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Letter from New York, 12-18: Partchwork Quilt
Disappointment of the Fury
By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2007 Philip W. Sandstrom
NEW YORK -- The best thing about Harry Partch's "Delusion of the Fury," seen December 6 at the Japan Society, was the music and the instruments. Although the show was billed as a theatrical event, it was really a music event with movement and minimal text and minimal song -- all done in a minimal style. Partch's eclectic style of music is made possible by his intricate hand-made instruments, displayed onstage in all their gargantuan glory. They are stunning creations of percussion and string suspended within exquisitely fashioned and polished dark wood finished frames, carefully placed and arranged. The glistening orbs of glass, tubes, plates, and bells of metal, and the concert grand piano-size horizontal string arrays, were a sight to behold. With musicians strategically placed onstage so they could see each other over their picador instruments there was no room for the dance movement section of the evening.
Consequently, a giant apron stage extenuation was added to provide room for the storytelling dance portion of the show. With special entranceways made so the dancers could enter from the auditorium, this forestage provided a shallow but effective acting area with the instruments looming behind the action.
Directed by John Jesurun and choreographed by Dawn Saito, the show's theatrical elements were augmented by Jesurun's videos, projected on the ceiling above the audience: from a hauntingly striking evening moon that moved imperceptibly across the ceiling, to a field of bamboo with wisps of smoke floating thru the stalks, to water images and the suggestion of waves to suggestions of fire. I can't remember exactly when the images came and went do to the nature of the space. They seemed subliminal, perhaps because they were on the ceiling, a location that is not within the general view while watching the stage.
Partch had some very specific and odd ideas about how his creation should be performed. If this show was any indication of his dramaturgical and directorial vision, then he struggled with what theater is, dramaturgy, and what actually works onstage. According to director Jesurun, the production concept and process was limited by the exacting requirements of Partch and the Harry Partch Institute.
The performance began with a musical introduction of sorts, "The Exordium." From different sections of the orchestra came first strings, then bells, then drums and marimba-like inventions. All of the instruments are percussion -- the musicians hit everything, but they often strum or pluck the strings between the beating. There were no reeds to be found. Something exotic is expected from such an unusual arrangement of instruments; we were not disappointed. The otherworldly sounds from an imagined land was calming yet pregnant with trepidatious foreboding. Act 1 began with the entrance of the actor/dancers. They acted out the story of a man who made pilgrimage to a shrine in remorse for slaying a princely warrior, and the son of the prince who visits the same shrine. The prince's spirit appears. The battle was re-enacted, ending as it did in life but with the dead warrior imploring, "Pray for me." The movement was perfunctory, the vocalizations minimal and sometimes musical. The story-line was adhered to. The music propelled the action with varying degrees of melody, such as dissonance for the battle scene, finishing with soothing strings for the lamentation.
The musical interlude "Sanctus," which separated the acts, I found akin to traveling music. It left me with the feeling that we were now to be transported to yet another unknown world.
Act 2 began with a deaf hobo cooking by a fire and a female goat herd looking for a kid. Due to communication problems (he was deaf, and she spoke), a dispute ensued which sent them both to a court overseen by a deaf and myopic judge who required them to marry. Pagan deities, represented by the orchestra, interceded and an instrumental denouement erupted. All were dismissed with a final "pray for me" where the music re-articulated the theme that began the evening. The hobo and goat-herder exited arm in arm.
The music, directed and conducted by Dean Drummond, supported, or perhaps transported the story to another world, the world of mystery, of fantastical story telling. I am not convinced that the music alone would have been as effective without the dancing/acting component. I do know that the dancing/acting would never hold up on its own. The performance appeared regimented; the performers marched onstage, moved in groups like in an ethnographic film. In almost all cases, I am told, the requirements set out by the Harry Partch Institute severely limited the theatrical choices and that the updating of Partch's dated theatrical ideas was rarely an option. In short, the director and choreographer, being hamstrung, were continually coping with a clunky script and theatrical format. They did their best within this unchangeable situation.
Notwithstanding these constrictions, Jesurun's video work helped immensely to set the mood, location, and atmosphere. Although the actors where well lit, the lighting on the orchestra part of the stage was less successful and often failed to reveal the shape and majesty of the musical instruments or was simply too dark on the musicians.
The experience of Partch music, especially live, is an event to remember; his theatrics are something to forget.