Looking at WNY’s visual art, theater, music, and dance scenes.
Jul 25, 2012
09:15 AMTalk about Arts
Shaw Festival: "Trouble in Tahiti"
Photo by David Cooper, courtesy of the Shaw Festival.
Nichola Lawrence, Louie Rossetti and Stewart Adam McKensy as The Chorus in "Trouble in Tahiti".
Two words can set your expectations for the current Shaw Festival production of “Trouble in Tahiti”: Leonard Bernstein. Bernstein (1918-1990) is widely acknowledged as one of the most prodigiously talented and creative musical minds in history.
When this short piece was written, Bernstein had already begun the almost 10-year process of collaborating on “West Side Story”; it had been temporarily sidelined and Bernstein found himself wanting to write “some real things,” as penned to Aaron Copland in 1951.
"Trouble in Tahiti” is a quintessentially American exploration. Bernstein didn’t glamorize or idealize the “American dream,” even as it was being formulated. Director Jay Turvey has created one of the most compelling pieces that I’ve seen at the Shaw.
The jazz-flavored operetta, set in “an American suburb and its nearby city; 1952,” is a sparse 45 minutes, portraying a day in the life of Sam and Dinah (Mark Uhre and Elodie Gillett), a husband and wife in their 30s with nothing apparent to complain about. Sam is a successful businessman with a career in the city, Dinah a suburban homemaker with one child and all the conveniences of modern life, like electrical kitchen appliances, and a lovely coordinated wardrobe of perky lavender, complete with pumps, bags, and hats.
But all is not well. A Greek chorus, eight men and women dressed “Mad Men” style in skinny-tied suits, hats, and twin-sets opens the action with an introduction.
Then, at breakfast, Sam and Dinah tersely catalogue their plagues: she is bored and lonely, wants him to talk more. He is beleagured, busy and doesn’t care to keep shelling out money for her to see an analyst. Neither of them understands what happened to their earlier romantic love. The scene ends with Sam leaving for work, after telling Dinah he can’t make it to their son’s school play later because he is due at the gym.
There is not a wasted moment or movement in the production, designed by Michael Gianfrancesco. The set is bare save the four-piece band, seated as far upstage as possible. Furnishings are minimal. The chorus, beautifully choreographed by Linda Garneau, does double-duty as stagehands, seamlessly setting and removing any props and furniture. It really becomes part of the action of the play, depicting the increasing cultural overload that Americans were just beginning to experience.
A row of miniature “little white houses,” shuttled in on bar stools, beautifully represents the sameness of the suburbs; miniature office buildings embody the endless canyons of industry. The dulling impersonality of both milieus is portrayed gesturally rather than literally.
The title, “Trouble in Tahiti”, refers to a silly movie that Dinah parodies earlier in the action. As she and her husband face another evening of bewildering miscommunication, they decide to go to the movies; to escape into the fantasy to delay further arguments. Another great American idea.
"Trouble in Tahiti", music and libretto by Leonard Bernstein, directed by Jay Parvey. Through October 7 in the Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario