Arts » Performing Arts

Yeah, Left

Radicals ridiculed and Beethoven debated


Nicky Silver has written a scathing satire that puts the jerk back into knee-jerk liberals. Turns out that the crusading do-gooders of The Altruists aren't so good. Hypocrisy runs riot in an Off-Tryon Theatre production that hits peaks of knee-slapping hilarity.

Silver implicitly endorses left-leaning ideals while skewering his New York idealists. Ronald, the tenement-dwelling gay guy who has turned his back on the empty materialism of suburbia, would rather not socialize with the poor folk he doles out food stamps to at the Social Services office.

Meanwhile, closer to the barricades of the eternal battle for equality, ecology, and ethical living, Cybil can't remember which of her multitudinous causes she's demonstrating for today. Makes a big difference in what incendiary equipment you pack for the day! In fact, Cybil is so blindly militant in her left-wing agenda that she can't admit -- even to herself -- that beneath her lack of makeup she's a humdrum heterosexual.

We learn about the intolerance and snobbery of career activist Ethan at the beginning of the evening in a petulant tirade from Sydney, the vain, apolitical soap opera queen he's currently sponging off. Rather than settling their issues via compromise, or even a therapist, Sydney plugs her slumbering lover in the back. Three times.

Or she thinks she does. After spending the night with Cybil, Ethan tracks Sydney to her brother Ronald's house. Not to worry, Ethan and Sydney reconcile, ID the unlucky corpse on their bed, and find a fall guy to take the rap for the murder -- with time to spare for today's righteous demonstration.

Off-Tryon artistic director Glenn Griffin picks up all the indictments on Silver's scorecard even if his cast doesn't always capture all the shadings of the miscreants. Donna Scott shrewdly grasps that Sydney's rage at a selfish lover will never reach such Olympian heights that it might muss her hair, but she never scales to the highest crest of the soap queen's vanity. As Ronald, James Chrismon often looks and sounds like he's embarking on a social work career rather than being soured by it. Yet his lonely malaise and his fawning infatuation with a handsome, inarticulate male prostitute are vivid, almost touching.

Bradley Moore brings a wondrous conceit to the unlettered hireling, aptly named Lance. But with a nicely modulated Brit accent, Lee Thomas is the choice exhibit in Silver's gallery of hypocrites. Sheila Proctor Snow gave the befuddled Cybil admirable animus. Trouble is, Cyb is a much better character in concept than onstage. For much of the second act, Silver confines the failed lesbian to her room, where she writes successive drafts of a breakup letter to her girlfriend. When Silver does liberate her from solitary confinement, the action and satire cruise merrily to an exquisitely pointed climax. All the surviving altruists band together behind a cause they truly believe in: self-serving materialism. Justice be damned. Off-Tryon's production is nearly as delicious as the irony.

Over the span of three days last week, Belk Theater hosted an exalted debate on how Beethoven should be performed, and the true essence of Romanticism. Advocates for two opposing viewpoints, each carrying with him an international reputation, eloquently pleaded their cases.

On Wednesday night, esteemed conductor Leonard Slatkin took his turn at the bar with the National Symphony Orchestra, presented by the Carolinas Concert Association. After a peppy, almost painfully precise reading of Berlioz' "Roman Carnival Overture," and a slam-bang rendition of Ives's "Three Places in New England" that had CCA grayhairs shaking their heads at intermission, Slatkin picked up a hand-mike and addressed subscribers.

We were about to hear Beethoven's great ""Eroica' Symphony #3" as fortified, dramatized, and altered by composer Gustav Mahler when he conducted the piece. While purists decry Mahler's meddling as Beethoven on steroids, Slatkin pointed out that Ludwig was limited in the size of ensemble he could write for -- and in the instrumentalists' virtuosity. Slatkin also demonstrated, in orchestral excerpts, how Mahler's revisions brought out detailing previously buried in Beethoven's writing -- and etched some of his emotions more sharply. Then he put down his mike, reclaimed his baton, and attempted to clinch his case.

Certainly it was one impressive performance. With twice the manpower of Charlotte Symphony, National's strings were often twice as sharp.

As Slatkin predicted, the overall impression was that Beethoven's pioneering symphony had been only marginally changed. Wrongheaded though it might have been for Mahler to impose some of his own pet devices here and there, it was fascinating to hear this dialogue between composing titans so marvelously illuminated.

Friday night, Charlotte Symphony Orchestra supported a supremely articulate rebuttal in their Gil Shaham Plays Beethoven concert. With breathtaking virtuosity -- and an intensity that was too dedicated for a particle of pretension to creep in -- Shaham reminded us that the root of Beethoven's Romanticism was a celebration of the individual.

It was a specific hero, Napoleon Bonaparte, that Beethoven dedicated his "Eroica" to until the erstwhile republican had the audacity to crown himself emperor. Surely, it was the individual who shone as Shaham played the D Major "Violin Concerto" as powerfully as I ever hope to hear it -- bursting with elemental fire and ethereal vision. Enlarging the orchestra behind such an eloquent soloist would be folly, particularly since Shaham's 1699 Strad predates Beethoven by over a century.

CSO has risen to the occasion in past encounters with guest virtuosi. That wasn't always the case last Friday as the ensemble often receded too far into the background. Or perhaps there were insufficient rehearsals for maestro Christof Perick's concept to fully mesh with Shaham's.

Their performance of "Symphonie fantastique," in celebration of Hector Berlioz' bicentennial, was crisper and more artfully prepared. With over 30 instrumentalists aside from "the usual strings," that crispness was hard-earned. Perick beautifully sculpted his interpretation, which seemed to grow in power with each succeeding movement.

The waltz at the ball, with subtly modulating tempi, built to an intoxicating Viennese swirl, and the crystalline "Scene in the Country" swelled to pastoral transparency. By the time we reached the tragic, phantasmagoric pair of final movements, the brass choir was cookin'. Those two bass tubas sounded vividly like the voice of implacable doom amid the surreal Witches' Sabbath.

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