Monday, March 05, 2007

Susannah (The SOB Review)

Susannah (The SOB Review) - Loring Playhouse, Minneapolis, MN

**1/2 (out of ****)

Credit Minnesota-based director Peter Rothstein with taking on difficult at best material and attempting to breathe new life into it.

When he's at his best, as he was three years ago with a mind-blowing A Man Of No Importance or with last year's terrific production of Floyd Collins, he can make even the most scaled-down version of a show seem larger than life and wring every last drop of raw emotion out of his cast. It doesn't even matter when orchestrations are pulled back to a smattering of instruments.

In my estimation, he's easily Minneapolis' most inventive director today, and Theater Latté Da is extremely fortunate to have the benefit of his artistic vision. He's that gifted.

Unfortunately, inventiveness and vision alone can't make for a great or even good performance. In the case of his latest, Susannah -- the reimagined opera by Carlisle Floyd -- the source material is anything but easy, even if it would seem to lend itself to a smaller production.

Yet the "new orchestration" by Joseph Schlefke strikes a surprisingly discordant note. To be frank, I found the music downright irritating. And while the audience should be thankful that a projection design is used to illuminate every word, in the end it serves as a major distraction, especially once you realize that you must rely on it entirely to decipher what's being sung.

This English-language opera is based on the Apocryphal Old Testament Book of Susannah. In it, the eponymous young woman is seen bathing naked by two elders from her tribe. When she confronts them, they threaten to accuse her of committing adultery unless she sleeps with them. Finally, the truth is learned when the prophet Daniel finds inconsistencies between the stories told by the elders.

In this Susannah, as rough-hewn as its backwoods Tennessee setting, the innocent young woman (a radiant Meghann Schmidt) who's initially carefree and naïve is not quite as fortunate. Her moonshine-swilling brother Sam (Roy Heilman) advises her to confront her accusers at a revival meeting, but inexplicably, deserts her in her hour of need, forcing her to go alone.

Once at the prayer meeting, Minister Olin Blitch (portrayed here against type by a youthful Bryan Boyce) implores those who have sinned to come forward and confess. After nearly taking the bait, Susannah rushes back home where she's privately confronted by a lustful Blitch, who discovers just how virtuous Susannah has been all along.

Written at the time of Joe McCarthy's infamous witch hunts for Communist sympathizers, Floyd's work serves as a cautionary morality tale on levels beyond surviving the relentless Senator from Wisconsin. Indeed, Floyd himself said, "When religion becomes a shield behind which we practice cruelty and persecution, then we haven't gleaned very much from the gospels."

And so it's with that keen insight that this labored and perhaps a smidge too small production is ultimately redeemed. You've got to admire Rothstein for trying.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

This production closed on Sunday, March 4.

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