June 14, 2008

The Fanciful Flight of "The Raven"

When I was a kid in college, the Lower East Side was the epicenter of the theater world for the serious young theater lovers my friends and I thought we were. The Negro Ensemble Company was breaking new ground for black artists on Second Avenue, just off St. Mark’s Place. Joe Papp’s Public Theater was settling into its home at the old Astor Library on Lafayette Street. And then there was La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club.

La MaMa's founder Ellen Stewart put on an eclectic mix of reinterpreted clas
sics, multi-media extravaganzas influenced by world theater techniques and innovative pieces by folks like Lee Breuer, Wilford Leach, Andrei Serban, Elizabeth Swados and Harold Pinter, who had his first American production done at La MaMa. Stewart’s exuberantly avant-garde playground was our mecca.

But time passes, passions ebb and I realized a little while ago that it had been nearly 40 years since I’d seen anything at La MaMa. So last night, I went to the first performance of a piece called The Raven. I went partly for old times’ sake and partly because Stewart herself adapted and directed the piece.

Stewart is a true original, a Louisiana-bred black woman who has created theater pieces all over the world (click here to read a 2006 profile that totally captures her style) and since she’s about to turn 90 (or at least to admit to being that old) and is largely wheel-chair bound, who knows how many more works she'll be able to helm (click here to view a video blog she started earlier this year).

The La MaMa audience, at least the one at the performance I attended, seems to be as distinctive as La Stewart herself. It was an interracial crowd with lots of aging hippies but some younger hipsters too and a healthy sampling of just regular folks. It’s the kind of group where a man wearing a kufi sat reading "The New Yorker" next to a couple perusing a Chinese language newspaper.

The theater is on the second floor of an old building on East Fourth Street and everyone gathered patiently in the lobby outside the auditorium until one of the staffers sounded the cowbell that traditionally marks the beginning of a La MaMa production. “Welcome to La MaMa,” he said. “Tonight’s performance is The Raven. The running time is…I don’t know really but we’ll find that out tonight.” It actually runs around 90 minutes without intermission. Seating is unassigned but even though I waited until most everyone had gone inside, I still managed to grab an aisle seat in a back row.

The Raven, an adaptation of a play by the 18th century Italian writer Carlo Gozzi that the company describes as an epic opera, is a mythical story filled with proud kings, a strong-willed princess, magical birds, whimsical dragons and evil curses. Stewart’s version of the tale is vaguely Chinese in style, almost entirely sung through in English, with a little Mandarin thrown in for flavor.

There are great stage images, including the opening that beautifully combines video projections and stage props to create a storm at sea and the arrival of its occupants at a safe but unknown harbor. Both the costumes and puppets are fun. I even liked the music, composed by Stewart with help from Michael Sirotta, Heather Paauwe, Yukio Tsuji, and Cao Bao An and played by a six-piece orchestra, complete with huqin and gongs. But, alas, the performances were uneven—some of the singers actually couldn’t sing.

Still, the time went by easily enough. And at the end of the curtain call, Stewart, waving with regal √©lan, was rolled out onto the stage. It was great to see her and I was glad I’d seen her show too. It’s scheduled to play through June 29 and tickets are just $25. If you’ve never seen a La MaMa production or if, like me, it’s been years since you’ve seen one, then you should go. La MaMa, and the chance to be in the presence of its founder, is something that everything theater lover should experience.

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