The United Solo Theatre Festival 2015: Two Reviews and an Exhortation

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Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet

Sarah Bernhardt as Hamlet

The sixth United Solo Theater Festival has already been underway for over three weeks, but it will continue on up to November 22, offering an even greater wealth and variety of stage work than its predecessors. When its founder and artistic director, Omar Sangare, first considered the name, I was sceptical, but I’m happy to say that I’ve been proved wrong many times over. The name actually describes the nature of the festival to perfection, for every autumn, Dr. Sangare and his team unite the world of solo theater, bringing together over 150 fiercely independent actors, playwrights, directors, and other theater workers at Theatre Row from Canada, Australia, Ireland, the UK, Poland, Romania, all over the United State, and other countries. Some of the artists stay in New York City for a while, see each others’ performances, get to know one another, and plan projects. I have heard talk of United Solo spinoffs in Florida and New Mexico. In fact Dr. Sangare himself started United Solo Europe in 2014 at the Teatr Syrena in Warsaw.

It is impossible to describe the offerings in a nutshell, so great is their variety. Some are finely tooled, entirely finished performances by seasoned artists, and others are experiments by young professionals just beginning their career—and this doesn’t mean that the latter may not prove as rewarding as the former. The best guide is the list published on the festival website, with brief descriptions of each show. You may recognize a name, especially if you follow solo theater, or a particular subject may pique your interest. You’ll find portraits of celebrities and historical figures (Doris Day, Sarah Bernhardt, Marilyn Monroe, and inevitably Mark Twain and Oscar Wilde), classical subjects (Medea, Clytemnestra), literary classics (Diary of a Madman, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow), musical performances, even a solo opera, a personal shows, in which a writer/actor will present herself as a character and her life as a narrative. You will find human themes like alcoholism, dementia, insanity, relationships with parents and children, gender, and LGBT issues.

So far, I have attended two productions that gave me much satisfaction in different ways. A Canadian group (Silver Thread Productions. Composer and Director: Peter Skoggard. Librettist David MacFarlane. Conductor & Pianist: Charles Prestinari.) presented La voix perdue, acted an sung by Bridget Hogan. The production was not in French, except for occasional quotations. This was in fact a pocket opera with occasional spoken passages. An editor sends a somewhat diffident reporter in interview a soprano who has lost her ability to sing. Her other salient quality is her concern for poverty and suffering in the world, and this led her on a backpacking tour of India. She herself was born very poor, discovering opera as a child, and rising in the world until her voice failed her. Bridget Hogan’s fine singing was the most rewarding aspect of this performance, but even this was compromised by the fact that most of the words she sang, in whatever language, were incomprehensible in the small space. Hence I couldn’t follow all of the story, which seemed clichéd to me, from the rise from humble beginnings onwards to the grand operatic poses, and the pouting bitterness. The human voice is a fragile instrument, and it is relatively common that singers lose their voices, or encounter some psychological obstacle to doing what they may have done for years. They deal with it…or not, as the case may be. (You should have seen the way a hugely famous diva was behaving it public at Lincoln Center the day after a wretched performance at the Met…!) The music was pretty much standard issue North American operatic style, offering solid support for the voice, and attractive enough, but repetitive and lacking in interesting detail and variety. Charles Prestinari accompanied Ms. Hogan with with responsiveness and expression. In spite of its shortcomings I have no regrets about spending an hour with Bridget Hogan’s fine singing.

It was followed by another Canadian effort, Sarah!, brilliantly performed by Edith Acker, who also translated the script (1995) from the Spanish of Uruguayan playwright Ariel Mastandrea. Mario Tenorio directed the performance. Mastrandrea’s poetic evocation of Bernhardt’s life and milieu and Acker’s totally assimilated and committed performance seduced me from the very beginning, and I remained mesmerized for the remainder of the hour, but not quite so besmitten that I failed to notice that certain aspects of Bernhardt’s character and the people around her were slightly retouched. We are happy to accept and adopt Bernhardt’s point of view throughout. The play might have been even richer if Mastrandrea had exploited the dubiety of her narrative and her reputation as a spinner of yarns or an out and out liar. However, all that was there hit home, and I was totally beguiled by Ms. Acker’s full identification with the character, the ambiance, the words—everything!

At United Solo, I have seen worse than La voix perdue but little better than Oh, Sarah! I have have encountered points to criticize, but I have never been bored at United Solo. Some shows were sold out long in advance, but you can sign up on a waiting list for cancellations in those cases. I highly recommend United Solo itself, but I also recommend an experimental attitude in choosing your performances. You might well benefit from setting aside an afternoon and/or an evening—or two or three—to taking in a block of shows, remaining open for serendipity.

Click here for a schedule and to order tickets.

Michael Miller

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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