Intersections

Exploring the crossroads of religion, culture, and science through a Pagan lens


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Virtues of the Goddess: Reverence

As the calendar moves through October, our local theater options tend to turn toward plays with darker themes.  Early in the month, I was privileged to see two beautifully realized musicals that turn a shaded eye onto humanity’s condition.  The first was Sweeney Todd, the classic tale of the murderous barber of Fleet Street.  The other was a surprise: a powerful stage musical adaptation of Disney’s animated film The Hunchback of Notre Dame (itself adapted from Victor Hugo’s novel).  

Both of these musical feature pious, powerful men who become villains in their thirst for even more power and control over a woman who is unlucky enough to catch their fancy.  In both cases, these men result to a scorched Earth policy to force themselves upon the women they lust after, all the while maintaining an air of haughty propriety – a sense that everyone should be like them, and those who are not are unfit to live.  And yet, each show features an intense musical number where the pious villain breaks down in his weakness, turns to mush, then commits to his vile course of exploitation and murder.

Sweeney’s Judge Turpin whips himself in shame, then sexually advances on his adopted daughter.  This, of course, years after he acquired that daughter by raping her mother and falsely sending the girl’s father away to prison for life.

Hunchback’s Frollo, a Catholic priest, prays to his God, begs for help, then strikes out to burn Esmeralda at the stake if she refuses to submit to his sexual desires.  

Both excuse their actions through prayer, begging their god for mercy while offering none to the women who deny them.  Both use their positions of power and prestige as a sword to the throat of the innocent.  Both are objects of reverence in their own community who aren’t worth the ground their victims spit on.  

At the end of Hunchback we are give a powerful riddle to solve:

What makes a monster,

And what makes a man?

What Makes a monster? Wikimedia

What Makes a monster? Wikimedia

 

What makes a monster? Source: Playbill.com

What makes a monster? Source: Playbill.com

 

At the darkness of Samhain approaches, it came to me that the answer is the final virtue in this series: Reverence.  You can tell a “man” (to be inclusive, a person) by whom and what they revere.  In this case, actions speak louder than words.  Both villains make a show of revering their Catholic God, but in truth they revere power over others, control, abuse, and manipulation.  Without getting political, I think we can find a lot of people in our modern society like that.  These are the monsters.

Yet, there are others, people from all faith traditions and those who claim no faith, who revere the ideas and morals than make them “a man,” and their actions also reveal their loyalties.  Do they stand up for love?  Equality?  Fairness?  Do they live that every day?  Do they speak out for these things?  Do they truly live up to the moral code they espouse?  All of these can be done regardless of religious practice.  And if you truly revere these qualities, you live them.

And What Makes a Man? eddieonfilm.blogspot.com

And What Makes a Man?/ Source: eddieonfilm.blogspot.com

 

We get tested when things get dark in our lives.  As we approach Samhain, the time of darkness, we face toward our ancestors and we know that they know our true selves.  We come face to face with our death, and we know that what we revered in life will follow us in the memories of those who live after us, those who will call us ancestors.

What do you revere?  Would you rather be a “monster” or a “man”?

Virtues of the Goddess is a series on the eight virtues mentioned in the Charge of the Goddess and their relationship to the sabbats of the Wheel of the Year.  This is the final installment – Part 8: Reverence.

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A Powerful Sweeney at Curtis Theatre

Mythology is not confined to the ancients.  Societies are constantly developing new folklore from bits and pieces of history, rumor, and belief with a dash of morality  peppered in.  Those stories become folklore, which gets reiterated through the arts. Stories, paintings, songs, and other art forms both perpetuate and transform the tales until they settle in on a narrative sweet spot, one that speaks to the heart of listeners while also teaching a moral truth.  The myth becomes just fictional enough to be palatable and just plausible enough to be enjoyable.

 

That’s what happened with the British legend of Sweeney Todd, the murderous 19th century barber who slit the throat of his victims, then sent them down into his landlady’s meat pie shop to be transformed into a delicious treat for the masses.  Various tales of cannibalism in Britain reached back at least to the 17th century.  Over time, they evolved and ultimately were worked into an 1847 Penny Dreadful novel, The String of Pearls: A Romance.

 

From there, Sweeney’s tale morphed into a popular melodrama, at least six film versions, numerous stage plays, and most famously into the Stephen Sondheim musical thriller, Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  Perhaps because this version combines Sondheim’s dark and powerful score, perfect characterizations, a bit of humor, and a large dose of taboo, it has become the standard iteration of this piece of English folklore.  Last night, a compelling staging of this classic thriller opened at the Curtis Theatre in Brea, and it remains just as powerful as the first time anyone ever watched Sweeney’s razor float across its first throat.

