On Thursday evening in Central Square, I watched a self-professed psychotic scream obscenities at a young couple and hold lively conversations with the dead. A moment later, three pampered trust fund babies barked into their iPhones, plotted against one another, and downed a few shots of tequila.
Just another weeknight on Mass. Ave? Not quite—luckily for me, this insanity was all part and parcel of Family Feuds, Boston Opera Collaborative’s latest evening of contemporary one-acts. Presented in Central Square Theater’s spacious-yet-intimate 140-seat auditorium, the program featured a triple bill of wildly different takes on domestic dysfunction by Jake Heggie, Elena Langer and Jonathan Bailey Holland. The production proved as eclectic as it was entertaining. A trio of Music Directors accompanied the action, managing to evoke three distinct musical languages through piano accompaniment alone. Scenes shifted dramatically throughout; other than the piano, the set’s only permanent fixture was a stark metallic backdrop with window-like cutouts, suggesting the buildings—houses , apartments, prisons of all kinds—dominating Family Feuds’ various settings.
The show charged straight into madness with Naomi In The Living Room, Boston-based composer Bailey Holland’s setting of a play from the deliciously deranged mind of Christopher Durang. The premise is simple: a seemingly normal couple visits the man’s imbalanced mother, who leads them on a tour through her home, changing personas from moment to moment (“Can you change moods as quickly as I do?”) and free-associating wildly as she goes (“This is the kitchen, where we go to look at kitsch.”) At first, the milquetoast son and WASP-y daughter-in-law seem bland as Wonderbread, but grow progressively more colorful, proving worthy heirs to the family’s lunatic legacy.
Before the show, I considered the notion of a Durang opera curious, even risky; having experienced Naomi, however, I can only wonder that his plays aren’t set to music more often. His outrageous scenarios and relentlessly savage humor are always entertaining but can be wearisome as spoken theatre; in opera such excesses are just what the genre calls for. It helps that Bailey Holland’s score perfectly suits Naomi’s unhinged characters; the music is a tug-of-war between tonally ambiguous figures repeating in manic alternation and Pucciniesque outbursts played for laughs.
Soprano Lindsay Conrad owned the room with her portrayal of the title character. Dressed in a loud patterned mumu and a turquoise-colored turban, she brought an abundance of bright tone and gleeful manic energy. Her stage persona is a cross between Bette Midler and Beverly Sills, and couldn’t have been better suited to a matriarch who proclaims, “I need a big couch to sit on because I am a BIG PERSONALITY!” In keeping with Durang’s brand of comedy, Conrad relished the crude pleasure of sustaining a final high note on text unrepeatable in a family publication—suffice it to say the line ends “…and the horse you rode in on.”
Patricia-Maria Weinmann’s direction revealed an affinity for the absurd and a well-developed penchant for slapstick. Her concept well suited the cast of talented physical comedians, including tenor Timothy Whipple as Naomi’s ditzy son, John, and Britt Brown as his coldly furious wife, Johnna. (No, “Johnna” isn’t a typo; the mad logic behind the twinned names becomes evident as the action proceeds.) Though Conrad got the best lines, Whipple and Brown proved masters of the sight gag; in one memorable moment, they ducked and reappeared behind the couch in perfect unison as Conrad hurled a toy directly at their heads.
With Elena Langer’s Four Sisters, the action instantly shifted from a chintzy suburban sitting room to a plush Park Avenue penthouse. Regrettably, the half-baked libretto by John Lloyd-Davies offers a wealth of hijinks but little dramatic coherence. The title and three of the four sisters’ names directly reference Anton Chekov, but other than the father’s expressed wish to go to Moscow, there are no substantial parallels, making the point of the reference unclear. Instead, the story plays like a Neil Simonesque tragicomedy without one-liners, or at best, like something Woody Allen might pitch in a slump between masterpieces. The plot is thin enough: a group of wealthy siblings express not-so-secret joy at the news of their father’s death, fly into a panic when his will goes missing, and are despondent when the document—and its predictable contents—are finally unearthed. We witness these women’s pettiness and selfishness as they bicker, fret, and fantasize at length about their inheritance, all in the presence of their father’s corpse, which may or may not actually be lifeless.
