BWW Reviews: THE LAST DAYS OF MARY STUART an Electro-Opera Evolution
immersive (adj): noting or pertaining to digital technology or images that deeply involve one's senses and may create an altered mental state.
To fully appreciate THE LAST DAYS OF Mary Stuart it is necessary to forget what you normally think of when you think of musical theatre. The allegorical piece jettisons the traditional trappings of the genre and instead surfaces from a lengthy workshop process as a fusion of worlds.
Developed by Tilted Field Productions through the SOSEhost curated production program at Son of Semele, the work is part theatre, part rock concert, part operatic enigma, meant to push the boundaries of its forms and create a new kind of theatrical experience. What has emerged is an almost entirely sung-through immersive electro-opera that considers the "kill or be killed" tenet of war by examining the death of one historical queen, the ascension of another, and an imagined conversation between the two from beyond the grave.
As envisioned by creator & director Becca Wolff, Elizabeth (Laila Ayad), the elegant queen and Mary Stuart (Marianne Thompson), the rebel rocker, represent opposing factions of a people divided, with Wolff using the standoff as a departure into a larger political question. In the battle between God and country, is it possible to achieve a balance in which all parties are served, or have we retreated so far into our respective corners that our positions have become immovable. And more importantly, how are we to know if our choices are even right?
It's a worthy parallel to draw as we wrestle with opposing views on every political and social topic in our country today. The fact that this piece ends up being greater than the sum of its parts speaks to its ability to move fluidly beyond traditional expectations and effectively present a kind of musical suspension of thought. I found it to be extremely hypnotic.
An intensely focused cast connects to the material with unwavering assurance. Thompson is a charismatic presence who can float an ethereal note over the band as easily as she can fill the room with full sound. Ayad pushes back against her rival with an equal measure of ferocity and strength in her vocals that never gives in. They are a well-matched pair of Queens and Wolff draws out the subtle shifts in tone necessary to the piece from each of them.
Daniel Stewart's volatile performance as The Kid reflects Mary's ability to galvanize her followers to action. Alex Knox is defiant as the Badge Man and remaining cast members Ty Foster and Karen Jean Olds express the increasingly insubordinate temperament of the crowd via back-up vocals and pointedly precise staging.
Electronic music is a little out of my element but those who are more familiar with it than I will recognize the names Byron Kahr and John Nixon, who wrote the score, as part of the L.A.-based bands TONY and the Whqles. The sound is powerful and full of musical motifs that make it a good fit for what the work wants to communicate.
Visually, the compact stage's tight quarters and unique levels fit the concert framework and allow lighting to play an important part in the production design. The band - Kahr on guitar, Nixon on drum machine, and Ryan Adlaf on synthesizers and drum machine - is positioned center stage with the singers working the areas in back of, to the sides, and in front of them. Adlaf is also responsible for the sound design, which could easily have blown the place apart but was mastered in such a way that it was effective without simply being loud. (Ear plugs are available at the bar but I found that they weren't all that necessary).
Blown fuses on opening night brought the 8pm show to a standstill twice as circuits became overloaded. It can be a challenge to transform a non-concert space for this style of performance and the speed with which they managed to get the show back on track was admirable. More of a distraction was the dead air that lingered at times when the band needed to reset between some of the songs and everything was silent.
The theater is intimate so everyone is close to the stage. I recommend foregoing the chairs and buying standing room in the club area to get the full effect of the piece while keeping easy access to the bar. Note the smart touches in Molly Erin Kahr's costumes, especially the progression for Mary.
Pictured above: Marianne Thompson as Mary Stuart. Photo Credit: Molly Erin Kahr
THE LAST DAYS OF MARY STUART
June 21 - July 20, 2013
A Tilted Field Production made possible by the SOSEhost program at Son of Semele
3301 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90004
(west of Downtown LA; between Vermont & Alvarado)
Performances: Thurs. & Fri. at 8:00pm; Sat. at 8:00 & 10:30pm; no performance on Thurs. July 4th
Tickets: (213) 351-3507 or www.sonofsemele.org
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