BOC's "Family Feuds" : Three Stories, One Wild Ride

Anne (Sophie Michaux) leans over Stephanie (Tamara Ryan) in a scene from  To Hell and Back , played by pianist Patricia Au (Photo Credit: Dan Busler).

Anne (Sophie Michaux) leans over Stephanie (Tamara Ryan) in a scene from To Hell and Back, played by pianist Patricia Au (Photo Credit: Dan Busler).

BOC mounted a lean but impressive production of “Family Feuds” at Central Square Theater last weekend. Raked seating surrounded the modest but thoughtful set on three sides, giving immediate access to the performers -- not a bad seat in the house. This unique program brought together three one-act operas, each with its own cast, director, and pianist (no orchestra or other instruments present). As implied by the title, the three stand-alone stories had similar themes: family we love, family we choose, and family we are stuck with. Three stories, one wild ride.

First out of the gate was Jonathan Bailey Holland’s absurdly comical and dark, Naomi in the Living Room, based on the Christopher Durang play of the same name. A demented but enthusiastic mother welcomes her shy son and daughter-in-law for a “nice visit,” at once demanding they compliment her home decor while simultaneously telling them where they could or couldn't sit, depending on her mood. Lindsay Conrad flourished in the title role as a woman enjoying (Note: not suffering from) her bipolar/split-personality disorder, at times interrupting herself to yell out to her imaginary or deceased husband(s). Conrad’s voice soared and dominated in the best, character-appropriate way while she clearly reveled in the rare opportunity afforded her by the composer who set choice swear words to song. Elizabeth Kinder and Timothy Whipple played John and Johnna, the tragically awkward, co-dependent couple who ended their visit in matching outfits, to hilarious effect. During the visit, John became “bored with [his] color palette” and changed into daytime drag, dressed exactly as his wife, and ably negotiated the rugs and couches in heels. Causing the audience to blush and full-out laugh on more than one occasion, this bizarre and compact musical adaptation amused and delighted.

Composer Elena Langer’s Four Sisters featured the largest cast of the night (6, including a dead supernumerary) in a modern, New York City setting of a familiar tale. Three Russian “evil step-sister”-types learn of their father’s passing, and they can’t help but celebrate and fantasize how much of his inheritance that they'll each receive, and what they would do with it. (Spoiler alert, but implied by the title: The young maid keeping the sisters’ glasses full turns out to be a Russian princess and rightful heir to her newly-discovered father’s estate. Sound familiar?)

Bethany Worrell, Emma Sorenson, and Tascha Anderson portrayed the trio of sisters you “love to hate,” each impeccably dressed in chic, tailored black and white everything. The sisters attempt to outdo one another with their wealthy (but undeserved) aspirations as well as with their voices in a playful, musical portrayal of sibling rivalry. Stage Director Nathan Troup heightened the drama by pitting the sisters against each other, at times in their fabulous corners like hungry fighters in a boxing ring. The search for their father’s will resulted in what was to me the second most impactful moment of the afternoon: three frenzied sisters on their hands and knees, tearing through boxes of files and hurling the contents across the room from every corner in a chaotic and coordinated display of desperation. (My sympathies to the stage hands who were tasked with clean-up.)

Langer's score had occasional echoes of Sondheim, specifically moments that resembled his fairytale aesthetic. Think Into the Woods’ “Steps of the Palace” meets Sweeney Todd’s “By The Sea.” As the maid, Allesandra Cionco could have just as easily stepped into the role of Sondheim’s Cinderella. Whether it was intentional, I appreciated the nods in both musical style and casting choice.

(From Left to Right): Tascha Anderson, Emma Sorenson, Dustin Damonte, and Bethany Worrell in a scene from  Four Sisters  (Photo Credit: Dan Busler). 

(From Left to Right): Tascha Anderson, Emma Sorenson, Dustin Damonte, and Bethany Worrell in a scene from Four Sisters (Photo Credit: Dan Busler). 

Following intermission, the audience returned to a garden scene complete with flower pots, a wooden bench, and the faint aroma of damp soil. The stage was set for something much darker: Jake Heggie’s To Hell and Back. A modern transformation of the Persephone and Pluto myth, we find a young, newly-married Stephanie (played with skilled naïveté by Tamara Ryan) nervously reaching out to her mother-in-law, Anne (Sophie Michaux), for help. Stephanie’s husband (a version of Pluto in this adaptation) has been aggressive and violent towards her, and, after learning of this, Anne struggles to face that her own son could become so evil, and plans Stephanie's escape. Bonded by a common threat, they share beautiful moments while gardening and ugly truths are revealed. The two actresses delivered performances with an honesty that was endearing and convicted.

Mezzo-soprano Sophie Michaux’s voice is a study in color. As her tone shifted from a mother’s quiet encouragement to a simmering internal rage, Michaux’s expressive quality and variety is remarkable. Pianist and music director Patricia Au is a solid force and carried the piano reduction with stamina and careful attention to pacing.

The award for most impactful moment goes to what I call, “the garden destruction scene.” Following “Anne’s Lament” aria, Michaux wreaked havoc on the scene, slapping water out of the bird bath (there should have been “splash zone” signs in the first row), overturning a chair, knocking over and pouring the dirt out of a large flower pot leaving the newly-planted sprouts helpless on the ground. Not satisfied, an obsessed Anne grabs a wet clump of green leaves and violently squeezes it as if she had her own son’s heart in her hand. As a result, the strong, sweet scent of basil fills the air. The pleasing smell stands in stark contrast with the destruction and helps reveal the complexity of Anne’s conflict. I must compliment Stage Director Greg Smucker’s choice; this production truly utilized all senses.

Across the board, the commitment of the performers and creativity in direction transformed this black box stage into a satisfying story-telling experience. Due to the audience’s proximity, each performer was quite exposed, giving us just the slightest feeling of risk and then reward when it was well-executed. (And it was consistently.) After being taken through a range of emotions, I was surprised that a mere two hours had passed. Further, I appreciated that the brevity of these compositions didn't sacrifice the impact or drama of evening-length works. A wealth of emotional and musical content was packed into this wild but compact ride.

My only complaint about the production was with the printed program. I found the lack of details about the composers and the operas themselves curious and disappointing. Each performer, staff, and creative director had industry-standard biographies, but the composers and the pieces themselves were poorly represented after the title page. Admittedly, I am not an opera buff, so I wanted to learn more. Were these premiere performances of brand new works? Are these standard operatic repertory that I missed in music history class? Or, more simply, when were the pieces composed? Giving the Boston Opera Collaborative the benefit of the doubt, perhaps there was a program printing mishap. Even so, more attention should have been given to these deserving compositions and their creators -- not just the performers, staff and crew (though credit is of course due). Brief synopses of each act were provided during the introduction by General Director, Chelsea Beatty.

Serious kudos are deserved to the Boston Opera Collaborative for mounting this surprisingly powerful production and to the thoughtful compositions and performances on display this afternoon.

It should be noted that two of the operas were double-cast; I attended the Sunday matinee.

This is BOC’s 10th anniversary season and their final production of the season is Mozart’s Idomeneo presented at Longy School of Music this June 2016.