Langer’s score, on the other hand, is both inventive and evocative, embracing lush expressivity and a wide dynamic range. The composer achieves an array of effects by mimicking the animal aspects of vocal expression, revealing her characters’ baser instincts in the process. Belying sophisticated exteriors, they cry and coo, chirp and crow, keening with false grief or shrieking with aggression.
BOC’s production made the most of an uneven property. Nathan Troup’s direction featured effective storytelling devices, including a mimed prologue showing the sisters’ reactions (mostly ecstatic) to news of their father’s death. He also proved adept at creating vivid stage pictures, such as the blizzard of papers that flurries across the stage as the cast frantically searches for the missing will. The strong cast also made a favorable impression. Soprano Bethany Worrell and mezzo-sopranos Tascha Anderson and Emma Sorenson made up a glamorous trio of high-maintenance socialites; all sang with clarity, power and assurance. Natural-born comic actor Dustin Damonte was a delight as Krumpelblatt, the family lawyer. The tenor’s facial expressions constituted a show all their own. He listens intently to his cast mates, so that at any given moment one can look over and read his silent reactions to the tiniest change in the scene.
Soprano Allesandra Cionco took ill at the last moment and was unable to play the Maid as scheduled. Serendipitously, Kameryn Lueng, who originated the role in its 2012 premiere at Bard College, happened to be in town and available to perform this weekend. Singing from a revised version of the original score and without sufficient time to learn the blocking, Lueng remained at the piano while Assistant Director Melanie Bacaling walked the part. The effect was less jarring than might be expected—indeed, it seemed to emphasize the difference in rank and temperament between the character and her employers. Lueng was a joy to listen to, with a voice of arresting beauty, exceptional purity and remarkable agility. Despite her physical removal to the piano far upstage, the soprano’s energetic delivery and engaging presence drew focus, making her an active participant in the plot.
After intermission, Family Feuds took a sharp turn towards serious drama with Jake Heggie’s To Hell And Back, which takes an intensely honest look at the realities of domestic abuse. In this modern-day retelling of the Greek myth of Persephone, a woman must face a series of difficult choices when she realizes that her son is brutalizing his wife. I had harbored reservations about the program order, wondering if this segment wouldn’t provide an overly violent contrast to the show’s broadly comic first half. I needn’t have worried; under Greg Smucker’s insightful direction, To Hell and Back proved both stylish and moving. Heggie’s opera represented the evening’s high water mark, showcasing BOC at its thought-provoking best.
Originally commissioned for the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, the score draws inspiration from a number of different genres, calling for a soprano in the role of Stephanie, the young woman, and a “Broadway soprano” as Anne, the girl’s mother-in-law. This melding of styles was surprisingly devoid of gimmickry, serving instead to highlight the differences between the two women while recalling their Greek counterparts: Persephone, ethereal queen of the underworld and Demeter, earthy goddess of the harvest. Jennifer Caraluzzi’s supple, mellifluous vocals brought Stephanie’s winsome vulnerability and emotional fragility to life. Christina Pecce brought a warm, rich sound as Anne, imbuing the character with a strong presence and immense gravitas. She displayed considerable gifts as a singing actress, giving an intelligent, three-dimensional performance informed by emotional specificity, attention to detail and complete command of the text.
Gene Scheer’s libretto is consistently effective; his command of dramatic structure is so terrifically solid that one can forgive the occasional maudlin turn of phrase. His mastery of form is evident in the successful contrast between the opera’s deliberate pacing and its sudden finale. Abrupt endings are tricky to pull off effectively; more often than not they’re a hasty attempt to cover for a lack of dramatic ideas. In this case, however, Scheer provides a wrenching, all-too-honest final moment—a swift kick to the heart that lands with the force of hard truth. For a moment as the lights blacked out, the house fell totally silent.