicka, guitarist Nathan Wysock and percussionist Michael Lorenz, were then conducted and directed by Subbaraman, all visible to the audience on set. To watch these four gifted musicians coordinate and improvise the score for each performance on either side of the intimate stage with McKeever front and center integrates the opera into an evocative, unforgettable live arts experience.

Listening to and then absorbing the tonal qualities of these rhythmic instruments establishes Cuban culture on the stage by beating conga, clanging cowbells or gongs, strumming jaw harp and pounding thunder sheets to name only a few of the pieces developing the sensitive themes. Each unique rhythm underscores the disturbing emotional trauma underlying Esteban's life that spanned 113 years beginning in 1860. First, as a child torn away from his parents, and sold, then beaten for trying to escape the slavery on the sugar plantation, finally living as an exiled recluse in the Island forests and eventually fighting for Cuban freedom.

The music mingles with a libretto by Han Magnus Enzenberger who transformed Esteban Mantejo's biography written by Miguel Barnet to fit the experimental score. A score encompassing poetry and story to ground and grow the universal roots for all those still enslaved in the contemporary world, whether man, woman or child still forced or "sold" into vaiours slaveries.

Although the main character, McKeever evolves into numerous characters during the performance by donning various hats and surrounded by colored silks, where each hue represents a personality in his disenfranchised and solitary life. His incredible vocal range moves from a resonant bass baritone to a falsetto while his emboldened persona captivates the audience to internalize the horrendous practices he experienced----fom the beating of the chains on the stage floor to where he becomes entangled in a steel and rope tree occupying center stage that represents humiliating stockades, or when he flashes a daring machete in the final scenes

Perhaps that is why Director Arsenis together with Scenic Designer Lisa Anne Schlenker shaped a twisted tree as the main symbol of Esteban's human experience, deformed and misshapen, yet also incredibly life giving, appearing as if a metaphor for a cross, any cross. A place and tree where Estaban sacrifices himself for his own humanity and peace, his taskmasters, and his country. While these branches in his personal forest reach out across the top of the set, seemingly as if to touch an entire world, a world that still embraces slavery disguised as industrial practices or cultural laws, or impediments to education, housing or employment, a number of worldly ills in developed and underdeveloped nations.

Within these few modernist musical minutes on a cold winter evening that entwine effortlessly, the Skylight audience may reflect in austere awe how one man's seemingly humble life can transport the human spirit into a rare vision of what truth might be. Answer his questions regarding the cost of freedom and revolution, and another imminently important question Esteban asks: Why didn't (and don't) they do something about slavery?

The Skylight Music Theatre presents a limited run of El Cimarrón with music by Hans Werner Henze in the Studio Theatre at the Broadway Theatre Center only through January 12. For more information or tickets, please call 414.291.7811

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From This Author Peggy Sue Dunigan

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