Underbrook sings with OTYC’s one-act operas

At the opera, you can expect to see singing manipulated to tell stories. Both evocative and lighthearted, the Opera Theatre of Yale College’s interpretation of Ned Rorem’s “A Childhood Miracle” and Bohuslav Martinu’s “The Comedy on the Bridge,” do the opera justice. Both stories are brought to life by creative sets, tight orchestras and polished casts.

“A Childhood Miracle” opens with brass, wind and string instruments accompanied by a keyboard softly playing from the balcony. Before a single word is spoken in the dark light, the effect of the music on the audience in the intimate Saybrook Underbrook Theatre is soothing and uplifting. As Peony and Violet, two young New England girls decide to venture out into the snowy outdoors to build a snowman, their glee is complemented very nicely by the steady timing of bells. While they are frolicking in the bare stage just feet in front of the audience, the performances of Peony (Ramie Speight ’06) and Violet (Nika Hasegawa ’06) effortlessly fill the sparse aesthetics of the stage. Although bits and pieces of the girls’ conversation are difficult to pick up amid the exuberance of the horns, the actresses’ fantastic physicality then compensates for the word here or there that is lost.

One of the most moving points in the entire piece is Peony’s solo to the snowman. Magically, a few moments later, the snowman, played by Sean Leatherbury ’06 begins to dance with the two enraptured girls. Although the scenario is so clearly implausible, once again, Peony and Violet’s vivid expressions force the audience to suspend its disbelief and join them in their world of fantasy. This fantastical world is suddenly disrupted when the girls’ father (Andrew Whitcomb ’07) forces them and the snowman — whom he mistakes for a male suitor — into the house. Snow will be snow, and soon the man is reduced to a puddle.

Soon, the girls, still held fast by their imaginations, run out to search for their beloved companion. On the darkened stage, Peony and Violet’s parents begin a frantic search for their daughters in the impending snowstorm. As they solemnly chant their daughters’ names, Peony and Violet walk by them to take their place on the stage. In another performance, such a transition would seem jarring. Here, however, the audience remains unaffected because they are focused on the parents and their slow, deliberate voices. While the performance ends on an unsettling note, the whimisical fantasy world that the confluence of voice and orchestra etch in the psyche of the viewers is clearly much more powerful than the untimely end to two young lives.

The second performance, “Comedy on the Bridge,” takes the audience across the globe. Here, the entire performance is confined to a single bridge. The music in this performance is remarkably different from that of “A Childhood Miracle.” Instead of enchanting harmonies between various instruments, the orchestra opens with the steady and predicable cadence of military music. The set — the bridge — consists of a flat wooden panels over a mural of rushing water. Young Josephine (Kathleen Reeves ’06), on her way home, approaches the enemy sentry on one end of the bridge (Mark Dunn ’07). As she approaches the other end of the bridge, another sentry (Meaghan Burke ’06) refuses to let her pass. Josephine — whom is not permitted to pass back from whence she came — is now confined to the bridge.

As she pleads with the two sentries to let her pass, the soldiers answer with well rehearsed comedy. Every response made by the soldiers draws amused chuckles from the audience. It becomes clear that the sentries have as much fun playing their roles as the audience does watching them. As Josephine frantically paces back and forth, a new character arrives on the scene: the local Brewer (Jonathan Breit ’06).

The Brewer confidently strolls to the opposite end of the bridge and, like Josephine, is denied free passage. As he tries in vain to win free passage, his behavior, like that of Josephine, is somewhat predicable. Yet his repartee with Josephine, as he smugly questions why a young girl would walk amidst a field of soldier, adds a wry tongue-in-cheek element to the plot. The cast keeps the audience guessing, however, as it suddenly transports them back to more simple humor when they are joined by Josephine’s lover Johnny (Aaron Lambert ’06). Once Eva (Carolyn Kriss ’06), the Brewer’s maiden joins the company on the bridge, they entire script descends to petty, puerile babbling about suspicions of infidelity. All the while, the bumbling schoolteacher (Sean Leatherbury ’06) sits by himself in the middle of the bridge babbling in Latin as he ponders a meaningless riddle about a deer.

The overarching element in this scene is absurdity. The fact that five people are literally in the crossfire of war and cannot stop quibbling among themselves is a strong, though exaggerated, example of self-absorbed individuals. This scene, which looks like it could last forever, is interrupted by gunfire — cymbal crashes and flashing lights. Even now, the soldiers that have been standing at opposite ends of the set for the entire performance refuse to let the company pass. The juxtaposition of the panicking civilians and the unconcerned soldiers can’t help but tickle even the most jaded audience member’s funny bone.

The five captives on the bridge are free to leave when victory is declared from afar. Yet they remain on the bridge and celebrate in spontaneous song, dance and drink — even drawing a newcomer soldier into their revelry. This, the final scene, says it all about “Comedy on the Bridge.” The sadness and genuine danger that are present at every moment on the bridge are never without the lighter moments and capricious dialogue between various cast members. When joy and grief are so effortlessly entwined, the audience members, no matter whether they have seen war or not, can surely relate.

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