Director Jean Heard Bazemore saw some opportunities. She saw 60 students, including 10 international students, with rare musical talents and the willingness to take risks on short notice. She saw three plays, set centuries apart and on both sides of the world, whose themes converged. She turned what she saw into a minor miracle, Shattering Silence, an adaptation performed Feb. 9 through 12 in Gist Hall Theatre at Humboldt State University.
The junior and senior classes of Northcoast Preparatory and Performing Arts Academy performed the play, rich with core scenes and music taken from Beaumarachais’/Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, Hugo’s Les Miserables, and Antonio Skármeta’s Burning Patience. What kept this adaptation tight? The themes: living for love and for what is beautiful; passion for justice; standing up to greed and oppression. In all three plays, the characters work to shatter the mute degradation and the powerlessness that imprison them.
Friday night’s performance was especially powerful. The entire second half of the play created the magical feeling that we, the audience, were not observing a play, but that we were absorbed into it. Performances were professional throughout; even the small parts were convincingly sculpted. The cast earned the standing ovation at the end.
The music stood out. Gabe Lubowe’s keyboard accompaniment throughout the entire play was seamless, foundational. Is there anything on piano that he cannot do? Marco Tellez’s (Jean Valjean) emotive speak-sing rendition of “Who Am I?” was powerful and moving. His deep, resonant voice begs for future venues. Dominic Romano (Marius) composed two original musical pieces for other actors to sing, and he played guitar accompaniment on stage for both. His music was well-matched to the play and to the performers. “Get Out” sounded easily like a piece from Les Miserables’ original score. Agnes Badu-Mensah from Ghana rocked it. Romano’s other original, “Sweet As the Songbird Sings,” was a tender and lyrical love song, and Alina Samuels (Wedding Singer) sang it in a pure soprano. Romano also performed the solo “Empty Chairs At Empty Tables”, a complex piece with key-changes and minimal instrumental support. He took on challenges with that piece, and he made it good.
Trip McMahon (Figaro) offered us the dual gift of a beautiful voice in “Non Piu Andrai,” and a strong, believable stage presence. Kyler Neefe charmed the audience with his interpretation of the love smitten Cherubino. Dylan Vanella moved with ease and conviction in his multiple small roles. Silas McIlraith (Mario) performed extremely well as both drummer and actor. His drumming, depicting gunfire, layered an explosive intensity into the barricade scene. McIlraith flawlessly acted his scenes with Dillon Arevalo (Neruda). Arevalo’s passionate bursts into Neruda’s poetry made my ears and my heart happy.
The voices of Ashlee Beals singing I Dreamed a Dream and of Hangh Vu, from Viet Nam, singing On My Own, were haunting and penetrating. Xochitl Salazar as the innocent Cosette singing Castle On a Cloud and being mocked by Kylee Loughran, (Epinone) poignantly foreshadowed the ironic reversals to come.
Another lush performance came from Cahaela Class (Madame Thenardier). As the Innkeeper’s Wife, she held forth the dazzling, inviting sweetness and charm that I kept wanting to trust. But it was only “service with a silver glove,” a Jungian phrase referring to people who serve you with marked courtesy and charm, but the caring is only a sparkly glove upon the hand. When the glove is removed, the hand is an opportunist. Both Class and her husband, Thew Pasada, performed brilliantly.
Larkin O’Shea (Count) gave some of the best comedy of the night as the conniving, lecherous count. The expressions on his face mesmerized me. Karl Wallenkampf (Javert) conveyed perfectly the threatening, rigid authority figure of the inspector. I had hoped his character might transform in the end, but when confronted with human complexity and nuance, when faced with something beyond the law, he chose suicide.
Teal Straton-Shea held a singular role as the witty, spunky Suzanne. Unlike many other female characters, she emerged unscathed and triumphant, perhaps partly because she had an ally in the aristocratic Countess, charmingly played by Maya Sommer. Hannah Puttre (Fantine) gave a fine, tightly-wired, oddly birdlike performance as a woman made vulnerable by her beauty, and ostracized for her sexuality. She sold her hair, her teeth, and her body to provide for her daughter. Her costume was uniquely modern, set among gowns and nuns’ habits, suggesting that Puttre’s role continues to this day. Puttre’s characterization brought to my mind a fragment from one of Neruda’s poems:
…Oh girl among the roses
Oh crush of doves…
Sierra Farquhar, a junior at NPA, excelled with her costumes as well as her Aria from Mozart. Gerald Beck’s set was black and minimalist, but layered in such a way so as to allow for sewers, military barricades, bridges and garden benches. Evan Morden (lighting director), a junior at NPA, delivered a stark, and precise vision, so that his audience never doubted where to focus. Sam Torgerson (Light Board Operator) showed a finely-tuned sense of timing, matching the emotional nuances of each moment.
Marriage of Figaro ends more happily than the two other plays woven into this adaptation. It sparks my imagination that Beaumarachais’ character of Figaro was actually one of the catalysts of the French Revolution. I like to think that Suzanne was a partner catalyst.
In a late scene from Burning Patience, Neruda sits slumped in Mario’s lap while his beloved beach is being swarmed by Pinochet’s military; the “authorities” later remove Mario for “questioning.” Mario’s wife, Beatrice, (Kirra Moon) with their infant in her arms, backs away in a horrified silence. In the closing scenes of Les Miserables, the heroic Jean Valjean lies isolated and ill.
We are left then with one image of triumph, and two images of mythic, heroic men left fragile and slumped. As the play hangs in an uneasy balance, Aravelo (Neruda) and Tellez (Jean Valjean) assert, “The hottest circles in Hell are reserved for those who, in a time of moral crisis, maintain their neutrality. There comes a time when silence is betrayal.” Instantly, the entire cast, a chorus of 6o young, enthusiastic voices join them for Do You Hear the People Sing? What a relevant production!
Near the start of the play, Mario (Silas McIlraith) asks, “ Is the whole world a metaphor for something?” I left Shattering Silence thinking that the answer is a resounding “yes.” It must be yes. Love’s languages, theater, poetry, art, and song are all expressed through metaphor. But there is an absence of metaphor in military dictatorships or greed, in rape or in murders.
For these young people and for their audiences, this world became a metaphor for something big with love, a metaphor continually creating and co-creating all around us.