Directed by Stephen John, this production is filled with talent.  Rudy Martinez employs a rich, deep baritone expertly as the “demonic” barber.  Beyond his voice, though, Martinez avoids the slightly wild-eyed characterization of this serial murderer that is so common.  Martinez’s Sweeney is precise, focused, and grounded in an inner strength that makes his character all that more chilling.  In the pivotal role of Mrs. Lovett, Laura Gregory also brings a more robust and self-assured demeanor mixed in with perfectly-delivered dry humor.  This is a bawdy and vocally solid Mrs. Lovett that breaks the mold of the cooky, grandmotherly character that developed early in the musical’s history.

 

Phil Nieto is appropriately disturbing and intimidating as the evil Judge Turpin, particularly in self-flagellating solo, “Johanna.”   This sequence is often seen as too dark even for this show, and its impact commonly blunted by placing the judge in darker light or facing him away from the audience.  Not this time.  Nieto’s large, powerful body faces directly at us, and we get a disturbing look into the mind and heart of our amoral villain as he prays for deliverance.  In contrast, Ryan Coon is positively jovial as Turpin’s sidekick, Beadle Bamford.  Coon also contributes a gorgeous tenor to multiple harmonies throughout the show.  In another antagonistic role, David A. Blair is also effective as Sweeney’s street-hustling competition, Adolfo Pirelli, while also bringing a gorgeous voice to the ongoing ballad that drives the show.

 

Within the murder and darkness of Sweeney, you need to have a ray of light.  Aaron Stephens and Carolyn Lupin provide this as the young lovers, Anthony and Johanna.  Both exude innocence and hope for the future, which becomes more and more necessary as the play progresses.  In particular, Lupin’s crystal soprano sings of youth and desire for freedom.

 

Their youthful hope, however, is effectively counteracted by Katrina Murphy’s mysterious Beggar Woman.  Murphy comes off as the loss of that youthful innocence, with a similar soprano voice and her long, dirty blonde hair.  Her Beggar Woman seems more than physically desperate; she is mentally unsound, making the conclusion of her sad story even more tragic.  In a similar story arc of youth destroyed, Ricky Abilez is strong in the role of the young Tobias Ragg.  In this version, we know his fate from the beginning, and Abiliez smoothly helps us see Toby’s transition.

 

Stephen John gambled a bit with his minimalist set design.  The action takes place mostly on the lower level, with the barber shop and Mrs. Lovett’s pie shop occupying the same space on stage, marked by the placement of set pieces, which is quite unusual.  The design works in the sense that it focuses the audience on the performances rather than special effects or intricate props, yet it tends to diminish some of the show’s central points.

 

An important piece of the action revolves around Sweeney’s victims dropping from his chair directly into the bake house below, and so the design somewhat cuts off this layer.  Both the barber chair and the bake house oven are in many ways vital characters in their own rights, but we are unable to feel their full effect without the extra layer.

 

And yet, with such strong performances, that is only nit-picking details.  This cast delivers the Victorian legend of Sweeney Todd with faith and strength.  There is a precision in their demeanor and purity to their vocals that easily pours through the entire evening and leaves the audience on the edge of their seats.  This October is a wonderful time to return to the foggy streets of London, sit back in your favorite barber’s chair, and Attend the Tale of Sweeney Todd.

 

 

Production Details:

What: Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street

When: October 8-23. Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 pm; Sundays 3:00 pm.

Where:  Curtis Theater

1 Civic Center Dr.

Brea, CA 92821

Tickets: Can be purchased Here.

 

 

 

 

 


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A tasty Sweeney at Mysterium

Mysterium Theater in Santa Ana has a history of tackling challenging productions.  A small theater, they always seem capable of taking advantage of every inch of space, turning their size into an advantage.  Effectively bringing big, technical shows with large casts into such an intimate space is a challenge, but when it’s done, it amplifies every single note and pushes the themes and emotions of the piece directly into your face.  It’s a challenge, but Mysterium always seems to succeed.

When you’re staging musicals, you can’t get much more challenging that Stephen Sondheim.  Known for his labyrinthine lyrics, Sondheim is popular for his creativity with both actors and audiences.  No one writes better songs that both showcase the actors’ talents and advance the story.  Actors want to perform Sondheim; patrons want to see Sondheim.  But Sondheim is really hard to sing.  For an example, check out his classic “Not Getting Married Today,” from his show Company.

While any Sondhiem show is tough to stage, when you combine both musical skill and stagecraft difficulty, his single most challenging show is probably Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street.  Big, in-your-face, and almost entirely musical, Sweeney barely fits in a small theater, but there’s just something incredible about being right there with the murderous barber, lunatics, and scumbags of London.  Mysterium pulls it off just right.

Sweeney Todd is everyone’s favorite musical about mass murder and cannibalism, but it really isn’t about that.  The driving force of Sweeney Todd is inequality and abuse of power.  The show paints the picture of a desperate city, run by corrupt and greasy officials who constantly grind their boots into the backs of the poor and needy, and its real story is one of sticking it to the establishment.  It seeks to make everyone uncomfortable.  You root for a murderer and hate law enforcement.  Like all out-of-the-mainstream ideas, Sweeney turns society on its head and confronts you with your own world seen from a new angle.

While Mysterium’s production doesn’t overtly tackle these themes, the way it pushes the gritty slums of 19th century London into your laps in this small space is enough to force you to feel them.  Beggars are just as likely to be in the aisles as on the stage.  The show is full of strong voices who relish their little stage and bring the audience to their feet in applause.

Foremost among them is the central couple, William Crisp as the revenge-obsessed barber Sweeney and Dyan Hobday as the Sweeney-obsessed meat pie baker, Mrs. Lovett.  Crisp is indeed “crisp” as Sweeney. Dressed in a costume reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe, his strong voice, fueled by simmering anger, carries the show through every hill and valley.  From the soft and pensive early scenes of “No Place Like London” to the crazed fury of “Epiphany,” Crisp dominates the stage with the emotion he desires.  When he finally cracks into the crushing sadness of the final scene, even that regret comes through realistically and tragically.

Hobday is an absolutely stellar Mrs. Lovett.  The role is iconically pinned to Angela Lansbury, and many actresses tend to attempt to re-create the role in her image.  Hobday avoids that temptation at all costs.  She makes Mrs. Lovett completely her own.  This is clear from her high energy opening “Worst Pies in London,” and remains all the way through.  Her gorgeous voice nails every nuance of every song, and it is backed up by a divine acting performance that succeeds on all levels.  Her performance would be perfectly at home on a professional stage.

Naathan Phan is a fixture at Mysterium, and it’s easy to see why.  His unassuming frame hides some wonderful acting and vocal talent, which is a great combination in his role of Tobias.  Phan is a born showman, so he shines in his of hawking both snake oil and meat pies, scenes that feature lyrics that many seasoned actors would shy away from.  His strong voice and more vulnerable nature are skilfully conveyed later in the tender “Not While I’m Around.”  Stan Morrow revels in the garish huckster Adolfo Pirelli, Tobias’ first employer.

As the lovers who throw a wrench into Sweeney’s plans, Adam Bradley Clinton brings a pure voice and a naïve tone to the sailor boy Anthony, which matches nicely with his intended’s full blown innocence.  Rachel Charest-Bertram’s Johanna brings truth to the lonely girl’s sweetness, and it is powered by her amazing soprano voice.

The nefarious partnership of Beadle and Judge mostly succeeds.  Luis Enrique Cejas is a bit young for the Beadle, and that can disturb the show’s plot, for the Beadle is supposed to have been at his post for at least 15 years.  Still, Cejas is very effective as the greasy, corrupt officer.  The same is true of Tom Royer’s evil Judge Turpin, although it would be nice to see a greater contrast between the Judge’s outward piety and inward nastiness.  This duality is a central theme to the show, embodied by its antagonist, and a little stronger dose of it would have been helpful.

The mysterious Beggar Woman is a tough character.  Ever-present, she seems to act as Sweeney’s conscience.  No one, including the audience, really knows why she’s there until the end, so it can be easy to misunderstand much of her action.  Kaitlyn Tice walks this line admirably, seeming to enjoy the mystery she is creating, especially when she brings her cries for “alms” into the audience.

Sweeney Todd has one of the most important ensembles of any musical.  The ensemble is its own character, portraying the citizens of London, contributing to the tone, and performing vital storytelling duties.  The ensemble fills the role of the classic Greek Chorus, filling in gaps in the story and supplementing the hero’s obsession with the voice of mad, gritty reason.  This chorus fits the challenge.

Owner/director Marla Ladd rises to the challenge of fitting this large, intense musical onto her small stage.  She uses every nook and cranny of Eugene McDonald’s creative set.  Sweeney requires at least two levels of set design, and McDonald is able to deliver four, making some of the storytelling sequences clearer and the ensemble sections easier.

Sweeney Todd was a classic long before Johnny Depp brought it to the screen.  It has stood the test of time because audiences get beyond the blood and guts and find some form of visceral truth to its portrayal of inequality of wealth and torturous abuse of power.  After the recent Kelly Thomas verdict, it’s clear that these themes have not gone away.  Even in a different country and a different time, the “rosy skin of righteousness” still seems to have a few blemishes.

Details:

  • Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street
  • Mysterium Theater
  • 19211 Dodge Avenue
  • Santa Ana, CA
  • (714) 505-3454

Remaining Dates:

  • January 16, 17, 18, 23, 24, 25; February 1, 2, 6, 7, 8 at 8:01 p.m.
  • January 12, 19, 26; February 2 at 7:01 p.m.
  • January 18, 19, 21, 26; February 1, 2, 8 at 4:01 p.m.